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Sri Lanka tells NGOs to keep quiet

Government ministry issues directive telling organizations to not hold press conferences or work with journalists

The government of Sri Lanka has issued a directive to NGOs operating in the country, telling them not to hold press conferences or conduct workshops and trainings for journalists, deeming such activities by organizations to be “beyond their mandate.” 

The notice, issued by the National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organizations, which operates under the Ministry of Defense & Urban Development, stated that all NGOs should steer clear of “such unauthorized activities with immediate effect,” a warning that was quickly condemned by NGOs as unconstitutional. 

“All governments that respect democratic values respect the rights of citizens to engage in such lawful activities,” anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) said in a release. “Only authoritarian regimes prevent such democratic engagements.”

Alan Keenan, senior Sri Lanka analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera that it's a bit unclear what the directive, which was distributed to organizations Monday, was really intended to do. 

“It has not been enforced to my knowledge, nobody has been shut down," Keenan said. “I don’t know how far they intend to go,” he said, adding, “It is consistent with years of hostility from the government [and military] toward the work of NGOs."

The issuance of the directive by the government comes after a training program, conducted last month by TISL for ethnic Tamil journalists, focused on investigative reporting against bribery, corruption and good governance. The organizers were forced to relocate the event multiple times, which the group blamed on the government's efforts to intimidate it into canceling the training altogether.

NGOs 'irritate' government

At the time of the training, TISL said that the government claimed the journalists being trained were agents of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the armed group that battled Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist-dominated government for more than 25 years in an attempt to build a separate state for the country’s Tamil minority. The LTTE was defeated in May 2009. 

The conflict is believed to be responsible for more than 70,000 deaths over that period, and earlier this year, the U.N. Human Rights Council approved an international criminal investigation into alleged human-rights abuses on both sides of the bloody conflict. 

But TISL, which said the same workshop had been conducted for Sinhalese language journalists earlier, said that all the journalists who took part in the training were registered and accredited with Sri Lanka’s ministry of Mass Media and Information, adding that if any of the journalists were LTTE representatives, the government “should then take responsibility for it.” 

Rukshana Nanayakkara, the regional outreach manager for the Asia Pacific region at Transparency International, said the actions taken by the Sri Lankan government represented fear of the ability of NGOs to share information with the outside world. 

“It is a way of showing their paranoia,” he said.

Keenan, for his part, said that from the government’s perspective, NGOs provide one of the only sources of independent news and analysis from Sri Lanka to the international community and that the government has already had success in stifling the media and restricting certain Internet websites. And while Nanayakkara said that NGOs don’t pose any kind of existential threat to the government, certain organizations “do irritate them.” 

'Petty politics'

Nevertheless, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense & Urban Planning said that the perception that the directive was an attempt to restrain the work of NGOs was “false information disseminated to misguide the public,” according to a release on the ministry’s website. The statement did not provide further details. 

Despite the government's denial of nefarious intentions, the directive prompted a warning from the U.S. State Department on Tuesday. 

“This order undermines Sri Lanka’s longstanding and proud democratic traditions, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. We strongly urge the Government of Sri Lanka to allow civil society organizations and NGOs, which play a vital role in supporting Sri Lanka’s democratic values, to operate freely,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a press release. 

The Civil Society Collective, an umbrella organization of NGOs that includes TISL, released a statement Wednesday stating that the Sri Lankan constitution “clearly protects freedom of speech and association.” 

“We, the Civil Society Collective vehemently condemn all efforts to deprive this right. While we also condemn the inaction of the government to protect civil society in such a situation, we intend on taking all possible action,” the group said. 

Ultimately, Nanayakkara said those NGOs and groups focused on building houses, addressing health-care needs and carrying out other vital functions in the development sector wouldn’t face problems. Rather, he explained, the government seems keen on targeting NGOs who focus on political and democracy issues, which he reiterated speaks to their paranoia. 

"They need to deal with the investigation by the U.N., deal with the core issues and not come to the NGOs with vengeance,” he said. “I think it’s petty politics on the part of the government.” 

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