COLOMBO, SRI LANKA - Media rights activists on Monday urged the Sri Lankan government to withdraw proposed anti-terror legislation, calling it a set of draconian laws aimed at suppressing media freedom and democratic rights.
The new counterterrorism bill approved by the cabinet of ministers is now before the Parliament. A date has yet to be announced for a debate and a vote on the bill, which the government says would repeal the existing tough anti-terror law.
C. Dodawatta, convener of the Free Media Movement, a local media rights group, said the proposed act could be used to arrest and detain journalists for ``distributing or making available any information to the public.''
He said the new government came into power in 2015 promising to repeal the existing anti-terror law — the Prevention of Terrorism Act — that has been criticized by rights groups who say successive governments have used it for arresting and detaining the journalists, media workers, artists, rights activists, ethnic minority Tamils and opposition politicians.
``But so far the government has failed to repeal the PTA and instead now they are bringing another legislation which seems worse than PTA,'' he told reporters.
Threat to protection of sources
Dharmasiri Lankapeli, another media rights activist, said the legislation may result in the arrest of journalists for keeping sources secret, and ``this would pose a great danger to media freedom and send more journalists to prison.''
Rights activist and lawyer Viranjana Herath said the proposed law could also be used to ban such things as taking photographs, making video recordings and making sketches. It also "will affect the freedom of assembly and association and could pose a serious threat to the freedom of expression and media freedom,'' Herath said.
He said Sri Lanka does not need new laws to combat terrorism, saying there are more than 20 existing laws and legal provisions to deal with offenses on terrorism. ``Therefore, bringing new laws could be described as an attempt to suppress the voice of the people,'' he said.
There was no immediate comment from the government, and the spokesmen for the government did not answer phone calls seeking a comment.
President Maithripala Sirisena and the new government came into power in 2015 promising to end a culture of impunity and ensure justice for slain journalists. Under Sirisena's predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, dozens of journalists were killed, abducted and tortured. Some fled the country.
In some cases, military officers were arrested and released on bail.
Forty four journalists and media workers were killed between 2006 and 2015, during the Rajapaksa presidency. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 11 journalists were killed in the same period, including five who were targeted for murder and whose cases remain unsolved.
Most of the killings and attacks on journalists took place during Sri Lanka's civil war, which ended in 2009, after the government troops defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels who fought for a separate state for the ethnic minority Tamils.
Both the government and the rebels were accused of killing and abducting critics.