Sri Lankan Press Freedom Crushed Following Return Of Rajapaksa

Editorial independence was lost in just a half hour at The Sunday Observer, the weekly English-language newspaper where until a week ago well-known Sri Lankan journalist Dharisha Bastians served as editor.

On October 26, at 7.30pm local time, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new prime minister in an unconstitutional swoop on the premiership endorsed by President Maithripala Sirisena. Thirty minutes later, his supporters stormed state media publications that since Mr Rajapaksa’s presidential election defeat in 2015 had experienced greater press freedom than ever.

Led by a former information minister, trade unionists from Mr Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party entered newsrooms across Colombo’s Lake House, Sri Lanka’s version of Britain’s Broadcasting House, taking control of five newspapers. They are now run by Rajapaksa loyalists. Posters of Mr Rajapaksa next to Mr Sirisena are splashed on the front of the building.

For government-controlled organisations to switch allegiances with a new government is normal in Sri Lanka, but those who were present say this was different to previous transitions; a forceful takeover before parliament has confirmed Mr Rajapaksa as prime minister.

“They started marching along the corridors, these big men in shorts,” said Bastians, who also works as a correspondent for The New York Times. “They started going into editorial [newsrooms], changing pages, cartoons, editorials, everything,” she said. “We thought it would be more streamlined. But this was a hostile takeover.”

Pro-Rajapaksa enforcers also took over two public TV channels, Rupavahini and ITN, threatening to attack its deputy editor Subhash Jayawardena if he did not leave.

The Rajapaksa heavies also forced scared staff at three newspapers to lavish front-page praise on the new prime minister for muscling his way back to power.

A day later, they asked that Bastians surrender editorial control of the Observer for its Sunday edition. A minister in Mr Rajapaksa’s team called the paper, telling a staffer: “I hope you know who took over as prime minister yesterday.” Bastians quit the same day.

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