A Setback for Media Freedom in Sri Lanka

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The Sri Lankan government has instructed all websites to register with the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media before March 31, 2016.

"The announcement is a significant one," says Sanjana Hattotuwa, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank. Hattotuwa says the edict is illegal, just as it was when Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country's previous president, took similar action.

What are the broader implications of all of this? What will the government's move mean in practice? Hattotuwa explains the situation succinctly:

What it will mean in practice is possibly self-censorship to a new anxiety around government pushback or other measures. It will mean that from mainstream media to citizen journalism, there will be new confusion around what exactly constitutes a news website - a loose term that is technically and legally without any basis, and worse, will result in a regulatory mechanism that is anachronistic and ill-defined, proving to be ultimately a measure of censorship and control than a measure aimed at, ostensibly, strengthening and safeguarding media ethics.

While Sri Lanka's new government has ruled in a less authoritarian fashion that the previous administration, there's still plenty of room for improvement, including when it comes to media freedom. "Systemically, around the ownership of mainstream media and in particular the independence of state media, nothing has changed save for individuals now at the helm of institutions, partial to the issues and democratic spirit that propelled the president to power," says Hattotuwa. "In principle though, the control of state media by government, the threats against the media by the PM [prime minister] and the behaviour of MPs [members of parliament] towards the media, including expletive riddled tirades, suggest the government's approach to critical media is in essence, if not in action, not significantly different to the Rajapaksa regime."

Colombo's recent decision is a setback for democracy in Sri Lanka. It will be interesting to see how journalists, members of civil society and others react.

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