For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
For a Government on a tidal wave of popularity, backed by a largely friendly media, the re-activation of the draconian 1973 Press Council Law which has the powers to send publishers and journalists to jail must surely mean that it sees imaginary demons ahead.
The immediate reaction from the country’s eight most influential media unions of publishers, editors, working journalists, workers and activists has been one of shock, resentment, opposition and to a great degree, disappointment.
Here was a President who prided himself on being a progressive politician. As an Opposition politician, he waxed eloquent – like all Opposition politicians do – on behalf of media freedom. In power and place, he maintained a stony silence when his then ‘Boss’ dragged journalists to court like a serial litigant, but quietly empathised with the victims. They, in-turn were sympathetic to his cause while he climbed to the zenith of the greasy pole of politics. Has he, alas, gone the same way as all politicians do?
So, why is the government jittery? Has the President abandoned his progressive credentials by back-peddling to an era that was left behind in 2002 with the deactivation of the statutory Press Council for a self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission? What is the insecurity that bedevils him and his government?
This archaic law’s provisions effectively ban the reporting of matters as sweeping as those that can be deemed by the Council to be detrimental to the economy of the country – like monetary, exchange-control matters (like the negotiations for the IMF loan for instance); the reporting of cabinet proceedings; use contempt proceedings against journalists; mete out punishment for any advertisement which is “calculated to injure public morality”; “any matter” that is prejudicial to ‘national security’ etc.
The re-activation of the Press Council was not even made public until the media associations heard about it, and protested this week. The lame explanations by the two Ministers of Information and Media have not helped.
They say the Press Council was re-activated because the Parliamentary Committee COPE asked why the Press Council office was functioning if the Council itself was not. They say the Press Complaints Commission is an independent ‘NGO’ and can remain side-by-side with the Press Council. Typically, they politicise the whole issue and say that the solitary UNP MP did not object to the re-activation of the Press Council, etc.
Media practitioners are not interested in the partisan politics of this issue. Of all people, it is an MP who was in the UNP once who is even making this statement. We all know that the UNP despite its vehement objections to the Press Council did nothing to abolish it in its entire 17 years in office from 1977-94.
This is a national issue that impacts on all citizens of this country. This Law was set aside (though not repealed) in 2002 by the unanimous vote of Parliament. It was a bi-partisan apolitical decision taken by all political parties. The President was then the Leader of the Opposition, and the two Media Ministers were Members of Parliament. The whole House voted together. All political parties agreed after much consultation, to a process whereby the newspapers of this country would abide by a voluntary self-regulatory system which was later put into motion in 2003. And now, the Government has secretly reneged on that agreement without consulting the stakeholders – the media and the public.
The modern democratic world is moving away from regulating the media, instead giving space to free speech and expression and the exchange of ideas and information; opening new vistas of knowledge. While the world moves ahead with Information Technology, and laws like the Freedom of Information Act, Sri Lanka has opted to propel backwards to a controversial Law of 36 years ago.
The Government’s act is a stab in the back not only to the media but to the citizenry. The Press Council is meant to have a ‘chilling effect’ on media freedom; it is the proverbial ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over the head of the media practitioner.
The Press Complaints Commission indeed has shortcomings, but also strengths. For one, it costs neither the State nor the complainant any money. It is free, fast and fair to all parties, unlike the time-consuming, costly Press Council. It has the broad acceptance of the newspaper industry and complaints are, by-and-large, settled by means of conciliation and mediation like in the days of ancient Lanka and the days of the ‘Gam Sabhawa’. Wrong-doers were cautioned and reprimanded, and matters settled amicably. Journalists were slowly, but surely veering round to accepting a Code of Ethics that was to govern how and what they wrote.
Media practitioners are, in many ways, representatives of the people. Their job is to keep the citizenry informed. If they err – and to err is human, but there are democratic ways of rectifying their mistakes. The citizenry themselves must realise that these measures are in a sense directed at them as well. Very soon information – to them, will dry up.
One of the Media Ministers said that they don’t need the Press Council to send journalists to jail – they can use Emergency Regulations, as if they are not using those ‘laws’ for that purpose.
The fact that journalists and media activists have had to flee this country because they cannot practise their profession is known to the whole wide world. Not a week passes without some journalist or media institution facing a threat, abduction in a white van, an assault at a bus-stand or visit by the police or politically instigated goons.
The press finds the contradictions in the President’s style of governance, hard to accept. Some harshly label it ‘a Jekyll and Hyde’ approach while others refer to it as a ‘carrot (or egg-hoppers) and stick’ approach. These un-democratic moves are totally un-becoming of the President, and the re-introduction of the Press Council betrays a gloomy picture for the future of post-’war’ Sri Lanka, and questions are being raised if there is ‘deep state’ syndrome in Sri Lanka.
The country is clearly drifting towards a regimented state which brooks no dissent. Is it merely a façade of democracy that we are going to have in a future Sri Lanka?