Concern has been expressed throughout Sri Lanka at the government’s decision to re-activate the 1973 Press Council Law which gives the authorities wide ranging power to charge, fine and detain journalists. The law had been changed in 2002 to move towards a more transparent and self-regulatory system with an independent Press Complaints Commission (a system which seemed to be working).
During the country’s brave battle against the LTTE many people saw the current administration’s crackdown against freedom of speech in the media as somewhat understandable if not agreeable. The government clearly set out its stall in that regard – and eradicating the scourge of terrorism from the island was the reason for such draconian measures (abduction and intimidation of journalists was a shady and common feature of the war).
Therefore, with the LTTE totally and spectacularly defeated as a conventional force and the government still riding a huge wave of popularity probably hitherto unseen, legitimate questions are being asked about why they feel the need to do this.
In a bizarre and alarming turn of events, a popular astrologer was also arrested and detained last week. His crime was publishing predictions that the president would endure some bad times and be replaced before the end of the year.
There is genuine relief and hope across the island (in the wake of the military victory over the LTTE) that a new future is dawning for a united and diverse Sri Lanka with reconciliation the order of the day. Moves like this remind people that tough challenges lie ahead in rebuilding the country and redefining modern Sri Lanka in a post-war context. Past experience also reminds us that rampant consolidation of power on the back of defeating an insurgency can backfire on governments, and this regime should concentrate of earning further popularity through their actions and nation building rather than crushing dissent.