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Government resurrects draconian press council

Sri Lanka is planning to revive the now defunct Press Council amid continuing tension between the authorities and independent newspapers, report the Free Media Movement (FMM), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena confirmed on 24 June that the government plans to resurrect the council, which was created in 1973 but suspended in 2002.

The council has the powers to heavily fine journalists and publishers and send them to prison. According to IFJ, the council can also prohibit some content, such as internal government communications and stories that might be deemed "prejudicial to national security."

"Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in Asia to decriminalise press offences. Now the government wants to turn the clock back and impose controls that that will be a permanent threat hanging over the media," said RSF.

According to CPJ, eight Sri Lankan media rights groups, including IFEX member FMM, wrote a letter last week to President Mahinda Rajapaksa condemning the council's comeback. "A media culture cannot be based on slapping charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail. Instead the modern world has accepted a self-regulatory mechanism by media persons as the way forward," they wrote. The letter reminded the President that he had himself defended the decriminalisation of press offences to parliament in 2002.

According to RSF, the President's brother, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has publicly voiced regret that Sri Lanka abolished jail sentences for press offences. He brought a libel suit against the Leader Publications newspaper group that led to the group being ordered to publish nothing about him. Nonetheless, "The Sunday Leader" published a profile of him in May and as a result its editors have been ordered to appear in court on a contempt charge later this month.

CPJ reports that the pressure on Sri Lankan journalists is as intense as it was during the height of the war with the Tamil Tigers earlier this year; many of them have stopped writing and others have fled the country. The revival of the press council is not surprising, says CPJ, as it's "the sort of tool we've seen in many countries where the government is intent on silencing critics."

Abeywardena said the decision was taken after a parliamentary committee "discovered" that the government was still paying for the council even though it was not doing anything.

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