Sri Lanka to censor news alerts about military, police

COLOMBO Mon Mar 12, 2012 11:34am EDT

A women sells newspapers discussing the parliamentary elections a day after Sri Lanka voted for a new parliament in Colombo April 9 , 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

A women sells newspapers discussing the parliamentary elections a day after Sri Lanka voted for a new parliament in Colombo April 9 , 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

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COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's Defense Ministry on Monday ordered news outlets to get prior approval before sending mobile phone alerts about the military or police, a move press freedom groups decried as another step towards greater censorship.

In a letter hand-delivered to news outlets including Reuters, Media Center for National Security (MCNS) Director-General Lakshman Hulugalle said the new order was effective immediately.

"I have been instructed to inform you that any news related to national security, security forces, and the police should get prior approval from the MCNS before dissemination," Hulugalle said in the letter, dated last Friday.

That was the same day local news outlets reported a murder-suicide that left three soldiers dead of gunshot wounds. It also came after reports of a police officer's arrest for soliciting a large bribe, and a botched abduction attempt blamed on soldiers.

The MCNS comes under the defense ministry, and handles the public affairs function for the military and police.

Contacted by Reuters, Hulugalle denied there were any restrictions on what could be reported.

"But we want to know what's going to be disseminated before it is being disseminated," he said.

The new directive is the latest control imposed on news and information websites. The government is increasingly intolerant of criticism, and Sri Lanka has in recent years headed further down lists measuring international press freedom rankings.

"This is the first step in going for wider censorship," said Sunil Jayasekara, the head of Sri Lanka's Free Media Movement.

In November, the government required news websites to register with the Media Ministry, a month after it blocked some sites critical of the government.

The Indian Ocean island nation's government first blocked some websites linked to the Tamil Tiger separatists during the final phase of a 25-year civil war, arguing the ban was acceptable in a time of war, but the bans have grown since the end of the war in 2009.

(Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

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