Sri Lanka ordered news websites Saturday to register with the Media Ministry, in what critics called a further step toward restricting media after the banning of an anti-government site last month.

It's a request from the Media Ministry to register (news) websites with the ministry, said Director General of the government's Information Department Ariyarathna Athugala.

He declined to comment on the reason for the measure.

Sri Lanka's Telecommunication Regulation Commission, last month blocked access within Sri Lanka to the anti-government Lanka-e-News ( website, which carried news critical of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers.

The United States Embassy said it was deeply concerned over the banning of the site.

The United States believes that a free and independent media is vital to ensuring the health and continuation of any democracy. Freedom of expression, including unfettered access to internet news websites, is a basic right which must be respected, it said in a statement.

We therefore call on the Sri Lankan authorities and the management of Sri Lankan telecommunications firms to stop activities aimed at blocking free access in Sri Lanka to all legitimate media websites, including Lanka-e-News.

In May, the Sri Lankan government imposed a ban on Lanka-e-News for publishing false news. A court lifted the ban after accepting the website's apology.

The island nation's government initially blocked news websites during the final phase of a 25-year war against separatists Tamil Tiger rebels, banning the rebels' main propaganda website in 2008.

The government defeated the rebels in May 2009, but continued the ban on anti-government websites from time to time.

I don't see any necessity for registering. There is enough room under the normal law to prevent obscene and unethical publications, Kusal Perera, a government critic and director of the Center for Social Democracy, told Reuters.

This is just to hunt down the dissent.

(Reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Shihar Aneez)