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Sri Lanka, November 2019 – Media4Democracy and consortium partner European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) carried out a two-week mission to Sri Lanka in October identifying ways the EU Delegation can help strengthen freedom of expression there, and to work with the EU Delegation to finalising parallel work already underway for Maldives.

In May, a Media4Democracy Team had completed two weeks of field research in Maldives for an assessment with recommendations for action in Maldives – where the EU Delegation provides support but does not have a permanent presence.

At the start of the Sri Lanka visit, the Media4Democracy Expert Team used a political economy approach to analyse media institutional dynamics and structural reform needs, many of which have long been identified but failed to materialised, as well as to find possible entry points for the EU Delegation to engage on.

Over the past decade, Sri Lanka has received significant media support to promote stabilization in a post-war context marked by enduring ethno-religious tensions. Concern has moved to the curbing of hate speech on social media, which the authorities have held responsible for recent violent incidents.

In the broader context, the liberalisation of the political space since 2015 elections has not yet curbed media self-censorship which still prevails in the media sector, as physical insecurity is being replaced by digital safety concerns and because most media actors echo political interests and funding. Many Sri Lankan media professionals still lament the state dominance over the sector’s regulatory framework. They also criticize the monopolistic ownership of independent media houses that limits competition, the relatively poor media education available and the unstable labour conditions in the media sector.

Following the week of research by Media4Democracy in Sri Lanka, the second week of the field mission was devoted to training for the EU Delegation, Member States and like-minded partners focused on institutional dynamics that underpin media pluralism, contextualised to both the Maldives and Sri Lankan realities. Additionally, EU Delegation strategic planning sessions were held leveraging assessments recommendations from both countries as the foundations to discuss options for engaging alongside the government, civil society and the media on matters relate to freedom of expression.

This mission also provided an opportunity to host with the EU Delegation a workshop bringing together a panel of young Sri Lankan media professionals and civil activists working for online pure players, digital agencies, creative and tech incubators and some NGO supporting youth and citizen journalism. Overall, it proved lively exchanges among participants who do not often engage, let alone collaborate, and who could become interesting interlocutors for the EU Delegation over time.