Media watchdog slams suspended jail term for Sri Lanka editor

Place: Sr Lanka | Courtesy: AFP
| Date: 20000906

COLOMBO, Sept 6 (AFP) - An international media rights organisation Wednesday slammed the Sri Lankan government for prosecuting an editor on criminal defamation charges for which he was given a two year suspended jail sentence.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it condemned the sentencing and asked President Chandrika Kumaratunga to make good on her promise to repeal draconian laws against media freedom.

"No journalist should ever face the threat of jail for something he or she writes," CPJ's executive director Ann Cooper said.

Colombo High Court judge Andrew Somawansa on Tuesday sentenced Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of the Sunday leader newspaper, to two years imprisonment suspended for five years for an article he published in September

Wickrematunga said he would appeal against the judgement.

In terms of the sentence he will not be jailed now but if he is convicted of another offence within five years he will have to serve the two years in addition to whatever punishment is handed down for the new offence.

State prosecutors argued that the Sunday leader article headlined "Promising Government" had implied that the president was corrupt and therefore amounted to criminal defamation of the head of state.

Wickrematunga said the article sought to analyse the pledges of Kumaratunga's government as it marked its first year in office and denied he implied the president was corrupt.

The CPJ said that with the potential jail term hanging over his head, Wickrematunga was bound to think twice before writing anything critical of the government.

"The press should be given the widest possible latitude to criticise public officials," Cooper said. "If criminal defamation laws can be used by a president to silence journalists, the media will not be able to play its watchdog role."

Wickrematunga is the second newspaper editor in recent years to be prosecuted under the penal code for "criminal defamation", a draconian provision in the law which Kumaratunga's government itself had pledged to remove during its 1994 election campaign.

The editor of another weekly, Sinha Ratnatunga, was convicted on charges of criminally defaming the president in July 1997 and given a one-year jail term, suspended for seven years. His appeal is pending.

He was charged over a gossip column item which his paper later admitted was incorrect. He challenged the criminal liability of the editor because the report was part of a gossip column.