Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka 3970
Photo by: Mirek Hejnicki

Sri Lanka

Basic Data

Official Country Name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Region (Map name): East & South Asia
Population: 19,408,635
Language(s): Sinhala (official and national), Tamil (national language)
Literacy rate: 90.2%
Area: 65,610 sq km
GDP: 16,305 (US$ millions)
Number of Daily Newspapers: 12
Total Circulation: 536,000
Circulation per 1,000: 38
Number of Nondaily Newspapers: 36
Total Circulation: 1,322,000
Circulation per 1,000: 94
As % of All Ad Expenditures: 27.40
Number of Television Stations: 21
Number of Television Sets: 1,530,000
Television Sets per 1,000: 78.8
Number of Cable Subscribers: 5,820
Cable Subscribers per 1,000: 0.3
Number of Radio Stations: 72
Number of Radio Receivers: 3,850,000
Radio Receivers per 1,000: 198.4
Number of Individuals with Computers: 135,000
Computers per 1,000: 7.0
Number of Individuals with Internet Access: 121,500
Internet Access per 1,000: 6.3

Background & General Characteristics

General Description

The press and media are fairly free in this island nation despite a deadly war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the separatist Tamils fighting under the aegis of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Since the mid-1970s, when the conflict started, there have been times of severe media censorship affecting the course of the war. Since 1996, when a new government led by Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaratunga took office promising to uphold an Election Manifesto that would assure fundamental freedoms—including freedom of the press—conditions improved markedly, although censorship restrictions were re-imposed in June 1998. London-based Amnesty International (AI), whose representatives were specially invited to Sri Lanka in October 1998 by the country's Attorney General of Sri Lanka to investigate reports of a mass grave in Jaffna, has noted a marked improvement in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka as compared to the "widespread pattern of gross and systematic violations" of the pre-1994 period. There is no room for complacency, however, as AI and other bodies like the Physicians for Human Rights have been concerned about the "apparent failure" of the Sri Lankan government to live up to its international commitment to human rights and its failure to bring the perpetrators of past human rights violations to justice.

Historical Traditions

The ethnic Sinhala form the overwhelming majority (69 percent) of Sri Lanka's population, which traces its origin to the migration of an Indo-Aryan group from North India in the sixth century B.C. In the fourth century B.C., the Sinhala King of Anuradhapura is believed to have adopted Buddhism. After Buddhism split into Mahayana and Theravada sects in India, the Sinhalese adhered to Theravada, which is the faith that endures to this day among the Sinhalese majority. As Buddhism disappeared from most of India, it remained strong in Sri Lanka, where the adherents of that faith from mainland southeast Asia (particularly from Pegu in lower Myanmar) turned for continued guidance. Today, Sri Lanka boasts more than 6,000 Buddhist temples, some of them more than 1,000 years old including the famous Daladwa Maligawa, which houses the Buddha's Tooth; approximately 55,000 monks live in Sri Lanka as well. And although the country's constitution proclaims secularism, the government continues to Theravada Buddhism the premier role as Sri Lanka's national religion. The second most populous ethnic community in Sri Lanka is the Tamils, who trace their ancestry to the influx from Tamilnadu during the British colonial times as plantation laborers. There are other Tamils who trace their ancestry to groups of Dravidians from South India, who invaded the northern and eastern parts of the island, possibly from the eleventh century A.D., forcing the Sinhalese kings to move their capitals to central and southern parts of Sri Lanka.

In the colonial era, the southern coastal areas first came under Portuguese control in the beginning of the sixteenth century, a situation that remained in place for a century and a half. Most of the Catholics who live in Sri Lanka trace their ancestry to those who were converted to that faith by the Portuguese. In 1658 the Dutch took over from the Portuguese and maintained colonial control until 1795. At that time, Great Britain realized the strategic importance of the island for the growing British empire and made Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was known then) another piece of the still-expanding British dominion. Britain formalized its possession at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The British administered Sri Lanka separately from their Indian Empire, relinquishing control over the island nation in 1948, one year after they left the Indian subcontinent.

Conflict Between the Sinhalese and the Tamils

The government's relationship with the press in Sri Lanka at various points in the last half a century can be best understood by following the chronological landmarks in the conflict between the island nation's two principal communities: the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. Since independence, and especially since about 1976, Sri Lanka's politics have been rocked by a festering, often violent, conflict between those two communities. The conflict has compelled the government to impose a variety of restrictions on constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press. At various times, censorship has been imposed on newspapers as well as on the electronic media; journalists have been physically assaulted, a few even killed; and there have been court confrontations between the journalists and the government. A very active Free Media Movement and the Editors Guild, assisted by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have intervened with the government at various times, with some success.

