Sri Lanka: silencing civil society - a blow for democracy

by J.C.Weliamuna | Transparency International
Monday, 21 July 2014 13:22 GMT

A woman takes part in a vigil for missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda in Colombo February 24, 2010. Eknaligoda, a pro-opposition journalist, disappeared on January 24, 2010 and his whereabouts is still unknown. REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When a government disallows free speech and honest criticism, it becomes prey to corruption

Last week the Ministry of Defence in Sri Lanka warned civil society organisations they should not hold press conferences, issue press releases or hold workshops as it was “beyond their mandate.”

That’s tantamount to saying civil society should not exist – because that’s what it does. It speaks truth to power and the media is an important channel of expression.

Unfortunately, this is just one more step along the road to authoritarianism that the government of Sri Lanka seems determined to take and one that civil society will not accept.

Our rights, if the government has not forgotten, are protected by the Sri Lankan constitution and international conventions, not least the United Nations Convention against Corruption which endorses citizen’s rights to hold government to account.

This happened now because of an unseemly attempt to stop my organisation from organising training workshops for journalists how to detect and report on corruption that was planned for 22 May in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. It was disrupted by an organised mob.   

Organisations both inside and outside Sri Lanka condemned the demonstrators and the police passivity – they did nothing to stop it. The government’s response was the latest crackdown on civil society.

For many years Transparency International Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan chapter of the global anti-corruption movement whose mission is to stop corruption, has held workshops to train journalists how to investigate bribery and corruption. It has raised awareness about the importance of transparency in government, the need for access to information and whistleblower protection and what government must do to be compliant with international anti-corruption treaties.

We do this to hold those in power to account and our voice is protected by the Sri Lankan constitution and international conventions, a fact the government appears to have forgotten.

We are not enemies of the government, but critical partners working to help better people’s lives. Corruption is a scourge on the most vulnerable in society but unless people find out about corruption – and it is often the media that does this – it will go unchecked.

We train both Sinhala speaking and Tamil journalists in workshops that follow the recommendations to ensure good governance made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) established when long bloody conflict with the Tamil Tigers separatist movement ended in 2009 and the country was expected to start to heal the wounds it left.

The training of Tamil journalists, along with other civil society activities, has been hampered and among the many tactics was the staging of a dubious demonstration that called us traitors outside where the workshop that was supposed to take place in May.

This is all beside the point. Civil society organisations have faced a barrage of intimidation, even violence, as Sri Lanka has moved ever closer to becoming an authoritarian state. Government controlled media have exhorted people to attack civil society, have called us traitors and have tried to shut us down.

There have been no arrests or actions taken to stem these attacks.

When a government disallows free speech and honest criticism, it becomes prey to corruption. It is no surprise that authoritarian countries like North Korea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are near the bottom of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

Sri Lanka is also slipping. It scored 37 out of 100, where a high score indicates less corruption, in 2013 down from 40 in 2012 and now ranks 91 out of 177 countries.

Freedom House, which ranks press freedom around the world, put Sri Lanka at 167 out of 197 countries in 2013, and condemned its press as “not free”.

Freedom of expression is safeguarded in the Sri Lankan constitution; civil society is protected by my international conventions, including the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which Sri Lanka signed in 2004.

The government should respect this and stop its harassment and intimidation of civil society. By trying to silence us, it is turning its back on the democratic freedoms it is supposed to protect. We will use all our powers of moral suasion and legal instruments, if need be, to prove out point.

J.C. Weliamuna, a human rights and constitutional lawyer, is a board member of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption movement and chair of Transparency International Sri Lanka.