Sri Lanka’s history of media ownership, especially state-owned media, dates back to the British colonial period, where Sinhala and Tamil language papers, such as Lankaloka and Illangai Pathukavalan, began as a response to the colonial control over ownership and content. Growing independence movements eventually led to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, achieving dominion status in 1948. In 1972, Ceylon became a republic and changed its name to Sri Lanka. Since independence, media outlets rendering content in Sinhala and Tamil have increased. Although the colonial administration’s ownership of media was criticised, the post-independent government has seemingly adopted similar measures of state-ownership – and by extension – control over media.
By way of monopolising the media sphere, the government took steps towards nationalising key media institutions from as early as the 1960s. The dynamics of state control over media notably shifted, taking stronger steps from media ownership towards regulation with the second insurgency in 1987 led by the left-wing party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and the armed conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the state. As an alleged trigger to the killing of 13 state soldiers by the LTTE, the armed conflict between the two forces began in July 1983. Prior to this however, there were several points of contention between Sinhala-inclined and Tamil-inclined politicians, including the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956 (Sinhala Only Act). After a brutal 26-year period of violence, the LTTE was militarily defeated by the state in May 2009. While measures were taken to increase the privatisation of media during this time, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency and armed conflict with the LTTE became instances to justify the need for greater state regulation.
Entering the political sphere under the mandate of ‘good governance’, the current government has recurrently emphasised the importance of protecting fundamental freedoms, including media freedom. However, the plurality of ownership and opinion remains a pertinent concern even in the post-war landscape.
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