For Tamils, most of whose ancestors who were brought to the country in the nineteenth century by the British to work on the tea estates in the central highlands, the amendment to the Parliamentary Elections (Order in Council) in 1949 eliminating their franchise rights came as a shock. Before independence, many Tamils had played an important role in the government, largely because of their proficiency in English. The Tamils felt further alienated when Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was elected in 1956 on a platform that promised to make Sinhalese the country's only official language. When he took office, the Official Language Act made the campaign promise a reality. In 1964 and in 1986, Sri Lanka and India agreed to extend citizenship to some of the Tamils;sapproximately 469,000 obtained Sri Lankan citizenship at that time, while approximately 422,500 chose Indian citizenship. Of the latter, about 85,000 who accepted the Indian offer but still decided to stay in Sri Lanka became "stateless," without a passport or any official identification; these people were often subject to harassment by the security forces. They could not own land and had no right to vote. Subsequently, as the U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights for 1999 observed, "the struggle for cultural affirmation, political representation, economic advancement and linguistic parity between Sinhalese and Tamils ended in violence and armed conflict. The demand by some Tamil groups for an independent Tamil state called 'Eelam' became the overriding political issue in Sri Lanka."

The increasing Tamil discontent gave rise to extremism as the "Tigers" began their antigovernment activities with the murder in 1976 of the Tamil mayor of Jaffna, who had been cooperating with the Sinhalese government. This was followed by scores of murders of police officers, politicians, and bureaucrats. The government made some efforts to meet the Tamil demands. For example, the Constitution of 1978 recognized Tamil as a "national language" for public administration and the courts, but the Tamils remained dissatisfied because their language was still not recognized for university admissions or public office. Also, the government promised to establish regional councils with substantial autonomy, but such councils failed to materialize.

By 1983, the conflict assumed ominous proportions with a phenomenal increase in killings on both sides. Over the next two years, nearly 100,000 Tamils fled to South India, where the Tamilnadu government housed them in camps. India's mediation in the dispute marked the next several years. Then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's 1986 proposals for the devolution of authority in the Tamil areas were rejected by the LTTE leader, V. Prabhakaran, who returned to Jaffna and launched a new offensive. The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 29, 1987, between Sri Lankan President Junius Jayawardene and Rajiv Gandhi included a peace plan providing for the amalgamation of the provincial councils in the north and the east, repatriation of the 100,000 Tamils who had fled to South India after 1983, and an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to oversee compliance of the plan in Jaffna. The IPKF's efforts to disarm the LTTE failed miserably, and it decided to withdraw from Sri Lanka beginning July 28, 1989. Rajiv Gandhi himself became a victim of the LTTE when an LTTE suicide bomber assassinated the Indian leader at an election rally in Tamilnadu on May 21,1991.

In the two years following Gandhi's murder, Sri Lanka lost thousands of people in the continuing violence, including two generals, two admirals, three government ministers and, in April 1993, President Premadasa himself.

Despite such a murderous civil war, Sri Lanka maintained its parliamentary democracy and, within reasonable restrictions, the fundamental rights of its citizens and an independent judiciary. In the May 1994 presidential elections, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was voted in as president. Her peace talks with the LTTE began in October 1994 and lasted 100 days, but the talks failed and hostilities resumed. This time, the Sri Lanka Security Forces were able to recapture the Jaffna peninsula by December 1995, ending 13 years of LTTE rule there.

In 1997, the LTTE mounted a major offensive. In response, the government launched its own campaign called "Jaya Sikurui" or "Victory Assured," its longest (20 months, from May 13, 1997, to December 4, 1998) and costliest offensive to date. On January 26, 1998, a bomb exploded outside one of Buddhism's holiest shrines—Daladwa Maligawa, in the hill capital of Kandy—just two days before the first scheduled local government elections in 15 years in the Jaffna peninsula, and only a few days before the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Sri Lanka's independence that were planned for Kandy.

In the January 1998 elections in the northern areas, five Tamil parties participated, including four which had fought against the Sri Lankan army. The LTTE boycotted the elections. The PA and the UNP, the two principal parties in the country, did not participate because they wanted to leave the field to the Tamil parties. Only 28 percent of registered voters cast their ballot. The Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) won the largest number of seats.

By mid-2000, the LTTE had regained large parts of the Jaffna Peninsula and control over the jungles behind the lagoons in the eastern province. The government was frustrated at the failure of several policy initiatives to subjugate the LTTE, ranging from negotiations and military strikes to getting the United States to declare LTTE a terrorist organization. In July 2001, the world was shocked by the news of the LTTE's attack on the Bandaranayake International Airport in Colombo and the Air Force Base at Katunayake, destroying 13 air force planes and three Sri Lanka Airlines airbuses. Several other aircraft were damaged.

The Eelam wars have caused extremely heavy casualties on both sides and unacceptable economic losses (estimated over $100 million) to the government as well as to the private sector. By 2002, more than 60,000 people had died in the 20-year civil war; additionally, more than 2,000 soldiers were killed and another 1,500 turned up missing and presumed dead. Although the LTTE lost control over some of its territory, the impunity with which it could strike at the very heart of the governmen's infrastructure—both civil and military—was shocking.

