Sri Lanka’s president made some big promises on press freedom when he came to power. But has he followed through?

Three years into Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure, it’s a mixed bag.

After anti-Muslim violence swept through Kandy and Ampara in March, Sri Lanka’s government imposed a state of emergency and blocked Facebook and WhatsApp, which it blamed for contributing to a rise in hate speech.

As a curfew was imposed in the affected areas and soldiers deployed on the streets, authorities offered conflicting narratives to explain the social media block. According to Raisa Wickrematunge, editor of the citizen journalism platform Groundviews, the authorities first claimed it would apply only to affected areas, and then said it would last until after the situation had stabilized.

The block remained in place across the country for more than a week, until Facebook executives traveled there. While the measure was hailed as necessary by many, others questioned the government’s decision to impose it in the first place. “It obviously has an impact on freedom of speech,” Wickrematunge told Splice during the ban. “It obviously impacts our reporting, both receiving tips and also sending out information as well.”

Cautious optimism

The curb on social media was worrying for a country that has taken firm steps to improve press freedom.

Over the past three years, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena has won praise for following through on some of his post-election promises on this front. Sri Lanka has climbed in the annual Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index from 165th place in 2015 to 131st this year. And that’s despite criticism from RSF for a June 2016 attack on a journalist, and a failure to resolve investigations into journalist killings.

The introduction of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information law, which came into force in 2017 after years of lobbying by activists, was widely welcomed as a positive step. The legislation, which enshrines the right of citizens to access official information, promised a new era of transparency in a country long dogged by opaque and secretive governance. But according to Colombo-based media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene, it has produced a “mixed bag” of results in its first 12 months, with some government departments more reluctant to hand over information than others.

“Some good stories have appeared,” he says, “but journalists also tell us that it’s not easy to get information. The government agencies are still trying to cover up and conceal, rather than to share and disclose. That will change over time.”

Wickrematunge has produced several articles for Groundviews based on information elicited from RTI filings, including one that explored the in-country ban on controversial news site Lanka e News in November on the basis of “national security”. It was the first such government action since the Rajapaksa days when publications frequently faced bans and other forms of retaliation for their reporting. It also raised concerns about the current government’s approach to media freedoms.

Although the site’s content was questionable, says Wickrematunge, the decision to block it lacked transparency. RTI responses helped her piece together the internal process that led to it being instated. “The idea of censoring something in an arbitrary way and not raising questions about why that happened was something we were opposed to,” she explains.

Wickrematunge, who regularly files four or more requests for a single article, says Groundviews never would have been able to uncover some of their recent exclusives without liberal use of the legislation. “Usually you call up and get contradictory statements some of them will deny, some of them will pass blame onto one another,” she says of government departments. But RTI requirements, she says, means journalists can now uncover “clear documentary evidence” to support a story.

A bloody history

The introduction of the RTI legislation came amid an opening up of the media landscape that began with Sirisena’s election in 2015, after a decade marked by deaths and disappearances of journalists under the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime.

The space has grown, definitely: you don’t have journalists getting abducted or going missing like what happened [in the past],” says Shifan Ahmed, Sri Lanka program director for Internews.

“Sri Lanka has a very dark, bloody history, and so we’re all very thankful that we have stepped into a new era.”

But some vestiges of a restrictive past remain, such as the Sri Lanka Press Council, which has the power to heavily sanction journalists for their reporting, including the ability to jail media practitioners. While organizations such as the Free Media Movement are working to repeal the “draconian legislation” behind the SLPC, Ahmed says, the current government actually revived the body in 2015. In response, members of the press strongly condemned the move.

Professionalism in the spotlight

Ahmed, whose work centers on training reporters and editors through initiatives such as the One Sri Lanka program that brings together Sinhalese and Tamil journalists, sees another major hurdle for the industry to surmount: a lack of professionalism.

“They often cross boundaries and you get ethics violations. It’s about sensationalization, it’s about circulation, it’s about profits it’s all advertising-driven. So as a result the quality of the content has suffered,” he says.

In a country where every newspaper is owned by or aligned to different political forces, editors feel pressure to spike certain stories to preserve income from political advertising. “I think the main problem is that there needs to be professionalism in the industry. That is a problem.” Ahmed says.

To do that, however, Sri Lankan journalists need the security of operating in a completely unrestricted media environment. “There is a culture of self-censorship,” says Gunawardene. “[The media] used to go to great lengths during the former regime… So some of those habits are still there.”

Holly Robertson is a freelance journalist based in Cambodia and an editor for The Splice Newsroom. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Guardian, BBC, Columbia Journalism Review and VICE, among others. Follow Holly Robertson on Twitter.

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