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Sri Lankan Media Groups Ask Government Not to Re-establish Powerful Media Council

In Sri Lanka, media groups have asked the government to scrap moves to re-establish a media panel which could jail journalists. The reactivation of the Press Council is being seen as a means to control the media in a country where concerns have been voiced about intimidation and pressure on reporters critical of the government.

The government's move to revive the powerful Press Council was announced by the Sri Lankan media minister, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena.

The Press Council was staffed with government appointees. It had the authority to hear complaints about inaccurate reporting or defamation and fine and jail journalists if found guilty. It ceased operations in 2002, after it was criticized as an anti-democratic tool to suppress criticism of the government.

The government says it reactivated the body after a parliament committee found that council salaries were still being paid and office space was still being rented. Minister Abeywardena says the media has nothing to fear, and it has no intention of gagging the press or imposing restrictions on it.

But the move to restore the Press Council has provoked concern among journalists in Sri Lanka.

Seven media bodies, headed by the Editors Guild, have in a joint statement to President Mahinda Rajapakse, saying that a media culture cannot be based on placing charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail.

Vincent Borsell of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders calls the decision to restore the Press Council another step to suppress the independent media.

"It's very dangerous and also is unfortunately a new step in all this campaign against free media in Sri Lanka," he said. "I think the government should consider it again."

The Press Council is being considered in the wake of a number of threats and attacks on journalists who have been critical of the government and its handling of a war against Tamil Tiger rebels.

The war ended last month, raising hopes the situation would improve. But some people fear that may not be the case.

Just two weeks after the war ended, a strong advocate of freedom of expression, Poddala Jayantha, was abducted and assaulted in Colombo.

Vincent Borsell says there has been a spate of attacks on journalists, in recent years, dealing a blow to investigative and independent reporting.

"Since the war has restarted in 2007, there is a lot of incidents," he said. "It starts from killings, beatings, kidnappings and death threats. But it also goes on to pressure on the media, so it means now there is no let us say direct censorship in countries like Burma, but there is a huge self-censorship, especially on all the issues related to the army, and all sensitive issues. They are victims of self censorship on issues that were very well covered by the media."

The government denies any interference with the media and says that police are investigating the attacks on journalists. It also says it is prepared to discuss any changes to the Press Council suggested by rights groups.

Amnesty International says at least 14 members of news organizations have been killed by suspected government paramilitaries and the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels since 2006. Twenty journalists critical of the government are said to have fled the country.