History Traditions

The beginnings of the press in Sri Lanka were marked by the publication of the Government Gazette in 1802, within months of Britain's formal acquisition of the island at the Peace of Amiens. The gazette could not be considered a genuine newspaper as such, since it was the government's tool to announce official postings, leaves, and retirements as well as to record government's administrative decisions. The first newspaper, the Colombo Journal appeared in 1832 but lasted only two years. It was almost exclusively meant for the relatively small, cloistered British community of officials and a growing number of businessmen and plantation owners. It was followed by the Observer and Commer cial Advertiser and the Ceylon Times (which later became famous as the Times of Ceylon ).

The "language" press began in 1860 with the publication of Lankaloka in Galle; the first Sinhala weekly newspaper, Lakminapahana, appeared on September 11, 1862. In 1896, the second Sinhala daily, Lakrivikrama (which had been a weekly since 1863), began publication. By the time the legendary H. S. Perera began publishing his well-known daily, Dinamana in 1909, the other two dailies had stopped publication, which made Dinamana the only Sinhala daily until September 1912. At that time, Alexander Welivita started the Sinhala daily, Lakmina, which survived till 1955. Dinamana it-self was later acquired by the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL). In 1932, the ANCL began publishing a Tamil daily, Thinakaran.

At the time of Sri Lanka's independence from Great Britain in 1948, the island nation's press was practically a duopoly. The ANCL, popularly called the "Lake House" after the name of the colonial mansion that served as its headquarters, was started in 1918 by a venerable figure in Sri Lanka's history of the press, D. R. Wijewardene. He founded the chain with its principal newspaper, the Ceylon Daily News, and five years later, in 1923, he acquired the Observer and Commercial Advertiser. The Lake House also published the Daily News, Dinamana (daily in Sinhala) and Janata (another daily in Sinhala). The second component of the "duopoly" was the Times group, whose flagship was, indeed, the Times of Ceylon. It also published the daily Morning News and Lankadipa (daily in Sinhala).

To challenge the duopoly, which was not always supportive of government policies, the left-leaning government of S. W. R. D. Bandaranayake and his widow, Sirimavo encouraged the publication of Dawasa, a daily newspaper in Sinhala, that quickly became the second largest daily newspaper, based on circulation. It was published by Independent Newspapers, which was owned by M. D. Gunasena, who was Sri Lanka's most prominent book publisher. Angry over the consistently antigovernment stance of the Lake House publications, Sirimavo's government nationalized the group in 1973. As of 2002, it was still government-owned, and it supports whichever party is in power. In addition, it is the only government-run newspaper publishing house, as the remaining papers are all privately-owned, many of them linked to political parties, but essentially independent of the government. As of 2002, most newspapers in Sri Lanka were published by three powerful groups: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL), or Lake House; Upali Newspapers Limited (UNL); and Wijeya Newspapers Limited (WNL). At the time of the government's takeover of the ANCL, that organization's dailies in all three languages—Sinhala, Tamil, and English— commanded the highest circulation in the country. In 1981, the UNL was founded by Upali Wijewardene, who was related to ANCL's Wijewardene and was also a cousin of the then president Junius R. Jayawardene. Upali was a very successful businessman who held political ambitions but he perished in a mysterious plane crash in February 1983. Control of his company passed on to his widow, but in reality her father, who was a brother of Sirimavo Bandaranayake, held the power. Though the UNL is thus connected with both the UNP and the SLFP leadership, it claims to be independent of both the UNP and PA and is often critical of both organizations. The third major group, WNL, is owned by Ranjith Wijewardene, a former Chairman of ANCL and son of D. R. Wijewardene.. Politically, Ranjith is close to the UNP. The WNL started the weekend Irida Lankadipa in February 1986, the Sunday Times in June 1987, the daily Lankadipa from September 10, 1991, the Mid-Week Mirror in 1995, and the Daily Mirror from June 1999.

Below are the important newspapers in the three languages along with their proprietary affiliation:

Sinhalese: The daily Dinamana and Sunday Silumina are owned by the ANCL. They fully support the government's position on all issues, changing their stand with the shift of political power from one party to the other.

The daily Divayina and the Sunday Divayana are owned by the UNL. The Sunday Lankadipa (since 1986) and the daily Lankadipa (since 1991) are owned by the WNL.

English: The Daily News, the evening Observer and the Sunday Observer, are all published by the government-owned

Sri Lanka
ANCL. The Island and Sunday Island are published by the UNL. The Sunday Times, the Midweek Mirror and the Daily Mirror are owned by the WNL. Outside of the three groups, the Sunday Leader (started in 1994) is published by the Leader Newspapers Limited, while the Weekend Express, a weekly, is published (since 1995) by the Indian Express Newspapers Limited.

Tamil: The two major Tamil newspapers published from Colombo are the Thinakaran, owned by the ANCL, and Veerakesari, which is owned by a Tamil businessman and published by the Indian Express Newspapers Limited. It subtly supports Tamil nationalism.

