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Government minister recklessly accuses TV programme, journalist of promoting terrorism

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is an FMM press release:

Senior journalist and a TV channel labeled as "terrorist" by a minister

The FMM is seriously alarmed by statements made in a 7 January 2008 press conference by the Minister of Social Services and Social Welfare, Mr. K. N. Douglas Devananda, in which he leveled inflammatory accusations against the "Minnal" programme on Shakthi TV and against its host, Sri Ranga Jeyarathnam.

In response to a broadcast featuring the late parliamentarian Mr. T. Maheshvaran, the minister called Mr. Jeyarathnam "a traitor" and accused him of working for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In a context where journalists are regularly murdered, abducted, harassed and subject to virulent verbal attacks, and in the midst of escalating politically-motivated violence and crime, these statements are profoundly disturbing and only contribute to the corrosion of media freedom in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Devananda's statement undermines the media's ability to hold those in public office accountable. By erroneously conflating the right to criticize with complicity in terrorism, Mr. Devananda curtails the right of the media to ask critical questions. In effect, this is a form of censorship.

That Shakthi TV and Mr. Jeyarathnam are "conspiring with the LTTE to promote terrorism" is a serious charge to level, and contributes to a heightened climate of fear among journalists in Sri Lanka. Fear of grievous bodily harm or death and a culture of self-censorship are obviously detrimental to media freedom.

Mr. Devananda's audacious statements may well lead to death threats or worse against Mr. Jeyarathnam, considering the situation of deteriorating safety for journalists in Sri Lanka today.

FMM staunchly upholds the right of every citizen to criticize the media and media reports, provided that such criticism is democratic. However, with all rights come responsibilities. In this instance, Mr. Devananda failed to exercise his right to free expression in a responsible manner when he employed hate speech in a press conference. This is a deeply disturbing development that brings into question his competency to hold high political office.

The FMM strongly urges Mr. Devananda and the government to desist from irresponsible statements that endanger journalists, and instead to constructively engage with media to strengthen democracy in Sri Lanka.

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