Opportunities to challenge impunity for crimes against journalists in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has an unfortunate history of impunity for crimes against journalists and media workers. The actions of the Rajapaksa family and the government crackdown during Sri Lanka’s ongoing social unrest require action. Media and press freedom organisations in Sri Lanka should take advantage of international action and social momentum to challenge impunity, writes Ruki Fernando

 Many journalists have been killed and subjected to enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, with the Jayewardene-Premadasa-led UNP governments of 1977-1994 and the Rajapaksa-led UPFA government of 2006-2014 committing grave media rights violations across their regimes. Across several governments, journalists and media workers have faced arrest, detainment assault, threats, intimidation, and harassment. Media outlets have been subjected to arson and legal crackdowns, with the English-language weekend paper Sunday Leader and Tamil-language newspaper Uthayan being among the worst affected. Impunity has reigned for all these.

Crimes against journalists continue to the present. in October 2020, Shanmugam Thavaseelan and Kanapathipillai Kumanan were assaulted when they were covering illegal deforestation in the highly militarized Mullaitheevu district. Though some arrests were made, suspects were quickly released on bail and two years later, no one has been held accountable.

In July 2021, Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police, Deshabandu Tennakoon, threatened prominent investigative journalist Tharindu Jayawardena through Facebook comments (including implied death threats) after a report about him was published. Despite a formal complaint to the Inspector General of Police, there have been no proper investigations and Tennakoon has not been held accountable to date.

This year, journalists covering protests have also faced reprisals. An investigation was ordered into MTV networks, a popular private television channel. The investigation aimed to blame the channel’s live broadcast of a major protest outside the then-president’s house for the violence that occurred. A group of journalists from the same private channel were beaten by Special Task Force (STF) police officers on July 9 2022, while covering a major protest outside the Prime Minister’s residence.

One of those beaten up and injured was Waruna Sampath, who was also one of the two journalists beaten up and injured in August 2008, by then Minister Mervyn Silva and a group of goons. Waruna had courageously filed Fundamental Rights petitions concerning both incidents. While the Supreme Court awarded him compensation for the 2008 incident, his Fundamental Rights petition for the 2022 incident has been postponed until next year. No one has been held legally accountable for either the 2008 or 2022 incidents, despite both incidents happening in front of police, media cameras, and thousands of people.

Many journalists fear challenging impunity, and have subjected themselves to self-censorship or fled into exile. More are likely to follow.

Protests and International Developments

This year, an unprecedented economic crisis led to a historic series of protests that toppled the racist, corrupt and authoritarian Rajapaksa ruling family who were known to crack down on dissent. The Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) placed huge billboards of murdered, tortured and disappeared journalists on the fence of the Presidential Secretariat, the most prominent protest site in the country. The billboards were removed and destroyed but were quickly re-installed. During the protests, ordinary citizens also demonstrated by holding smaller placards in remembrance of murdered and disappeared journalists and demanding justice.

The protests coincided with significant international developments to address impunity in Sri Lanka. In 2021, the Permanent People’s Tribunal in The Hague held hearings into the murder of The Sunday Leader journalist and editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. The hearing was based on an indictment presented by a coalition of international press freedom organizations and analysed the greater context of impunity for crimes against journalists and found Lasantha’s murder was one incident in systemic attacks on journalists and media workers during the civil war.

Forty-four names of journalists and media workers killed or disappeared between 2004 to 2010, the majority of whom are Tamils, were read out by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka while acknowledging there had been many more killed and disappeared before that. The tribunal judgement noted that the Sri Lankan government, through their lack of investigations, lack of reparations to victims, and impunity for crimes against journalists, was guilty of grave violations of the human rights of Lasantha Wickrematunge, specifically the right to life, the right to freedom of expression, the right to an effective remedy and the right to freedom from discrimination based on political opinion, covering articles 6, 19, 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Hague Tribunal hearings follow other international initiatives to seek justice for Lasantha’s murder. In 2019, the Center for Justice and Accountability filed a civil suit in the United States against former Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa for their alleged involvement in his killing. In 2021, Lasantha’s daughter Ahimsa Wickrematunge filed a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR).

There is also a pending complaint at the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) on disappeared journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. In November 2021, The UNWGEID wrote to the Sri Lankan government about reprisals faced by his wife Sandya Ekneligoda in her efforts to challenge impunity. Last month, she spoke at the United Nations Committee against Enforced Disappearances.