There are several tabloids published in the north and the east. Among them, Eelanadu, Eelanadam, and Udayan, which openly support Tamil separatism. Of the 23 important newspapers, 10 are dailies, 4 in Sinhala, and 3 each in Tamil and English; 11 are Sunday editions, 5 in Sinhala, 2 in Tamil, and 4 in English; 1 publication appears only on Wednesdays and another only on Saturdays. Circulation figures are not made public by the newspaper groups because of the acute competition in advertising. Comparing and collating the data given by The Editor and Publisher International Yearbook (1999) and the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers, the total circulation of all newspapers may be estimated at 587,500 for daily newspapers and 1,415,000 for Sunday newspapers with an estimated total readership of about 3.5 times those numbers. Of these, two newspapers have a circulation exceeding 250,000; three between 100,000 and 140,000; two between 80,000 and 90,000; one over 45,000; two over 20,000 and three below 20,000. The highest circulation is in Sinhala newspapers, at 389,000 daily and 901,000 on Sundays, with Lankadipa and Dinamana closely competing with each other, while the Sunday editions of Silumina and Divayana Irida claim the highest honors. The English newspapers come next, with a total circulation estimated at 132,000 daily with the Daily News having the highest circulation and 407,000 on Sundays. The Sunday Observer, Sunday Leader, and Sunday Island compete for the highest circulation among Sunday papers. The Tamil papers have roughly a combined circulation of 66,500 daily and 107,000 on Sundays, with Thinakaran and Veerakesari and their Sunday editions competing with each other.

Economic Framework

The persisting ethnic conflict spanning a quarter century has adversely affected the economy of the island nation not only in terms of the fiscal burden of the costly military campaign against the rebels, but also in the way it has paralyzed the agricultural and plantation activities so crucial for the exports and the foreign exchange earnings. One must also note that from 1977, the country shifted its prime dependence on plantation crops, notably tea, to textiles and processed foods, insurance, and banking as foreign exchange leaders. In 2000, tea exports accounted only for one-fifth of the total, while the textiles brought in 65 percent of the exchange.

Despite the handicaps imposed by the festering strife, Sri Lanka has retained its second-place among the nations of south Asia (with the exception of the Maldives) for the highest per capita gross national product. The economy maintained a healthy annual 5.5 percent growth throughout the 1990s, except in 1995 and 1996. Sri Lanka is also ahead of the other states of south Asia in another important area: literacy, which stands at more than 90 percent and is at almost 100 percent among children up to the age of 14. Most of the citizens who are illiterate are senior citizens, who did not have the opportunity to go to school. The high literacy has a positive impact on the state of the economy, on the readership of newspapers and magazines, on the size of radio and television audiences, and on the growing number of Internet users.

Press Laws

Sri Lanka, the former British colony of Ceylon, attained independence on February 4, 1948, following the British withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent in August 1947. Under the Constitution of 1972, Sri Lanka became a republic, its official title being the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The unicameral parliamentary system introduced by the constitution made the prime minister, who belonged to the majority party in the

Sri Lanka
parliament, the head of the government. Under a new constitution, promulgated on September 7, 1978, the polity changed to a presidential system, with the president directly elected for a term of six years and holding full executive authority. Two major political parties have led the governments since independence: the United National Party (UNP) from 1948 to 1956, 1965 to 1970, and 1977 to 1994. The leftist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) from 1956 to 1965 and from 1970 to 1977, and then renamed as the People's Alliance (PA) from 1994 to the early twenty-first century.

The constitution guarantees the fundamental rights and freedom of thought, conscience, and worship, as well as equality before the law to all. However, Buddhism has been accorded the foremost place in the national arena, and the State has the duty to protect and foster that religion. Sinhala and Tamil were made the two official languages. By and large, successive governments have shown respect for the constitution and fundamental rights except for some restrictions, at times very severe, during periods of intense civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

The Sri Lankan judiciary holds an excellent reputation for its independence and integrity in relation to upholding fundamental civil rights. Under the Emergency Regulations (ERs) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the government may detain suspects without trial for a maximum of four consecutive three month periods under the ERs, and as long as 18 months under the PTA. Additionally, the government has established a Human Rights Commission, which serves as a watchdog of the observance of the constitutional provisions. The government under Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaratunga, who was elected president in 1994, generally respected the independence of the judiciary.

The Sri Lankan Parliament consists of one chamber with 225 members, elected by a system of modified proportional representation. The country comprises 9 provinces and 24 administrative districts, each with an appointed governor and elected Development Council. In November 1987, an amendment to the Constitution provided for eight provincial councils, with the northern and eastern provinces merged as one administrative unit.


The government of President Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaratunga, which was in power at the start of the twenty-first century, came into power on the basis of an Election Manifesto that promised fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press. Censorship was re-imposed on June 5, 1998, when the war against the LTTE heated up and the government felt that "unfettered freedom" for the press resulted in newspapers carrying vital information that provided "tactical benefits" to the LTTE. This time, censorship applied to all reports relating to the war being fought in the north and east sections of the island. Local and international coverage of the war was prohibited, as was any discussion by the media of the actions of police and military officials. All reports, photographs, and videotapes were to pass a military censor, army general Jaliya Nammuni, the first time the government had appointed a such an overseer. Journalists were forbidden from entering the conflict zones, or, in the government's language, the "uncleared areas."

