COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka has blocked five news websites because they committed character assassination and insulted people including key political leaders, officials said Monday.
Media groups criticized the moves as undemocratic, and the U.S. Embassy recently raised concerns about press freedom in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan laws do not restrict the press from criticizing leaders, but media can be charged for defamation.
The five sites blocked since Saturday were publishing reports that amount to "character assassination and violating individual privacy," Information and Media Ministry Secretary W.B. Ganegala said Monday.
Many complaints were made against the sites, and the ministry collected their published reports for some time and decided to block them, he said.
The government did not describe what content it opposed, but the five sites have published material critical of the government and have raised allegations of corruption and malfeasance against politicians. No information was given on how the sites can challenge the action or if or when they will be unblocked.
The Telecommunication Regulatory Commission blocked www.lankaenews.com, srilankamirror.com, srilankaguardian.com, paparacigossip9.com and www.lankawaynews.com, commission Director General Anusha Palpita said.
A government release separately asked websites to register with the media ministry and appealed to them to adhere to media ethics and to Sri Lankan law. The requirement is new for websites, while older media formats such as newspapers, radio and television already have to register before they start publishing.
It also said some sites had published reports damaging the character of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ministers and senior government officials.
Kelum Shivantha, the editor of srilankanmirror.com, said blocking the site was unfair as it always gave fair coverage.
"We published our reports independently and accurately. We always presented the both sides of the story," Shivantha said. "No one has complained against us. We have not yet been informed about the reason for blocking our website."
The government was deviating from its responsibility to strengthen democracy, said Gnanasiri Kottigoda, acting president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association.
"The government is trying to block the peoples' right to access information," Kottigoda said. "This is not democracy, and also it's a useless effort as the new information technology has the capability to beat those censorships."
The government or any person affected by the websites' content could take legal action "if they have done anything wrong. But blocking is not an acceptable solution."
Of the five sites, lankaenews is highly critical of the government and has been blocked previously. A number of threats and attacks have been made against it in recent years.
A columnist for the website has been missing for more than a year. The website's office was set on fire earlier this year and lankaenews blamed the government for the attack.
The U.S. Embassy in Colombo said last week it was deeply concerned. The statement called on Sri Lankan authorities and telecommunications firms "to stop activities aimed at blocking free access in Sri Lanka to all legitimate media websites, including Lanka-e-News."