Impunity for serious crimes against journalists has featured prominently in UNHCR Commissioner reports to the Human Rights Council. Last month, the UNHCR voted on a resolution on Sri Lanka that decided to continue the evidence-gathering process related to crimes in Sri Lanka and support prosecutions. This could include serious crimes against journalists.

Judicial Processes in Sri Lanka

These international initiatives have become significant as entrenched impunity has served as a license for continuing crimes and violence against journalists. Not a single person has been convicted for serious crimes against journalists and only two cases have reached the prosecution stage. In one of them, the murder of journalist Mylvaganam Nimalarajan in Jaffna in October 2000, media reported that the Attorney General had instructed the courts not to continue the case against the suspects last year.

The case of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance in January 2010 also failed to materialise. After a courageous and determined campaign by his wife Sandya Ekneligoda, several army personnel was arrested, and indictments were filed against the nine accused. Most of the case’s progress was made under the Sirisena government, but the return to power of the Rajapaksa family in November 2019 presented new obstacles with the Rajapaksa government pledging not to prosecute ‘war heroes’, military personnel. A top investigator on the case went into exile and the chief overseeing the investigations was arrested and detained, before being released on bail by a higher court and going into retirement.

Opportunities for Media Freedom Organisations

Though primarily driven by Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, protesters on the streets of Colombo have been insisting on radical long-term institutional reform. This has provided fresh momentum to push for an independent and effective criminal justice system with independent and professional law enforcement, prosecutors, and judiciary.

For decades, media freedom organizations in Sri Lanka have been campaigning against impunity. Though they often demand criminal accountability through judicial processes and international involvement, their work in the judicial sphere and internationally has been limited. There were no strong interventions concerning the Hague Tribunal or the various UN initiatives to address impunity in Sri Lanka. There has been very little legal assistance offered to the survivors of crimes or the families of victims who can wait for years for justice and compensation.

The judicial system offers opportunities to challenge impunity, such as filing writs, Fundamental Rights cases and intervening in ongoing cases. A writ filed by a former prisoner and rights activist led to a landmark prosecution and conviction of a senior prison official involved in a prison massacre. Systematic trial observations and advocacy in significant court cases would also be important in addressing impunity. None of these options have been explored meaningfully by media freedom organisations in Sri Lanka.

In the last few months, leaders of the Young Journalists Association (YJA) have filed court cases at a Magistrate Court and Fundamental Rights case at the Supreme Court to address impunity relating to freedom of expression and assembly violations by the police. YJA has also challenged impunity for crimes against free expression through their lodging of complaints to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka about demonstrations in Sri Lanka. Their activism, along with some families of victims such as Sandya Ekneligoda and Ahimsa Wickramatunge, have been inspiring in the greater action against impunity.

This year of crisis, uncertainty, and hope could also become a turning point to challenge impunity for crimes against journalists. Innovation, creativity, consistency, commitment, and courage from local media freedom organizations, especially in the judicial and international spheres could be vital in challenging impunity.

Copied from November issue of

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan journalist and has been involved in human rights activism and social justice advocacy since 1997.   

Videos on journalist’s issues in Sri Lanka

Winners of the video production component of the digital media training for young journalists organized by the  Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions and the International Federation of Journalists support by the IFJ-UTU 2022 project of strengthening Journalist unions in the world. The member journalists of FMETU  produced videos highlighting professional and rights-based issues facing journalists in Sri Lanka.

Picture showing First Class Award Winners, Upper Second Class Award  Winners, and Second Class Award Winners.
Anyone  can log in to follow the videos
https://fmetu.org/?page_id=9839

Hong Kong: Media tycoon Jimmy Lai convicted of fraud – IFJ statement

In the latest targeted prosecution of Jimmy Lai by Hong Kong authorities, the media tycoon and founder of Apply Daily was convicted of fraud on October 25 after a court found he violated the terms of a lease. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemns the court’s verdict and the ongoing persecution of Lai and calls for his immediate release from prison.

Jimmy Lai (C), who was convicted of fraud on October 25, looks on as activists demonstrate outside court on November 3, 2020. Credit: Peter Parks / AFP

 District Court Judge Stanley Chan Kwong-chi found Lai had concealed the fact that he was subletting part of his newspaper’s office headquarters to a secretarial firm, also owned by Lai, between 2016 and 2020, violating agreements with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp. The judge added that he did not believe Lai had forgotten the firm was occupying the space.