The censorship continued at the civilian level with the appointment of Ariya Rubasinghe as the chief censor and with the announcement of even tighter restrictions in November 1999. On June 30, 2000, a panel of three judges of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court unanimously nullified the appointment of a government censor or "competent Authority" in response to a fundamental rights petition filed by the newspaper group, Leader Publications, challenging the closure of the Sunday Leader and associated Sinhalese newspapers by the chief censor. The immediate reason for the action was the publication of an article in the Sunday Leader entitled "War in Fantasyland," which lampooned the government's censorship policy. More importantly, the Sunday Leader was known to be associated with Gamini Dissanaike, the opposition UNP's presidential candidate in 1994 before he was murdered during the campaign by a suicide bomber. The chief censor had also closed down the offices of Uthayan, the only Tamil daily published in Jaffna on grounds that the daily was "maliciously and detrimentally" publishing information that was biased in favor of the LTTE. The Supreme Court's annulment of the appointment of the chief censor had been based on a technicality that the government had failed to submit the appointment to the parliament for review within seven days as required by law. However, the Court went further than the issue at hand and struck down the decision to close down the newspapers involved as "a nullity and of no force or avail in law." The Court also ordered the government to pay damages to the Leader Group of Publications. Disturbing to the champions of freedom of the press was the Court's stipulation that the "rights and freedoms of the citizens under ordinary laws may be disregarded" and that the purposes of the emergency regulations were "legitimate." Obviously, the Court did not want to destabilize the political situation in the country and thought it judicious not to hamper the ability of the state to fight the war.

Even so, the restrictions in 2002 were far better than those under the previous government, when handicaps for practicing journalists were far more severe and when an independent-minded journalist stepping out of line simply disappeared. The most celebrated case was that of the broadcaster Richard de Soyza.

Information controls in 2002 followed more subtle and less obvious methods. Thus, books, magazines, and videos were quietly banned without fanfare or publication of lists of banned materials. In the case of imported materials, the Customs and Excise officials quietly confiscated them on grounds that they were pornographic, offending traditional values or tenets of Theravada Buddhism. Political writings, even if they were critical of government policies, received far more tolerance than those affecting religion or family values.

Although the Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera had pledged to the CPJ delegation that the censorship would be lifted before the parliamentary elections were announced, the government made no changes in the policy even after August 18, when the elections were announced for October 10; disappointingly for the press, no changes were made to the censorship policy. In September, the government suspended the additional censorship regulations imposed during the year.

State-Press Relations

An important member of the Cabinet is the Minister of Telecommunications, usually someone close to the president. In 2002, the minister was known to believe in the freedom of the press as long as it did not affect the nation's security. Despite criticism in the press, some of which tended to be personal, the minister refrained from penalizing the press except for an occasional action through the court system.

In order to facilitate relations with the press, the government has established the Sri Lanka Press Council. However, unlike most countries where the role of such a body is to protect the journalists and publishers, the Press Council in Sri Lanka is charged with the responsibility of protecting individual citizens who may have grievances against the press. Journalists look to their own unions, the most important of them being the Editors' Guild or the Free Media Movement, for redress of their grievances. The latter organization is linked to the Freedom of Expression Exchange based in Canada. A notable journalists' organization of a specialty kind is the Sri Lankan Environmentalist Journalists Forum, which has formulated its own Code of Ethics for its members. A good number of journalists show a remarkable degree of sophistication and sense of responsibility, are well-traveled, and remain in touch with their counterparts in India, Great Britain, and the United States.

Although the Constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, the government restricts these rights in practice, often using national security as the rationale; however, it tries to stay within the limits that are prescribed by the parliament. In 1998, following a particularly vicious attack by the LTTE, the government strictly limited the access of domestic and foreign media to information and censored news relating to military and police matters. The government also imposed censorship on all domestic and foreign media reports relating to the ongoing or possible future military and other security operations. International television broadcasts received in the country were also censored, with references to Sri Lanka filtered out of the broadcasts. Foreign and national journalists were and are allowed to go to the conflict areas, but only with prior permission from the Ministry of Defense.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has regularly logged instances of assaults on journalists and photographers and written to Sri Lankan authorities, including the president, from time to time, more often since 1998. The Free Media Movement, The Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka, Amnesty International, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, and the U.S. State Department's Division on Human Rights have also helped to highlight incidents when the media have not been able to function normally. In some cases, army officers have themselves been involved in such attacks, for example during a night-time raid on February 12, 1998, by five armed men, including two air force officers, on the residence of Iqbal Athas, a defense correspondent of the Sunday Times who had written a series of exposés on corruption in the armed forces. The attackers threatened the lives of Iqbal and his wife and young daughter at gun-point. In 1994, Iqbal had received the CPJ's International Press Freedom Medal for his courageous reporting on Sri Lanka's civil war. The trial of the two air force officers, H. M. Rukman Herath and D. S. Prasanna Kannangara, was repeatedly postponed, but it finally began in May 2001, partly in response to the pressure of the several groups, both local and international, that support freedom of the press. In February 2002, a Colombo High Court judge, Sarath Ambepitiyqa, sentenced the two officers to nine years in prison, observing: "In a democratic country like Sri Lanka, newspapers have a right to expose the corruption of anyone." Noting that violent attacks against journalists undermine press freedom, the judge said in his ruling: "If crime is used to suppress [this right], then stern action should be taken." Another major incident of media harassment took place on July 15, 1999, when the police fired tear gas and used water cannons and batons to break up a large UNP-led demonstration while unidentified men assaulted protesters and snatched camera equipment from journalists. The Free Media Movement claimed that journalists and photographers had been assaulted so that there would not be any evidence of the action taken against the protesters.

