Sri Lanka accused of trying to gag NGOs

Transparency International claims government letter to groups banning press conferences is an effort to silence them.

Government has maintained a frosty relationship with NGOs that side with the UN [Dinouk Colombage/Al Jazeera]

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Activists in Sri Lanka have accused the government of trying to silence the voice of civil society groups by imposing what they call “illegitimate” new regulations.

In July, officials wrote to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) prohibiting them from holding press conferences and workshops for journalists and from circulating press releases.

“The new orders are an attempt by the government to gag NGOs and stop them from carrying out their work,” according to J Chrishantha Weliamuna, the chairman of Transparency International Sri Lanka.

“The civil society mandate does not derive from the government but rather from the constitution,” he told Al Jazeera. “Attempts to introduce new regulations and laws goes against both the constitution of the country and international law.”

‘Fight against corruption’

Sri Lanka has an obligation under Article 13 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which it ratified in 2004, “to promote the active participation of [civil society] … in the prevention of and the fight against corruption”.

In its letter to the NGOs, the country’s National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations, which operates under the aegis of the defence ministry, wrote: “It has been revealed that certain Non-Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, training for journalists, and dissemination of press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that all Non-Governmental Organisations should prevent from such unauthorised activities with immediate effect.”

Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasuriya, a spokesman for the ministry of defence, insisted that the letter was not an attempt to silence these groups.

He told journalists that it did not signal that new laws were being imposed but merely sought to remind them of their responsibilities under existing obligations.

“The NGO sector is being reminded to adhere to the existing laws of the country,” he said. “NGOs can continue to operate provided they are within their stated objective at the time of registration.”

However, Saman Dissanayake, the director of the country’s NGO secretariat, confirmed to Al Jazeera that the government was in the process of drafting new laws to monitor NGOs and NPOs (non-profit organisations) but refused to elaborate.

“The existing laws in the country provide an adequate framework to ensure NGOs act within the legal system. All registered NGOs are required to provide details of their staff, funding and objectives yearly to the secretariat,” Weliamuna said.

Weliamuna believes the new laws represent an attempt by the government to curb the autonomy of the NGOs in the country.

“There are two types of NGOs operating in the country, advocacy NGOs and developmental organisations,” he said.

“By curbing their activities the government is attempting to silence defenders of democracy while leaving the people reliant solely on the authorities for development.”

Nonetheless, Weliamuna believes civil society is unlikely to abide by any new rules: “If a new law regarding NGOs is brought in through a democratic method we will study it and make a decision; until then we will continue to operate as we have been as we are not breaking the law.”

Attacks and intimidation

Since the end of the country’s civil war the Sri Lankan government has maintained a frosty relationship with civil society groups and NGOs that have sided with the UN in its calls for credible war crime investigations.

The government has continued to oppose any interference by the UN, while accusing civil society groups of unpatriotic acts, and members of the ruling coalition have openly attacked activists for “campaigning against the government”.

Lack of trust slows Sri Lanka’s reconciliation

Civil society organisations in Sri Lanka have come under increasing pressure in recent months from attacks and intimidation by mobs, and so far this year, events organised by NGOs have been disrupted by protesters on five separate occasions.

In August, a meeting of family members of the disappeared was disrupted by a mob accusing them of being supporters of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

Britto Fernando, one of the organisers of the meeting, told Al Jazeera at the time that the event had been a private function and was not open to the public.

“We had not invited media to the event as this was a private function,” he said. “When the protesters forcibly entered the premises and threatened all who were in attendance the police were notified. They refused to remove the protesters and instead sided with them demanding that we end the meeting.”

The meeting had also been attended by staff from the US embassy, who later released a statement expressing concern about the disruption of the event.

A police spokesman, SSP Ajith Rohana, said that the organisers had not informed them about the meeting and, as a result, they could not provide protection.

He denied that the police took the side of the protesters, but added that they had asked that the meeting be stopped as it was a cause of tension.

Earlier this year, training workshops organised by Transparency International for Tamil journalists were disrupted on two separate occasions.

On the first occasion in Ma,y organisers were informed by hotel staff that orders received from the ministry of defence meant they could no longer host them. Another attempt to conduct the workshop in June was disrupted by a mob.

Weliamuna accused the government of attempting to block freedom of expression, especially that of Tamil journalists. “The government fails to see the difference between freedom of speech and national security,” he said.

Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella strongly denied allegations that the government is seeking to curb the autonomy of NGOs.

He denied that the government had been involved in cancelling the May workshop – but said protests against such meetings would not be stopped if they do not break the law.

Rambukwella said: “NGOs lend a great deal of assistance to the upkeep of a country. However, they must be governed by laws like every other aspect of our society.”

Follow Dinouk Colombage on Twitter: @dinoukc

Source: Al Jazeera