Wong Wai-keung, Lai’s former colleague, was also convicted of fraud, while a former senior executive of Next Digital, Royston Chow, evaded criminal liability by making a deal with the prosecution.

Lai is also facing charges of collusion with foreign powers under Hong Kong’s national security law and is due to stand trial on December 1st. According to Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who leads the international legal team for Lai, this latest verdict means that Lai will “be a convicted prisoner going into his national security law trial.”

Lai has faced repeated arrests and prosecutions for his pro-democracy activism and criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy. He was arrested following a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2019 and is currently serving a 20-month sentence for his role in organising unauthorised demonstrations against police brutality.

Lai’s lawyers are urging the United Nations to investigate his imprisonment and various criminal charges on the basis that it represents “legal harassment.”

On October 14, the IFJ released its 2022 report on freedom of expression in Hong Kong, expressing deep concern at the nation’s gutting of independent media and press freedom. The IFJ called on governments internationally to maintain vigilance in condemning the actions of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments and urging for respect for Hong Kong’s Basic Law obligations and press freedom.

The IFJ said: “The District Court’s verdict to convict Jimmy Lai on fraud charges sets a grave precedent for his upcoming trial under the draconian national security law. The Hong Kong authorities’ ongoing arbitrary persecution of Lai violates fundamental rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The IFJ urges the authorities to withdraw all charges laid against Lai immediately and release him from prison.”

For further information, contact IFJ Asia – Pacific at ifj@ifj-asia.org 

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

Twitter: @ifjasiapacific, on Facebook: IFJAsiaPacific and Instagram

100 years to BBC (BBC) ………. We, who served you as journalists, are helpless today!

By Kanthale, R. G. Dharmadasa

One day, about twenty-three years ago, a good message was given to me, by one of my friends Ms. Vishaka Jayasekara to me, who served as a Trincomalee correspondent to  Lankadepa.

“Comrade! The BBC is looking for a reporter for the Trincomalee district. Brother Elmo told me this story to me. They are looking for someone who is involved in reporting in the midst of difficulties.  I told him about you. What do you think to say to them?”

I did not want to say “good at once” to Vishaka’s proposal. Because she was already giving news to the BBC.

What is your idea, sister? I asked her.

Her reply was that both of us should work together. I agreed to the proposal. That is how I got involved with the BBC. However, was getting news for BBC only from me. Even today, I humbly say that I joined BBC because of that sister Vishaka. I do not know where she is now.

I decided to make up my mind to say goodbye to the ‘ Lakbima’ newspaper, which I loved dearly, due to joining the BBC. It is more difficult to provide news to the BBC, an international media institution, than writing to a Sri Lankan newspaper. I understood that while working with BBC.

Reporting war, especially from a battlefield, is not an easy task. The situation became more dangerous in the background of allegations that the BBC was a media institution engaged in propaganda in favor of the Tigers. We had to be careful of all armed gangs and forces.

Somehow, we faced challenges and revealed the truth to the whole world. Not only war reporting but also various interesting features were among our topics.

Our media colleagues were Dinasena Ratugamage from Vavuniya, Wasantha Chandrapala from Ampara, Taxila Dilrukshi Jayasena from Polonnaruwa, Shanti Selvadore from Batticaloa, Ajith Shantalal Udaya from Ratnapura, KS Udayakumara from Colombo, Prashad Purnamal Jayamaha from Halawatha, Gnanasiri Kottigoda from Colombo. Meanwhile, BBC Tamil Ose journalists were also our close friends. It is difficult to remember their names. Sorry. Later Colombo BBC reporter Azam Amin also joined us. Mr. Elmo Fernando was the pilot of all of us. There is almost no memory without him.

Mr. Priyat Liyanage, whom we all love, was the head of the BBC Sinhala section broadcast from London. Talented journalists such as Chandana Keerthi Bandara, Upali Gajanayake, Vimalasena Hevage, Indira Ramanayake, MJR David, and several others belonged to Mr. Priyat’s staff. At that time, twenty-one lakh people worldwide listened to the BBC Sinhala service.

The BBC World Service celebrated its recent hundred centenary. So many good things happened to hear. However, there is not a single word was heard about Priyath Liyanage and Elmo Fernando, who gave life to the BBC Sinhala Service. Of course, there was no shortage of some prideful people’s stories without them.