Broadcast Media


Until the liberalization in 1984, radio was a government monopoly. It was governed by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Act of 1966, which established the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). It had two services: National Service and Commercial Service, both in three languages: Sinhala, Tamil, and English. In 2002, it had seven home services, three regional services, six community services (Aralangnwila, Girandurukotte, Kot-male, Maha Illuppallama, Jaffna, and Vavuniya) and seven overseas services. The services are named: the Sinhala National Service, the Tamil Commercial Service, the English Commercial Service, the Regional Services, and the Education and Sports Service. The overseas service uses several Indian languages: Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu. The overseas service is principally beamed at south and southeast Asia and the Middle East. The rules governing the Conduct of Business of the Commercial Service were framed by the Advertising Department of the SLBC. They took effect May l, 1994. They stipulate that advertising materials that contain statements or suggestions that "may be considered to be of a political nature or offensive to religious views, racial traits, and sentimental susceptibilities of any section of the community" would not be accepted.

The SLBC has three major regional stations: North Central, based on Anuradhapura and called Rajarata Sevaya; Southern, based in Matara and called Ruhunu Sevaya; and Central, based in Kandy and called the Kandurata Sevaya. The Colombo-based City FM Service is currently called the SLBC's Sri Lanka FM. The latest government-owned radio station of the SLBC, which was inaugurated in January 1997, is the popular Lakhanda, a 24-hour service in Sinhala. While the SLBC continues to operate in the public sector, there are now eleven private radio stations: Sun FM 99.9, TNL 90/101Radio, Yes FM, 7FM, Capital Radio, and Gold FM 89 (all in English); Sirasa FM (MBC Networks), Savana, Hiru FM 107.9, and Tharu FM 96.7 (all in Sinhala); and FM 99 and Suriyan FM 103.2 (both in Tamil). Even the private radio stations are, however, governed by certain "guidelines" from the government, particularly in regard to materials affecting the country's security and harmony among the ethnic minorities. The SLBC as well as the private stations have, by and large, operated independently but under the general direction of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The broad mandate for its programming stipulates that nothing be included in the programs "which offends good taste or decency or is likely to incite to crime or lead to disorder or to attend [sic] any racial or religious susceptibilities or to be offensive to public feelings."


Just like the radio, television was a government monopoly until the liberalization in 1992 and 1994. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Act of 1982 established the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) and the Independent Television Network (ITN) The SLRC is run by a board of six nominees of the government, including one from the SLBC and one representing the National Film Corporation (NFC). Its mandate parallels that of the SLBC in terms of its programming. In September 1986, it established the Copy Code, whereby the SLRC would not accept any advertising copy that was critical of traditions and customs of any community, or would create a feeling of insecurity or disharmony in the community, or could be injurious to the well-being of any community or the devotees of any religion. The code was further revised in November 1995. According to the code, "unacceptable material" is that which makes "irreverent reference to any time, incident or concept of religious, racial, political or sentimental susceptibilities of the community." Such cautionary language in the codes meant for radio and television broadcasting reflects the ethnic tensions and the civil war between the two principal communities on the island nation over the last quarter century. The government seems eager to establish a delicate balance between upholding the protection of fundamental rights of expression to individuals and to the media that are guaranteed by the constitution, and the supreme need to maintain interethnic harmony in a plural society.

