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Sri Lanka bans NGO news conferences, releases

July 9, 2014

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka has banned civil activist groups from holding news conferences and training for journalists, with the organizations rejecting the move as unconstitutional.

J.C. Weliamuna, a lawyer from the Civil Society Collective, an umbrella organization, said Wednesday that the defense ministry’s order is “absolutely unconstitutional” and violates the public’s rights of freedom of association and expression. He called it a “continuation of threats on civil society.”

A defense and urban development ministry notice dated July 1 ordered nongovernmental organizations to desist from conducting “press conferences, workshops, training for journalists and dissemination of press releases,” saying such acts are “unauthorized” and “beyond their mandate.”

Groups received the notice Monday, and The Associated Press saw it on Wednesday.

Weliamuna told reporters that the directive is not based on any legal provision. “This is a directive of some public servant and no one is bound by this,” he said.

Sudarshana Gunawardana, also from the collective, said, “We reject this announcement. It’s an illegal document made going beyond the mandate and hence we challenge it.”

U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement that the “order undermines Sri Lanka’s longstanding and proud democratic traditions, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”

Last month, corruption watchdog Transparency International Sri Lanka accused the government of disrupting the group’s training program for journalists from the country’s former civil war zone, accusing participants of being agents for the defeated Tamil Tiger separatists.

The training on corruption-related investigative reporting was for ethnic Tamil journalists from the country’s north and east. The journalists, however, were evicted from two training venues, Transparency International said, adding that the participants were also forced out of their hotel at night.

The defense ministry rejected the allegation of disrupting the training.

Sri Lanka’s military has been accused of excessive interference in civil matters since the country’s quarter-century civil war ended five years ago.

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