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Sri Lanka: Do Not Bring Back Criminal Defamation Legislation!

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FORUM-ASIA expressed concern over reports that the Cabinet of Sri Lanka discussed an "emergency paper" regarding the re-introduction of criminal defamation law last week. FORUM-ASIA reminded the government of Sri-Lanka that bringing criminal defamation legislation back into Sri Lanka’s legal system may mean reintroducing a vague statute, creating the huge possibility for arbitrary, uneven, and selective enforcement.

FORUM-ASIA expressed concern over reports that the Cabinet of Sri Lanka discussed an "emergency paper" regarding the re-introduction of criminal defamation law last week.

On 30 June 2007, the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Minister Maitripala Sirisena, admitted to the public that the on 27 June 2007, the Cabinet discussed an emergency paper on the re-introduction of criminal defamation legislation.  He was quick to assure, however, that there was only a general discussion on the issue and the government does not plan on re-introducing criminal defamation laws into the system. He also said that a dialogue on the issue exists between the media and the government, and that the government hopes that the media would cease publishing false news items which “cause severe damage to the lives of politicians, government officials, and their children.”

Despite this assurance, however, FORUM-ASIA is still concerned that bringing back criminal defamation laws was discussed at all within the Sri Lankan Cabinet. If the government is indeed troubled by the fact that media reports are “causing severe damage” to public officials and their families, a criminal defamation law would not be the appropriate solution to this problem. Public officials or their families may seek recourse through appropriate civil defamation laws, provided that these civil laws have incorporated certain international standards, such as the proportionality of the award of actual damages to the actual harm caused. Also, the judgments favourable to plaintiffs for civil defamation can only be obtained where factual allegations that have been clearly proven to be false and never for opinions. FORUM-ASIA also reminded the Sri Lankan government that public officials should expect less protection than ordinary citizens from defamation laws because of their status as servants of the people.

It should be noted that criminal defamation provisions were repealed from the country's statute books on 18th June, 2002 following a vigorous seven year campaign carried out in this regard by media associations and lobby groups in Sri Lanka. The campaign was supported by several international organisations, including the International Press Institute (IPI), International PEN, the World Association of Newspapers, The Commonwealth Press Union (CPU), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Article XIX and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, who denounced the "chilling effect" that defamation laws have on free expression.

FORUM-ASIA emphasizes that the function of criminal laws is to maintain a minimum of good order in society. Criminal statutes seek a public enforcement for a public ill. Criminal defamation laws, however, have increasingly been used as a remedy for individuals who believe that they have been wronged by the words of another person. More often than not, these individuals hold public offices and use criminal defamation laws to obtain political power, stifle opposition, and silence dissenting voices. Hence, criminal defamation laws have been used as a public enforcement for private, instead of a public ills.  Criminal laws, therefore, should only be used to address harmful behaviour which disturbs a society’s sense of security. A personal calumny can hardly be categorized as behaviour disturbing the community’s sense of security.

In solidarity,

Anselmo Lee
Executive Director

For further information, please contact Emerlynne Gil, Program Officer of the Human Rights Defenders Programme (email: [email protected], tel. no. +66 (0)2 391 8801 ext. 605).