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Government censors BBC Sinhala and Tamil programmes airing opposition viewpoints on ongoing war

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is a statement by FMM and four other Sri Lankan media organisations, known as the Five Media Collective:

Government censors BBC Sinhala and Tamil programme

The government-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) censored the BBC Sinhala and Tamil service programmes broadcast on 27 November 2008. Sections of the programme on Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader V. Prabhakaran's "Hero's Day" speech and a Defence Watch press conference were censored, making them inaudible to listeners. Defence Watch is headed by former Foreign Minster Mangala Samaraweera and provides opposition viewpoints, other news and information on the ongoing war.

This act of censorship by SLBC authorities is a clear violation of the people's right to information and is an interference with the democratic entitlement to the free exchange and contest of alternative perspectives on a key issue of public policy. War is one of the major issues that affect the lives of all Sri Lankans, who have a right to obtain news and information on the war from different perspectives. The Five Media Collective condemns this act of censorship in the strongest possible terms.

BBC local language programmes are transmitted through SLBC under an agreement between the two institutions. BBC pays nearly 40 million Sri Lankan rupees (approx. US$365,000) annually to SLBC for this ability.

According to our information, this censorship was deliberately put in place by the authorities of the SLBC and is not an accident. On a number of previous occasions, the same method has been used to block certain sections of BBC Sinhala and Tamil programmes.

The SLBC is an institution which was established as a public service radio broadcast institution. Even today is it supported by public funding. Unfortunately, however, the SLBC has been reduced to a mouthpiece for the ruling party, where no editorial freedom or media ethics are respected. Transforming the SLBC, and its television counterparts, such as the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, into genuinely pubic service broadcasters is one of the key challenges in democratising the media landscape in Sri Lanka.

Independent war reporting is virtually nonexistent in Sri Lanka today. For instance, none of the Sri Lankan electronic media covered the speech by the LTTE leader. Figures of war causalities are a closely guarded secret of both sides. In such a situation, it is natural that many Sri Lankans would have to tune in to external sources such as the BBC local language services to get information on the LTTE leader's speech. Although the BBC local language programmes and Defence Watch reports, as well as the LTTE leader's speech, are available online, this censorship affects the vast majority of Sri Lankans who are not connected to the Internet.

On several occasions in recent times, Sri Lankan authorities blocked the SUN TV news channel in an effort to censor news about anti-war/pro-Tamil agitations taking place in Tamil Nadu. SUN TV is based in Tamil Nadu. According to magazine distributors, the last issue of Ananda Vigadan, a Tamil magazine printed in Tamil Nadu, also has not been released in Sri Lanka because of some critical content concerning the present Sri Lankan administration.

All these acts of censorship take away the Sri Lankan people's right to information and ability to make informed judgments on matters affecting their lives. While condemning these acts of censorship, the Five Media Collective demands that the Sri Lankan authorities desist from censoring war-related reporting and respect the peoples' right to information.

Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA)
Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU)
Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF)
Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Alliance (SLTJA)
Free Media Movement (FMM)

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