Sri Lanka tells NGOs 'no press conferences'

Sri Lanka tells NGOs 'no press conferences'
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (front) walks with Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison (back C) in Colombo July 9, 2014 during a ceremony commissioning two Australian-gifted naval patrol boats that will be deployed for preventing people smuggling operations.

COLOMBO - Sri Lanka has banned non-government organisations from holding press conferences under a new order from the defence ministry seen by AFP on Wednesday, raising new fears for freedom of speech.

The order, sent widely to civil society groups earlier this month, said all NGOs should refrain from "unauthorised activities with immediate effect".

"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," said the letter.

A group of 30 private charities and other organisations on Wednesday announced an alliance - called the Civil Society Collective to Protect Civil Society Space - to resist the restrictions.

"This demonstrates the lack of democracy in Sri Lanka," lawyer J.C. Weliamuna, who runs the local chapter of anti-corruption group Transparency International, told AFP.

Authorities have often accused foreign and local charities of supporting dissidents and introduced tougher regulations to control them in 2010, a year after troops crushed Tamil rebels and ended decades of ethnic war

Weliamuna said his organisation would continue its work monitoring corruption and exposing wrongdoers. He said other NGOs would also defy the order.

Several media training programs organised by Transparency International in recent months were disrupted by pro-government activists, he said.

The group had also been prevented from conducting workshops to teach investigative journalism to local reporters.

Last August, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay accused Sri Lanka of becoming "increasingly authoritarian" under President Mahinda Rajapakse, who has extended his powers since being elected in 2005.

Rights groups have long sought to highlight problems for the media in Sri Lanka, where many journalists practise self-censorship after more than a dozen journalists and media workers were killed in recent years.

The US government expressed concern at the crackdown on NGOs.

"We strongly urge the government of Sri Lanka to allow civil society organisations and NGOs, which play a vital role in supporting Sri Lanka's democratic values, to operate freely," the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement released in Colombo.

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