SLFP pushing hard to reintroduce criminal defamation | Sunday Observer

SLFP pushing hard to reintroduce criminal defamation

2 June, 2019

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is pushing hard for the return of criminal defamation laws in the country, a move media rights activists and policymakers have denounced as regressive and dangerous after it took a struggle spanning several decades to repeal the draconian legislation historically used to intimidate journalists from Sri Lanka’s statute books.

The SLFP in their 11 point proposal in relation to national security, forwarded to the Sectoral Oversight Committee (SOC) on National Security includes the reintroduction of criminal defamation.

According to a member of the Committee, parliamentarian Nimal Siripala de Silva not being a member of the SOC has been sitting in the Committee of late, pushing hard for a restoration of laws that would criminalise defamation and reintroduce it as a Penal Code offence. The senior SLFP MP has also been advocating for the introduction of severe limitations on social media, following the Chinese model, in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings, SOC sources told the Sunday Observer.

Former Director General, Government Information Department and senior media activist Dr Ranga Kalansooriya said any attempt to re introduce criminal defamation would have a negative impact on the country.

“Criminal defamation has been rejected by liberal democracies and civilized societies and any country that has gotten rid of it has never reintroduced it,” Dr Kalansooriya said.

He said previous attempts to reintroduce criminal defamation during 2006 and 2007 were not successful. “If it did not happen then, at the height of the war, it would not happen now,” he said.

However, some point out that the unprofessional and unethical behaviour of the media itself would invite such regulations back into the system.

“When you consider recent reporting, especially, after the Easter Sunday attacks, the irresponsible behaviour of the media would advocate such proposals, therefore these media entities are helping them to make a case,” a Member of Parliament who wished to remain anonymous told the Sunday Observer.

Dr Kalansooriya said it is not criminal defamation that should be brought in, but, a strong dynamic regulatory system should be established, similar to the Right to Information Commission.

Criminal defamation laws were struck down by Sri Lanka’s Parliament on June 18, 2002. The laws were a colonial baggage, kept on the statute books for more than a century after independence. Unlike in civil defamation that could result in fines and compensation mandated to be paid by court, criminal defamation could result in a jail term for journalists and publishers.

Before being repealed in 2002, the laws were used to threaten and intimidate journalists and media activists. Former Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan and Sunday Times Editor Sinha Ratnatunge were both targeted using criminal defamation laws over content published in their newspapers. Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of The Sunday Leader who was assassinated in January 2009, was also convicted of criminal defamation for an article published in 1995 allegedly defaming the President. Several other editors and journalists have been prosecuted under the laws.

The R.K.W. Goonasekare Committee appointed to reform media laws recommended the abolition of this law, thereby confining defamation cases to the civil courts. The Editors’ Guild and other media and human rights groups engaged in years of struggle to have the provisions repealed. According to the International Press Institute (IPS), the power to impose penal sanctions for defamation is said to have a chilling effect on the press, tending to stifle legitimate criticism of public figures for fear of imprisonment. When criminal defamation law was repealed in Sri Lanka in 2002, IPS hailed the decision.