So what about poor journalists like us in Sri Lanka? We do not like to speak out about braggarts.

I would like to talk about only the injustice done to the reporters of the BBC World Service in Sri Lanka in the past.

BBC World Service is undisputedly one of the number one media institutions in terms of popularity and recognition with a large number of subscribers whole over the world. Great Britten hosts it. The amount of resources spent on training journalists associated with their institution is also unlimited.

The same training was given to the journalists who work in Sri Lanka with BBC.

BBC issued a special identity card and the Information Department of Sri Lanka issued another identity card to foreign journalists. Meanwhile, we received an agreement that was renewed every year. We do not know whether the British government knows about these or not. But we know one thing. In other words, we know that the British government does not know that the journalists of Sri Lanka who risked their lives for twenty or twenty-five years and worked for the BBC have been removed without giving a cent.

During the Second World War, Sri Lanka was under the British Empire. There, Britain recruited tens of thousands of Sri Lankans to serve in their Royal Army. Immediately end of the war, they were all retired with a full pension until death.

We believe that the British government still does not know that a group of Sri Lankan journalists served one of the popular media institutions BBC in their country.

I declare with the utmost responsibility that Sangeet Kalubowila, who became the head of the BBC Sinhala Division after Mr. Priyath, did this to us. Our problems were not important and important to him was his cruel administration.

Finally, we are happy, about the centenary of the BBC World Service.  In addition, those who gave services to you as journalists are living a miserable fate and would like to tell the BBC administration.

The sad story of R. G. Dharmadasa!

For further details of FMETU..

Empower young journalists to function effectively in the digital economy!

A representative group of 21 young male and female journalists from all districts and communities, spent a full day at an exciting and impactful program on 3rd September 2022.

The program was organised by the FMETU through the IFJ – UTU 2022 project. The purpose was to empower young journalists to function effectively in the digital economy. They were linked to senior journalists and made aware of their professional rights and responsibilities.

The full-day program featured interactive training on mobile journalism. The lead trainer was Dr. Sameera Thilakawardena, Ph.D., an expert in digital media. The participants learned a lot and had a lot of fun as they produced short videos.

The participants are expected to produce videos highlighting issues relating to journalists’ rights and the media industry.

FMETU is very grateful to Dr. Thilakawardena and the Rainbow Institute of Communication for all the support to make this event a resounding success.

More pictures of the program are down here.

Free Assange now!

 

No jail for journalists

The IFJ is calling on the United States government to drop all charges against Julian Assange and allow him to return home.

On June 17, 2022, the United Kingdom approved Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States to face charges, primarily under the nation’s Espionage Act, for releasing US government records that revealed the US military committed war crimes against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the killing of two Reuter’s journalists. If found guilty, Assange faces a jail term of up to 175 years.

The IFJ is gravely concerned about the impact of Assange’s continued detention on media freedom and the rights of all journalists globally. The US pursuit of Assange against the public’s right to know poses a grave threat to the fundamental tenets of democracy, which are becoming increasingly fragile worldwide. Irrespective of personal views on Assange, his extradition will have a chilling effect, with all journalists and media workers at risk.

The case sets a dangerous precedent that members of the media, in any country, can now be targeted by governments, anywhere in the world, to answer for publishing information in the public interest.

Wikileaks was awarded the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism in 2011, an annual prize to reward excellence in Australian journalism, in recognition of the impact of WikiLeaks’ actions on public interest journalism by assisting whistle-blowers to tell their stories. Whistle-blowers have since been utilised by other media outlets to expose global tax avoidance schemes, among other stories.

The sentence of Chelsea Manning, who collaborated with Assange to release the contentious material, was commuted by President Barack Obama. None of WikiLeaks’ media partners have been charged in any US government legal proceeding because of their collaboration with Assange. Aside from the dire implications for press freedom, there is also no legal criterion for Assange’s extradition and charges.

The IFJ is calling on the United States government to drop all charges against Julian Assange and allow him to return home to be with his wife and children. The IFJ is also calling on all media unions, press freedom organisations and journalists to urge governments to actively work to secure Assange’s release. #FreeAssangeNOW

Thanks To

World Press Freedom  Day interactive webinar…..