Major changes came in 1992 when the UNP government allowed private television networks. In that year, the Maharaja Television Network (MTV), in collaboration with Singapore Telecom International (SingTel), began its operations as MTV and MTV Newsvision. The Sirasa TV replaced the MTV channel in June 1998 as the first private sector nationwide TV channel while MTV Newsvision was renamed MTV. In the following year, the Teleshan Network Limited (TNL) was started; it now operates TNL TV and TNL radio. In 1994, the Extra-Terrestrial Television (ETV) was started; it added a second channel in 1995 called ETV2. The two ETV channels were later replaced by Swarnavahini and ETV in April 1996 when there was a change of ownership. Then in 1996, the Dynavision Broadcasting Coprporation started the Dynavision channel, which became Sri Lanka's first stereo broadcast station. In 1999, the government's Telecommunication Authority authorized two more private television channels: Ruhuna 2001 Multivision and Channel 9, the first "direct-to-home" pay television, owned by TV and Radio Private Limited, a private collaboration between Sri Lanka and Australia. Until 1994, there was complete state control over the production and broadcast of news concerning Sri Lanka. All private channels broadcasting—even BBC, CNN, or other foreign channels—were required to delete any items in which Sri Lanka was mentioned. This became a major issue in the 1992 and 1994 elections. The PA's Election Manifesto in 1994 promised to restore the freedom of expression of the citizens and of the media and to "create a framework within which the media can function independently and without inhibition." Accordingly, after the elections, the PA allowed private television companies to produce and broadcast local news bulletins. In October 1995, however, the government introduced "temporary censorship" on news concerning "security matters."


In reviewing the relationship between the government and the media, the CPJ commented in its annual report for 2000: "Kumaratunga's censorship policy is just one manifestation of her basic mistrust for the media.". It pointed out that President Kumaratunga had begun the year with a three-hour long interview on government television in which she railed against several media facilities, even pointing her finger at individual journalists: Victor Ivan, editor of the Sinhala tabloid Ravaya, and Lasantha Wickrematunga, and the editor of the English paper, the Sunday Leader, accusing them of attempting to sabotage her reelection in December 1999 through tendentious reporting and corrupt practices. She threatened to crack down on those who were consistently critical of her policies. Within a week, the state media subtly hinted at links between the two editors and the LTTE.

Six months later, the government repeated this "alarming tactic" with the state media alleging that four prominent journalists were "maintaining secret connections" with the LTTE. These were: Roy Denish, defense correspondent for the Sunday Leader; D. Sivaram, who wrote under the penname "Taraki;" P. Seevagan, head of the Tamil Media Alliance and BBC's Tamil Service; and Saman Wagaarachchi, editor of Irida Peramuna. In a joint statement of June 6, 2000, the four journalists countered that the government's smear campaign "was very clearly designed and deliberately calculated to instigate extremist elements and contract killers against us and our families" Attacks on individual journalists who reported against the government also took place, in one case involving the death of a journalist. On the night of October 19, 2000, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, a freelancer who reported from the northern Jaffna peninsula for various organizations, including the BBC's Tamil and Sinhala language services, the Tamil language daily Virakesari and the Sinhala language weekly Ravaya. He had reported on vote-rigging and intimidation in the recent parliamentary elections in Jaffna. The attack occurred during curfew hours in a high-security zone in a central Jaffna town. The journal-ist's parents and 11-year-old nephew were also seriously injured.

Also attacked was Nellai Nadesan, a columnist for the Tamil leading newspaper, Virakesari. Nadesan escaped unhurt though his home was damaged. He had earlier received a telephone death threat for writing about atrocities committed by the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), a government-supported Tamil militia group operating in the Batticaloa region. The attack occurred despite the fact that Nadesan's home was located between two checkpoints manned by the government.

Significant Dates

  • 1994: Kumaratunga government restores fundamental freedom and lifts censorship.
  • 1998: The government re-imposes censorship.


Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT). The APT Yearbook, 2000. Bangkok and Surrey, England: APT & ICOM, 2000.

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Disanayaka, J. B. "Ethnic Perceptions and Media Behaviour in Sri Lanka." In Mass Media and Cultural Identity, Ethnic Reporting in Asia, eds. Anura Goonasekera and Youichi Ito, 256-282. London: Pluto Press, 1999.

French, D., and M. Richards, eds. Contemporary Television: Eastern Perspectives. New Delhi: Sage, 1996.

Gunaratne, S. A. "Government-Press Conflict in Ceylon: Freedom Versus Responsibility." Journalism Quarterly 47 (1970): 530-543.

——."Sri Lanka and the Third Communication Revolution." Media Asia 24 (1997): 83-89.

Gunaratne, S.A., M.S. Hasim, and R. Kasenally. "Small is Beautiful, Information Potential of Three Indian Ocean Rim Countries." Media Asia 24 (1997): 1-205.

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Samarajiva, R., "Institutional Reform of Sri Lankan Telecommunications: The Introduction of Competition and Regulation." In Telecommunications in Western Asia and the Middle East, ed. E. M. Noam, 3-61. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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Damodar R. SarDesai

User Contributions:

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Mar 5, 2008 @ 3:03 am
hi srilanka,
it's good to students for their study works. thankyou very much thanks again.

senaka senaviratne
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Jun 6, 2008 @ 1:01 am
the article is exellant. better include ethicla background of the journlists in sri Lanka
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Jul 3, 2008 @ 1:01 am
hi it good news for we like it.good study work for it.thanks
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Mar 23, 2009 @ 6:18 pm
I am a freelance journalist (Sri Lankan). Currently resident in Rome, I have freely contributed to the audio, printed, and the visual media from the 1970s. Arriving in Rome in 1977 I became employed in the general service of the HQ office of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN/FAO). After a near 30yr. service I retired in July 2006. Following the Tsunami disaster, I was engaged on two separate brief contracts by the Sri Lankan Embassy in Rome and immediately thereafter by the Vatican Radio (Asia Desk as Programme Assistant). Please permit me the privilege to indicate below my comment with a brief background to the sad events that have led to the current crisis in Sri Lanka.

