Online media

How Sri Lanka keeps the press muzzled

Sri Lanka’s suppression of free speech takes many forms, from violent attacks on political opponents of the regime to a draft law giving the government the final say on what is published. A handful of independent online start-ups are doing their best to be heard despite the heavy odds.
Government as a family affair: Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) greeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) with another brother, Chamal Rajapaksa (who now is serving as irrigation minister)  looks on during an official ceremony in August 2020. picture-alliance/NurPhoto/Tharaka Basnayaka Government as a family affair: Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) greeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) with another brother, Chamal Rajapaksa (who now is serving as irrigation minister) looks on during an official ceremony in August 2020.

For advocates of free speech, the media landscape in Sri Lanka can be daunting. Almost all private media companies are owned by a small class of wealthy and powerful individuals, either directly or through conglomerates they control. These oligarchs, almost always aligned with the government, use their news outlets – including print, broadcast and online properties – to promote their political agendas. The revenue from these outlets is of secondary importance; their main function is to advance the owners’ goals, which may include winning lucrative government contracts.

The government, too, operates its own media empire. It owns the country’s largest print outlet with publications in Sinhala, English and Tamil, two television stations, a radio station and websites. Various political parties also have their own media organs.

Since only half the population has internet access, terrestrial television and radio broadcasting is a major source of news and information. Broadcast stations, including those that are privately owned, are careful to remain on good terms with the government.

The privately-owned Hiru TV and Radio and the TV Derana networks are the most popular choice for Sri Lankans, according to a 2019 survey by International Media Support (IMS), a Danish-based NGO. Both are owned by businessmen who support President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. These stations suppress or vigorously refute criticism of the administration. In this environment, it is difficult for independent media outlets to be heard.

Nonetheless, politically unaffiliated online media are starting to make inroads. It helps that half of the population has internet access. According to IMS, 40 % of respondents to their media survey get their news from websites, and 31 % get news from social-media sites in particular.

Even more encouraging, the survey shows that Sri Lankans find ways to discern facts from fakes. For example, people regularly check three or more news sources to guard against being misled. “Many audience members have a good sense of what good journalism means, and are critical of superficial, sensational and sometimes unethical coverage,” says Emilie Lehmann-Jacobsen, an IMS media adviser.

Enter the independents

The growing popularity of online news sources creates opportunities for media start-ups. Some of these are truly independent, editorially and financially, with no links to businesses or political parties. In some cases, independent news providers are starting to be heard and appreciated.

The independents have the advantage of having started out as online outlets – unlike mainstream institutions, which typically grafted websites onto existing print and broadcasts channels. On the downside, the independents must build relationships with large companies to survive financially, and this could eventually affect their independence. To be viable, news sites must attract at least 250,000 page views per month. Equally important, they must guard against being shut down by the government. To reduce that risk, some start-ups rent server space abroad.

To remain competitive, start-up websites must generate a strong social media presence by promoting their stories on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and spreading their content on YouTube. The IMS survey shows that 80 % of Sri Lankans access Facebook and 75 % watch YouTube videos. Many others also receive news through WhatsApp and IMO, a video calling and instant messaging app. So a focus on marketing and promotion of content is essential.

A greater concern is dealing with limits on freedom of speech. The Rajapaksa administration has low tolerance for criticism. It monitors online channels alongside other media outlets (see box). This can have bad consequences for people posting content that is contrary to official views.

In late May, for example, a government official posted photos of depleted forests on Facebook, thereby casting doubt on government denials of deforestation. The official was arrested and charged. Similarly, an environmental official dared to publicly oppose timber harvesting by companies allied with the government. This official faces intimidation by members of parliament belonging to Rajapaksa’s party, the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or People’s Front).

Earlier this year, a woman who aired her views on a live quiz show concerning environmental destruction near her home was visited by both the police and wildlife officials. More recently the Health Ministry banned medical personnel from commenting publicly on the government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.

To keep a tight clamp on online speech, the government is drafting a law restricting what can be written and said online. The draft law, similar to those in force in Singapore and Malaysia, requires online platforms to issue corrections or remove content that the government declares to be false. The law applies to all online channels, including social networks, search engines and news aggregation websites. Media companies failing to comply would face heavy fines. Individuals would face fines and/or imprisonment.

The government’s justification for this law is that the “spread of false information on the internet poses a serious threat and is used to divide society, to spread hatred and to weaken democratic institutions”. More likely, the government wants to suppress expressions of dissatisfaction with itself. Citizens’ complaints include a mishandled coronavirus response, an economy in the doldrums, high unemployment and allegations of corruption. Mainstream media gloss over all these matters.

Having the final word

In effect, the draft law gives government the final word on what is fact and what isn’t. Free Media Movement (FMM), a watchdog group formed by Sri Lankan journalists, warns that the draft law is “an opportunity for the authorities who have a long track record of abusive interpretation to define ‘false news’ – creating a path for violating the right to freedom of expression”.

Besides, the government already has laws available to arrest and punish anyone who purveys falsehoods, says lawyer Bhavani Fonseka of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a policy research and advocacy organisation in Sri Lanka. She says: “There are many laws, including those based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that have been misused to suppress writers.”

Sadly, the major purveyors of false information are the state-controlled and state-influenced newspapers and broadcasters. Despite professing to self-regulate, state-influenced broadcasters have yet to draft a code of practice. The membership of the Broadcasters Guild, which was formed in 2017, is dominated by companies aligned with the current government. These channels play a big part in disseminating false information and fanning ethnic and religious conflicts.

As a counterbalance to misinformation from such channels, groups of journalists have come together to act as informal fact checkers. A major focus of these fact-checking efforts is information related to Covid-19 and related measures. Journalists’ methods for setting the record straight have included posting short YouTube videos consisting of interviews with experts who correct the official record. In addition, journalists have reported election-related misinformation to the relevant authorities.

Journalists are not the only fact-checkers trying to correct misinformation. Local groups such as Verité Research, an independent think tank, do fact-checking as well, and publish their findings. Similarly, Citizen Fact Check, a Sri Lankan group, publishes articles on its website. Such initiatives have helped cash-strapped start-ups continue their reporting and fact-checking, and some backed by international NGOs.

EconomyNext is one of the independent news websites that cooperates with foreign partners. They have helped to train staff or fund programmes such as a documentary series on race and politics. More­over, international advice is contributing to broaden the websites’ reach.

The start-ups’ efforts to provide independent analysis do not please the government, of course. A crackdown seems inevitable. And this will not serve the interests of the Sri Lankan people.

International Media Support, 2020: Consuming news in turbulent times. Sri Lanka Media Audience Study 2019, published November 2020.

Arjuna Ranawana is managing editor of EconomyNext, an economic, financial and political news service with a primary focus on Sri Lanka.

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