FMM Request to review of the 20A before endorsing it.

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Democracy, media freedom and freedom of expression in peril-

Free Media Movement

The 20th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution bill, which poses serious challenges to Sri Lanka’s status as a democracy, to media freedom and freedom of expression, is scheduled to be taken up for debate in Parliament on October 21, and put to a vote after a scant two days of debate, on October 22.

The Free Media Movement (FMM) is deeply concerned about the impending threat the bill poses to constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, including media freedom, and the checks and balances placed on the President and government to ensure good governance.

The 20th Amendment bill removes the democratic features and structures created by the 19th Amendment and enhances presidential immunity, rendering the president beyond legal reach even after he leaves office. It vests in him the power to dissolve Parliament (after one year), appoint ministers and fire the prime minister and appoint all commissions, judges, the attorney general and the auditor general. It also reintroduces emergency legislation, which alienate the public with passing bills within 24 hours.

One of the major issues that could pose serious challenge to the right to freedom of expression and media freedom under the 20th Amendment bill is the fate of the independent commissions, which may no longer be independent. The commissions, with their members appointed through the Constitutional Council, ensure an independent pubic service, police force, judiciary, public finance oversight, free and fair elections, right to information and corruption investigation.    The 20th Amendment replaces the Constitutional Council with the Parliamentary Council that has no civil society representation and no decision making powers, and gives the President discretionary powers to appoint and remove members of the commissions placing their independence at risk.

Of particular concern is Right to Information (RTI), the framework of which could be severely compromised by the 20th Amendment.  The RTI Act stipulates the Commission must be appointed by the Constitutional Council, but the Amendment replaces it with the Parliamentary Council, which will not be able to make recommendations given its limited scope and powers, thus putting the operationality of RTI at risk.

Also of concern is the independence of the Election Commission in the context of free and fair elections in the future, and whether there will be space for dissent and public opinion, and media freedom that ensure balanced and impartial coverage.

Political appointments to the Independent Commissions, which are more likely under Parliamentary Council with limited oversight capacity, is likely to hamper media and other freedoms enjoyed in a democracy.   If the appointments of police chiefs, judges including the chief justice, and officials to high offices in the country become politically tainted,  violations to human rights including freedom of expression and media freedom become inevitable.

Many provisions in the 20th Amendment bill endanger the democratic freedoms enjoyed by the public and freedoms exercised by the media. The FMM seek to petition the Prime Minister and all Members of Parliament to review and seriously reconsider provisions of the Amendment bill before endorsing it to law.