Acting Police Chief Chandana Wickremaratne.

Two separate groups are protesting the orders of the Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP), made public on April 1 this year, that action be taken against anyone who points out minor shortcomings, failures, criticises, scolds or chastise government officials and departments engaged in dealing with issues arising from COVID-19.

Through a letter dated April 5, 2020, the Sri Lanka Young Journalists Association has lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka against the Acting IGP Chandana Wickremaratne and Director of the Police Media Division Jaliya Seneviratne, requesting the Commission to immediately investigate the order given by the Acting IGP and halt any actions against freedom of expression as well as make recommendations against efforts to incite racial hatred and promote  conflict between the communities.

The Young Journalists Association claims that the order by the Acting IGP implies that the State and or the Police are preparing to violate the right to freedom of expression, a fundamental right that is guaranteed in the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Their letter also states that, it is not the right of the police to determine whether or not, any failure or shortcoming on the part of a government official is a minor issue.  They further add that pointing out and critiquing the conduct of government departments and officials are extremely important in safeguarding democracy.

The Association cites several court cases where the right to freedom of expression has been upheld.  While acknowledging the importance of combatting the spread of fake news and hate speech in the midst of a global pandemic, the journalists state, that it should not be used as an excuse to control freedom of speech.  Regulations in the country are strong enough to combat the spread of hate speech and racial hatred, however, any attempt to use those laws to prevent criticism of state officials is of grave concern, they state.

Meanwhile, writing directly to the Acting IGP a group of 46 individuals and 9 organisations have pointed out that the IGP’s instructions, released through the Police Media Division ‘adversely impact the freedom of expression, particularly the expression of dissent.”   The letter copied to Defence Secretary,  Kamal Gunaratne, the Chairperson of the National Police Commission and to the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka,  points out that civic minded citizens must question the action or inaction of state officers, and such attempts should not be interpreted as an obstruction of their duties.

While acknowledging that false and malicious information must be countered, and those hindering the work of State officers must be dealt with, the notice from the Police to act against those who criticise shortcomings  is, the group states,  an “unreasonable wielding of state power, and interferes with the civic duty to call the state and its agents to account.’  It further state that ‘curtailing of freedom and abuse of power cannot be justified and plays no role in dealing with the pandemic.’

Calling on the acting IGP to revoke his order, the group points out that there is “no provision in the law that authorizes the arrest of those ‘criticising’ the State.  They say that the police should use the laws currently in existence to deal with offences such as threatening a State official.   The group is urging the Acting IGP to, instead, use the full extent of the law against anyone who is inciting ‘hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’ against certain religious and ethnic communities, and blames them for increasing the spread of COVID, thereby making them vulnerable to threats, intimidation and violence.’

The full statements of the two groups can be read here:

Letter to HRC and Others

Letter to Actg IGP re notice issued by Police Media Division


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