Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry has asked all non-governmental organisations in the country to prevent “unauthorised activities” with immediate effect.

Amid concerns from civil society groups here over diminishing free speech in the country, the new directive bars NGOs from holding press conference and training programmes observing that the activities were beyond their mandate.

The National Secretariat for Non Governmental Organisations, which functions under the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, said in a letter dated July 1, 2014, that: “ It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organizations conduct press conferences, workshops, training for journalists, and dissemination of press releases which is beyond their mandate.”

Taking objection to the letter, the Lawyers’ Collective here has said it is the Defence Ministry that has acted beyond its mandate. “Only authoritarian regimes prevent such democratic engagements,” it said in a statement issued on Monday. The MoD letter, it said, was an indication of the limited understanding of the powerful Sri Lankan establishment on civil liberties.

The MoD’s release, the Collective said, further strengthened the allegation that Sri Lanka has now become an authoritarian state, something that outgoing Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay also expressed concern over, during her August 2013 visit to the island.

In March this year, Sri Lankan police arrested prominent human rights activist Ruki Fernando and Catholic priest Father Praveen in Kilinochchi under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. They were allegedly engaged in a fact-finding exercise in the former war zone.

At that time, during the 25th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, international rights watchdogs, including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists and the International Crisis Group, jointly issued a strong statement demanding their immediate release. After considerable international pressure, the activists were released after being questioned by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID).

More recently, an angry mob disrupted a workshop for Tamil journalists organist by Transparency International, threatening participants with severe consequences.