On September 6, Colombo District Judge Sandun Withana issued an order emphasising that the Constitution of Sri Lanka and several local and foreign Court rulings guarantee the media and journalists’ right to disclose information that they ought to be aware of and that should be made known to the general public.
The Court’s verdict was delivered following a comprehensive review of the case filed by the President and Vice President of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) against Silumina journalist Fauz Mohammed and the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd (ANCL).
SLC President Shammi Silva and Vice President Raveen Wickramaratne filed this case in response to a news article published in the Silumina newspaper and on the same website. They had sought compensation totaling Rs. one billion.
On June 26, during the court proceedings, the plaintiff presented their evidence. Subsequently, the Court issued three injunctions, which prevented the Silumina newspaper, the www.silumina website, and associated Silumina social media accounts from disseminating and promoting any information or statements related to SLC and its officials. Subsequently, the injunctions were extended on two later occasions.
The ANCL filed objections against the injunction on July 25, requesting the dismissal of the case without proceeding to trial.
The objections raised by ANCL emphasised that the publication of articles in its newspaper concerning SLC served the purpose of disclosing factual information for public benefit. These objections indicated that the articles were published with the aim of ensuring a fair judgement and upholding the public’s right to access information. Furthermore, it was stated that there was no intention to harm the complainants or any other individuals through these publications.
The objections emphasised that the articles contested by the plaintiffs were published in accordance with the findings of the committee led by former High Court Judge Kusala Sarojani Weerawardena, who was appointed by the Sports Minister.
After reviewing the arguments put forth by the plaintiffs and the objections raised by the defendants regarding the requested Interim Order, the Colombo District Court issued its decision on September 6.
In a 14-page judgement, District Judge Sandun Withana stated that the plaintiffs had failed to establish a strong case against the ANCL and journalist Fauz Mohammed, who were named as defendants.
Hence, the previously issued injunctions were revoked, and the court rejected the request for further interim injunctions made by the plaintiffs.
The judgement emphasised that the published news aimed at revealing information regarding the alleged misuse of financial regulations and the expected high level of financial discipline within the administrative structure of a sport highly regarded by the public.
The order also highlighted that SLC had failed to provide evidence to the committee headed by Kusala Sarojani Weerawardane despite receiving summons.
The decision has also highlighted that the plaintiffs have not provided any reasonable explanation regarding the investigation report of the Committee appointed by the Sports Minister and its revelations.
According to Article 14 of the Constitution, a broad approach has been given to the freedom of speech, and the Court also stressed the people’s right to access information.
The Court noted that Article 14(1) of the Constitution states that every citizen has the right to access information, and it has been emphasised in the second section that this right should not be restricted except by laws related to National Security or the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The District Judge highlighted that the right to a fair trial, supported by accurate and just information, can be undermined by an Interim Injunction only when the plaintiff not only proves that a particular defendant has defamed them but also demonstrates that the defendant has made a substantial and acceptable contribution to the defamation.
The Court ruling, citing Section 54 of the Judicial Organization Act have emphasised this point. Furthermore, it was emphasised that in cases where these conditions are not met, there would be no basis for a fair trial.
This judgement emphasised that the right to express opinions should be exercised for the public good and not with wrong or ulterior motives.
The court said Lord Denning’s judgement in the case of the Sunday Times highlights that every person has the right to access correct and factual information, and this right is even more strongly confirmed in the case of media and newspapers. Interim Orders should not prevent this right, the judgement said.
The District Judge noted that Lord Denning emphasised in that judgement that even if a news item might cause prejudice, if the news serves a greater cause of justice and good for the public, such information and news reports should not be prevented from being published.
The District Judge, citing several court decisions regarding newspaper news published for the benefit of the public, asserted that the Court should refrain from issuing Interim Orders that would deprive the people of their right to access accurate information.