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COLOMBO (Reuters) - The Sri Lankan government's proposed code of ethics for the media is a threat to free speech, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
The code calls for censorship of material affecting foreign relations, promoting "anti-national" attitudes or undermining the integrity of the executive, judiciary and legislative branches of the state.
The HRW said the proposals were part of a sustained campaign to control the media and curtail dissent.
"Sri Lankan journalists are already under enormous pressure not to be critical of the government, and the vagueness of this code will likely lead to greater self-censorship to avoid government retaliation," said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
The Ministry of Mass Media and Information denied the proposals would suppress media freedoms, saying the code would be purely voluntary and not legally binding.
"It's not a piece of legislation, just an understanding among the journalists to practice and promote decency," Mass Media and Information minister Keheliya Rambukwella told Reuters. "This shows how misleading HRW is."
Political violence has eased since Sri Lanka's military crushed the Tamil rebellion in 2009, but international human rights groups say attacks on those critical of the government persist.
In April, three armed men set fire to the printing machine of a Tamil-language newspaper critical of the Sri Lankan government, forcing it to halt publication.
Some journalists have left Sri Lanka after being either threatened or abducted and attacked by unidentified groups.
The government has shut down several websites critical of it. Rights groups accused the government of preventing media from reporting from Tamil areas during the final stage of the war. The government has rejected all the allegations.
(Writing by Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez; editing by Andrew Roche)