Sri Lankan authorities are facing strong criticism for restricting media freedom after blocking several websites and requiring all news websites to register with the government. The government is defending its actions, saying it is not targeting freedom of expression.
The government says it blocked the websites because some of the reports they carried had damaged the character of the president, ministers and other senior officials.
Information and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told VOA that they had received several complaints about the websites.
“We have a responsibility to the public of this country," said Rambukwella. "They do not give opportunity for other party to explain themselves, so they want to carry out that way which is not permissible. Their views can be expressed, certainly, but others views also have to be respected.”
The editor, Kelum Shivantha, of one of the websites which has been blocked, srilankamirror.com, has defended its news coverage, saying it always told both sides of the story.
A spokesperson for the editor, Shanika Jayasekera, says so far authorities have given them no reason for blocking the website.
“We have not been notified directly," said Jayasekera. "If we are doing anything wrong, we should have been notified, and if we have not been notified, how do we know that we are doing something wrong?”
Newspapers, radio and TV are already required to register with the government, but until now websites were spared.
Authorities say all websites dealing with Sri Lankan affairs must register or face legal action.
Critics say the government’s latest moves are tantamount to internet censorship.
Minister Rambukwella says authorities are not targeting media freedom but they want to be able to identify who operates the sites.
“You should know the people involved in it, and where they operate from, and where they upload these things, even to inform them we have no whereabouts of them," said Rambukwella. "Getting registered is not censorship.”
In the past, the government has been criticized for intimidating journalists critical of its handling of the war waged against the Tamil Tiger rebels. Opposition activists say the recent changes are just another tactic aimed at silencing critical voices.
Among those who believe that the government’s move will affect free debate and the right to dissent is the Director of Colombo’s Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. He says some of the websites which have been blocked were critical of the government.
“Some suggestions are that websites may well be talking about internal divisions within the ruling family or indeed within the ruling party and they are concerned about that kind of information becoming more widespread," said Saravanamuttu. "There are others who suggest that they [government] may be concerned about any movement on the lines of what happened in the Middle East, some kind of nascent movement taking hold in Sri Lanka via the use of new technologies. It is difficult to put a finger on the precise reason beyond that of this tremendous urge to control.”
In a statement last week, the U.S. Embassy in Colombo said that freedom of expression, including unfettered access to internet news websites is a basic right which must be respected by Sri Lankan authorities.