"In spite of a 30-year absence from my country, like me, nearly all peace-loving Sri Lankans living within and outside the country are disturbed by the mounting divisions kindled by successive national governments against minority community groups in the Island. From the era following 1956, stirred by the popular slogan 'Sinhala Only/Buddhism First' political manifesto, the so-called Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists' anti-minority militants and their associate political lobbyists, have continued to gain ground and wrest political power by fanning antagonism toward Lankan minority communities. Public rallies and demonstration campaigns have been held to agitate the masses not only to defame and discredit national and international peace mediators, but now manipulate their powerful propaganda aimed to discredit UN or non- UN international aid agencies and multi-media services committed to support and/or uphold the fundamental rights of innocent civilians trapped wherever within the Island.

The World Media would soon learn of their next move. This has been framed in a Draft Resolution to be introduced in Parliament under the 'Anti-conversion Bill', which alas would generate wider divisions and hostility toward Sri Lankans who profess minority religions, or are of ethnic diversity, but have hitherto lived in peace and harmony with the Sinhala Buddhist majority from centuries ago (viz. christians, hindus, moslems, etc).

All peace loving people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere look forward to see the international world community, and their media communicators, continuing to steadfastly focus and help champion Human Rights issues and Minority Rights issues in Sri Lanka in the coming years too.
With best wishes for success in your freedom campaigns.
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Jul 20, 2009 @ 7:19 pm
nice work>>>
am using this for my project now...
hope mor info falles in so we can refer mor frequently>>>
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Mar 3, 2010 @ 12:12 pm
It is very useful for Journalism is giving a broad idea about Sri lankan media history.. thank you for your service..
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Mar 25, 2010 @ 4:04 am

I am a creative writer and I am currently working on an assignment on the women in Sri Lanka. As I am from India, I would require your help to get info about the women of Sri Lanka who have made a commendable work in the field of media, social work, movies, eco-friendly ventures, politics; the ones who are not that famous till now. Please get back to me with all the detailsm you can provide.

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Aug 9, 2010 @ 5:17 pm
Hi, very interesting and usefull this article.
I'm a Sri Lankan girl but i have been living in italy since i was 1year old, for my degree thesis i'm looking for some infos about the "sri lankan industry could you please help me in this challenge as i don't have many contacts in Sri Lanka? Thank you very much
Best Regards
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Nov 2, 2010 @ 5:05 am
i want to learn about announcing in FM channel in sinhala
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Jan 28, 2011 @ 4:04 am
A little correction to the ethnic part. Tamils were not in war with a Sinhalese government. It is the Sri Lankan government elected by tamils, muslims and sinhalese and all people with a democratic vote. The representation of parliament is majority Sinhalese for obvious reasons that more voters are Sinhalese. Plus, the war is over, we are trying to move on and correct all our mistakes.

S Fouz
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Apr 16, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

Can i have the source of above "daily & non daily newspaper titles & circulation figures" or a source of latest data? And also above "basic data" table. Please
Dhanushka Rajapaksha
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May 5, 2011 @ 12:12 pm
Simply,very interesting and useful article...Awesome... :D:D:D
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Aug 4, 2011 @ 11:11 am
hi its really such as a source of news thanks sir lanka
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Dec 29, 2012 @ 9:21 pm
very interesting and very useful article for student. thanks you very much
Jon Page-Acaco
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Jun 19, 2013 @ 9:09 am
Hi Author,

To this very end, I copied all this article as I am having hard time to figure out my assignment about how will I discuss in detail these three specific topics:

1)Legislation Process
2) Execution Process
3) Judicial Process
And how these processes impact on media system that the country, Sri Lanka, has.
These three main topics that were given to me is supposed to be discussed and presented in our class in Media and Society (one of the subjects in journalism - the course I am currently enrolled). The country that I am assigned is of Sri Lanka, god sake, I been browsing for almost how many hours and I can't find any specific articles that suggest my main concern. Good thing I found this, for somehow this article could help.

Hopefully, in my next visit, since we will still be tackling about Sri Lanka, and somehow for the benefit of others, maybe, I wish you could publish something like detailing these main process (execution, legislation, judicial) that the political system of Sri Lanka has.

Thank you.
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Sep 28, 2014 @ 1:01 am
hi am a srilankan student looking for some details regarding advertisements and contribution of medias to advertisers for my research purposes
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Nov 7, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

I want to use media statistics to an assignment & would like to know how update these figures are. Also want to know mass media trends in last 3 -4 years

Thank you

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