The presentation was done at the World Press Freedom  Day interactive webinar,   organized by the Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions and Rainbow Institute of Communication. The theme of this webinar was the same as the Press Freedom Day, theme  – Journalism under Digital Siege. The presenter was Ms. Thusari Gamage, Senior Lecturer in Communication studies, Open University of Sri Lanka.
In spite of the challenges of power cuts, there was a cross-section of media students and professional journalists from several provinces, operating in print, electronic and digital media.  There was a great deal of interest in the topic and the discussion was lively.

Journalists support #Gota Go Home 2022 people’s struggle! Journalists march April 20 at 3.00 pm near Fort Railway Station.

#Gota Go Home Journalists have organized a march near the Fort Railway Station to join the struggle in support of the struggle.
The march is scheduled to leave the Fort Railway Station on April 20 at 3.00 pm and journalists from all over the country are expected to join the march. Following is the full text of the press release issued by the Federation of Media Workers’ Trade Unions regarding the march.

Press release

 April 18, 2022

 Journalists support #Gota Go Home 2022 people’s struggle!

Journalists march April 20 at 3.00 pm near Fort Railway Station.

 More than 10 days have passed since the people’s struggle that began spontaneously, unable to bear the oppression of the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa government. The struggle against the government, which began without any discrimination, is turning into a growing nationwide struggle demanding the empowerment of the people of the country.

All journalists in Sri Lanka, irrespective of their organization, profession, or language, have decided to give their full support to these people’s struggles. The Solidarity March organized by journalists from all over Sri Lanka will commence on April 20 at 3.00 pm near the Fort Railway Station.

The Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions (FMETU) urges all island-wide journalists to participate in this march in support of the Galle Face People’s Struggle, regardless of organizational, professional, or linguistic differences.

FMETU cordially invites the heads of media institutions are also to participate in the People’s Struggle Solidarity March organized by the people of the country against the oppressive government. The Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions (FMETU) has also kindly requested the heads of media institutions to allow all journalists working in their media institutions to participate in this march and to be free of duty that afternoon.       

Thanking You,

Dharmasiri Lankapeli

General Secretary

Government should take responsibility of attack on journalists who covered Mirihana public protest – FMETU

The Federation of Media Employees Trade unions issued a Press statement about attacks by police and security forces last Friday 31st to peaceful demonstration.

The full statement is as follows.

Press release

April 02, 2022

Government should take responsibility for the attack on journalists who covered the Mirihana public protest.

The Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions along with the International Federation of Journalists vehemently condemn the heinous and shameful attack by police and security forces on journalists who covered the public protests at Nugegoda Mirihana on March 31.  The IFJ is the most influential media organization with over 600,000 members of 167 media organisations and unions in 146 countries worldwide.

During the aforementioned protests, a group of individuals who had identified themselves as the members of the President’s Media Division have threatened the journalists to step out of reporting and intimidated senior journalist Tharindu Jayawardena with threats. The journalist has lodged a complaint at the Mirihana police on the incident. Among those who had been taken into custody after beating and torture by police and security forces were journalists Avanka Kumara, Chatura Deshan of Sirasa TV, Sumedha Sanjeewa Gallage, Pradeep Wickramasinghe, Nissanka Werapitiya of Derana TV and Waruna Wanniarachchi of the Lankadeepa newspapers. The police were not merciful to admit those journalists with severe wounds and injuries to a hospital.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the brutal attack on journalists had been unleashed with the intention of preventing them from performing their duties to report the protests. The journalists had been attacked even after they produced the Media Accreditation Cards issued to them by the Director-General of Government Information. The FMETU emphasizes that the government should take full responsibility for the heinous crime committed against journalists.

The FMETU strongly demands that the government should take immediate action to conduct an impartial investigation of the attack on journalists and ensure the sacred right and responsibility of journalists to report facts and disseminate information to people and not infringe on people’s rights to freedom of expression.

Sincerely.

                 

Dharmasisr Lankapeli,                                                                               

General Secretary

 

Sri Lanka’s Personal Data Protection Bill Leads to Public Uproar.

A major fuss has arisen over Sri Lanka’s Personal Data Protection Bill, to be taken up for the 2nd reading in Parliament on Wednesday (9th March 2022).

