17th May 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Free Media Movement (FMM) registers its disquiet over the contents of a letter addressed to it by the Editor of the Lanka Dissent website, Mr Indika Gamage on 16th May 2008. In it, Mr. Gamage alleges that the Lanka Dissent website (http://lankadissent.com) is a recent victim of cyber-crime in the form of a hacking attempt that has disrupted its news and reporting services. The letter is now on its website here – http://www.lankadissent.com/allnews/2008_05_16_01_news.htm
Lanka Dissent also alleges on its website that an electronic media observation unit set up by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence is now actively engaged in the disruption of independent web based news services. As it notes:
The Defence Ministry recently set up an electronic media observation unit at a building adjacent to Standard Chartered Bank in front of the President’s House in Colombo to monitor websites reporting on the situation in Sri Lanka. LD learns through reliable sources that this particular unit staffed with electronic and IT experts, is experimenting on how to disrupt websites.
These allegations need to be seen in the context of public calls to hack websites by high placed members of the Government of Sri Lanka last year after it blocked access to tamilnet.com in June 2007. This block to tamilnet.com from all major ISPs in Sri Lanka that the Government has steadfastly refused to acknowledge continues to date, though it is easily accessed via proxy servers.
While the specific points in the Lanka Dissent letter are open to debate, what is not is that independent media in Sri Lanka faces unprecedented challenges under the present regime. The FMM has clearly documented the increasing physical and verbal violence against journalists, the culture of impunity, the anxiety and fear amongst journalists leading to self-censorship and the repeated hate speech of the Ministry of Defence against senior journalists as significant markers of the erosion of media freedom and the freedom of expression.
Allegations that this repression is now moving to the web and Internet must in this context be taken very seriously. The FMM urges the authorities to immediately clarify the existence and nature of the electronic media-monitoring unit by the Ministry of Defence as noted by Lanka Dissent.
Thwarting independent media especially on the web and Internet is brings us in line with the reprehensible censorship and thinly veiled government sponsored hacking of countries such as China and Russia, now friends of Sri Lanka. Further, it is simply not possibly to shut off access to independent journalism unless like Myanmar after the Saffron Revolution, Information and Communications Technology in the entire country is shut down.
Recalling our statement of 21st December 2007 in which we noted that even those who maintain political and social blogs are considered journalists we urge the Government to meaningfully strengthen media freedom and the freedom of expression by supporting the growth of independent print, electronic and web media in Sri Lanka.