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Sri Lanka: Freedom of Expression in a Time of Crisis

Written by Rehab Mahamoor |

Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst economic crises in history. With depleted foreign reserves making debt unserviceable and putting capital markets out of reach, Sri Lankans are bearing the brunt of heavy inflation, and a scarcity of essential items, including food, fuel and cooking gas. The mismanagement of Sri Lanka’s economy by the current government has led to daily power cuts, at times as long as 13 hours, fuel queues, where at least seven people have died waiting for fuel, and cooking gas queues, leaving people unable to cook food. Recently hospitals have reported a severe shortage of essential medication required for treatment, which doctors say may result in deaths due to their inability to perform essential procedures.

The devastating economic crisis has had a knock-on effect of laying bare the deficiencies of the current government, resulting in a political crisis and island-wide anti-government protests. People have taken to the streets to call for the resignation of the current President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his brothers, Mahinda Rajapaksa who was Prime Minister, and Basil Rajapaksa, who was the Minister of Finance. While President Gotabaya continues to cling to power despite mass street protests calling for his resignation being held at the Galle Face Green for 50 days consecutively, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa have resigned from their posts, on 9 May 2022 and 3 April respectively; however, they remain Members of Parliament. While prudent governments would use this opportunity as a catalyst for change, to pull Sri Lanka back from the brink of collapse, this government has chosen this moment to continue its crackdown on dissenting voices, including journalists, activists, and social media personalities.

The first of such incidents occurred after anti-government protests linked to the economic crisis took place in front of President Gotabaya’s residence in Mirihana, a town in the suburbs of Colombo, on 30 April 2022. Protesters and journalists were arrested, assaulted while in police custody, made to sign statements without their legal representatives being present, and even denied medical treatment despite their injuries. The level of suppression of public criticism has been severe, and government surveillance has gone to extraordinary lengths.  On 1 April, Anuruddha Bandara was arrested in Gampola, a town in the district of Kandy, for promoting a Facebook page titled ‘Go Home Gota’ (Gotabaya), a phrase which was used widely during protests. Anuruddha was later released on bail on 2 April. Rather than addressing the calls of protesters, the state targeted people exercising their freedom of expression, violating their rights under international human rights law, and the Sri Lankan Constitution.

The tactic of cracking down on dissent is however not a new addition to the playbook of the Rajapaksa political family. For years, people in the highly militarized Northern and Eastern provinces, mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority, have faced immense obstacles to peaceful protest. They have faced intimidation, harassment, surveillance and violence at the hands of the state, even when seeking truth, justice or accountability for human rights violations and war crimes. These threats extend to the journalists, also from the Tamil ethnic minority, who cover these events.

18 May, or Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day, is a day of remembrance of tens of thousands of Tamil people who were killed or forcibly disappeared during the end of the civil war in 2009. Mullivaikkal is the village in the district of Mullaitivu, where the government forces’ final offensive against the LTTE took place and where Tamils gather to mark this day. Since the end of the war, most attempts to publicly commemorate this anniversary have faced harassment and even violence from the state. For example, on 18 May 2021, ten Tamil people were arrested and detained for seven months under draconian counter-terror laws for holding a commemoration event in Batticaloa, a town in the Eastern Province of the island. This year, in a rare occurrence, people at the anti-government protest site at Galle Face Green, a public space in the capital city of Colombo, publicly commemorated Mullivaikkal Day without interference from the police or the state. In contrast, in Mullaitivu, the police claimed public gatherings were prohibited and that they were issued shooting orders, in a bid to intimidate protesters. This was in addition to the increased surveillance by the police and military, reported in Mullivaikkal in the days leading up to 18 May. A journalist described being harassed and intimidated by police and army personnel when attempting to cover the events in Mullativu. When we had visited Mullivaikkal to report on the preparations ahead of the 18 May memorial event, Shanmugam Thavaseelan, a journalist from Mullativu, told us that on 14 May soldiers stopped and questioned him, asking whether he had taken videos during his visit. Thavaseelan also said the police had then asked for his credentials, and subsequently recorded them.

Freedom of expression is a constitutional right of all Sri Lankans, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or political views. This fundamental right must be protected and respected equally, especially in the face of growing threats by this government seeking to control the narrative to suit its own agenda. While this current government attempts to quell a rising tide of critical voices, they must be reminded that freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of a democratic society where rights are respected and protected; and this is the society that we must work towards.

Rehab Mahamoor is a Sri Lankan Attorney-at-Law and acting researcher at the South Asia Regional Office of Amnesty International