Media organisations and civil society have both protested over the fact that a ‘Government controlled entity will be given the power to decide what data should be protected with very wide coverage on ‘special categories of data. The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka has pointed out that this will be a problem to journalistic reporting of corruption stories as the Bill places obstacles by protecting ‘personal data relating to offenses, criminal proceedings, and convictions.

 

In an editorial that first pointed to the dangers, the widely read the Sunday Times asked on February 13th, 2022 as to why, ‘In an era of information disclosure that Sri Lanka has pledged to be part of after passing a world-class Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2016, …a Bill on Data Protection presented to Parliament recently by the Prime Minister must revert to ancient terminology by including a clause on Official Secrecy?’

The editorial warned that ‘care must be taken to ensure that protection of data does not prevent the release of information which is in the public interest and observed that the Bill, as it stands, ‘contains too many ambiguities that must be corrected before it passes into law.’

The Young Journalists Association (YJA) meanwhile challenged the Bill in the Supreme Court but the petition was dismissed by the Court on a technicality, that it had been filed in the Supreme Court registry out of time. This was despite the petition being filed just minutes after the official time of filing which was 3 pm. The YJA had stated that ’journalistic purpose’ should be stated as an exception to the processing of data as is the case in all other countries, that the RTI Act should be balanced with the purpose of data protection, and that the Data Protection Authority should be independent rather than ‘Government controlled’ as the Bill provides.

It also pointed to the dangers of a ‘Government controlled’ Authority being given the power to impose hefty fines up to ten million rupees per every act seen as ‘violating’ the Act without these other concerns being addressed.

Colombo Telegraph learns that the Government has promised media organisations that their concerns would be addressed while the Opposition has assured that it would support the amendments proposed by the media to the Bill.

On Monday, the Sri Lanka Press Institute together with the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka (NSSL), Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), Tamil Media Alliance (TMA), Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF), Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions (FMETU), South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) and the SLPI, issued a press release informing that they had handed over a letter to the Minister of Mass Media, Minister of Justice and the Secretary of the Ministry of Information Technology highlighting key concerns with the Bill.

They pointed to the fact that while the proposed Personal Data Protection Act is being recognised as an important one in the digital era, serious thought should be given to the implication and infringement to the rights of professional journalism and media freedom. It was emphasized that definitions regarding personal data and special categories of personal data remain arbitrary given that special categories also include data related to offenses, criminal proceedings and convictions which do not recognise the journalistic right to exercise free speech in delivering such information.

It was also noted that the proposed Act would prevail over every other law in any inconsistency, including the Right to Information (RTI) Law which would compromise the access to information that the public and journalists have via the prevailing RTI law.

Transparency International Sri Lanka meanwhile also raised similar concerns, asking the drafters of the Bill why they had decided to omit important protections in the initial draft on personal data protection released in 2019. The preamble of the 2019 framework refers to Sri Lanka’s constitutional Right to Information (RTI)as a crucial right, recognizing the need for the public interest to be balanced with the protection of personal data.

However, as TISL pointed out, this balance is not reflected in the Bill which had omitted that reference. Also, the 2019 framework had called for the appointment of independent three members to a nine-member Data Protection Authority through a public application process. The Bill has deleted that safeguard, saying only that the Authority is to be a ‘Government controlled entity.’ This is in violation of all international standards which call for the Data Protection Authority to be independent of the government.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka(BASL) has however remained silent on concerns relating to the Bill, particularly the lack of independence of the proposed Data Protection Authority. Its office bearers, including its President Saliya Pieris and others, have applauded the Bill while not acknowledging its serious drawbacks, young journalists who challenged the Bill in the Supreme Court say, pointing out that it is the duty of the Bar to objectively respond to bills that infringe on rights.

Colombo Telegraph also spoke to several experts on data protection, including a senior law academic associated with the early drafts of the Bill who questioned as to why the 2019 data protection framework had been radically changed. A researcher who had worked with the Right to Information Commission (RTIC) clarified that though it is claimed by those pushing the Bill through Parliament, that the Bill had been examined by the RTIC, this was distorting facts as it was only the 2019 framework on data protection that had been sent for feedback to the RTIC.

If Parliament approves the Bill in its current form, it will force all Sri Lankan editorial newsrooms, non-governmental organisations, and research institutes to have Data Protection Officers who will answer to the dictates of a ‘Government-controlled’ Data Protection Authority, experts warn. This will further erode the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, already under massive threat by a security state, they say.

Courtesy Colombo Telegraph

 

 

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