For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
By Gamini Weerakoon
There are at least two codes of ethics for journalists in the print media but there appears to be none for journalists in the electronic media – i.e. radio and TV.
The first code for journalists in newspapers came in 1973 when the United Front Government under the pretence of ensuring greater freedom for journalists shackled them with the Press Council Law and a Code of Ethics which was approved by parliament.
The Radio was the only other means of mass communications and there was no need to gag radio journalists because the only broadcasting institution was the state owned Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation. There was no need to gag bleating sheep. If they got restive they were simply sacked. There was no need for any code.
TV (state and privately owned) and privately owned radio stations came to Sri Lanka only in the early eighties. To our knowledge there are no controls yet placed on these two media and no codes of ethics are applicable. This was probably because the principle of ‘Don’t gag sheep’ applied once again because there were only two independent TV stations that could have dared governments in power but rarely did they step out of line.
Now comes the announcement of a new code of ethics for the entire media. Why now is the obvious question. Is it to stifle dissenting opinion of two media organisations which refuse to behave like obedient sheep?
All must say the same thing
The new media commissar, Charitha Herath who is the Secretary to the Ministry of Mass Media and Information has announced the drafting of a new Code of Ethics. Some of his statements will not only confuse journalists but even cause consternation among those who value a free media.
In a report of a meeting between himself and news directors of TV and radio and editors of the print media posted on his web site Herat is reported – that ‘the accuracy of a single news [item] reported by any media channel can make a huge impact on the public opinion of the country. It is the responsibility of the news division to enlighten the country accurately. Therefore a common agreement among all media Channels in state and private sectors regarding news reports is important. It is significant that this agreement be made regarding the sources of information as well’.
This is indeed a mind boggling statement. It is tantamount to standing all known principles of journalism on its head. Does he really want all TV channels – both state and private – to have a common agreement in what to broadcast and agree on which sources of information they could base their reports?
Not even in the rigid dictatorship of Josef Stalin did all news channels carry identical reports. Stalin’s regime had two main newspapers the ‘Pravda’ (The Truth) and the ‘Izvestia’(News) that still carried different news items although cynics said that the Pravda had ‘no truth’ and the Izvestia had ‘no news’.
Ideal for dictators
Herath observes that ‘even if a basic media code of ethics does exist media reports do not align with this code’
‘The need for formulation of an exclusive Code of Media Ethics recognising limits to be followed in reputing [reporting?] unique incidents and situations has been identified. In this background we are of the view that a code of ethics formulated through a public dialogue is far better than a code of ethics formulated by a single person’.
Some of these statements are absolutely gibberish to us even though we have been in English language journalism for a near half century. It could be that what appears on the Web is a hazy translation from Sinhala.
In a separate web message it is said that this Code of Ethics will apply to both electronic and print media. One press release says that the Media Ministry is currently drafting the Code and it will be delivered to print and electronic media chiefs while it is also said that ‘a code of ethics formulated through public dialogue is far better than a Code of Ethics formulated by one person.’ Reading through a series of press releases one is left wondering whether a draft has been made or it is still being formulated. This is a ridiculous position for a Ministry of Information to project.
The Ministry Secretary’s bulletin also provides much entertainment. He says: ‘Media personnel should not succumb to pressures from individual political and commercial agendas but preserve and promote moral standards and values of a society in general’.
This advice to journalists will be best described in Sinhala as ‘Vedi Bana’ (Veddahs preaching Buddhist sermons). Herath imagines that those journalists in the state media are not under any political pressure to write on crucial issues such as the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice? A remarkable achievement indeed is that not one journalist in the gamut of state owned media stepped out of line even for a moment on such a vital issue! And what moral standards were reached in abusing a woman Chief Justice in journals once graced by editors like Jayantha Padmanabha, Tarzie Vittachi, Denzil Peris, Fred de Silva and Mervyn de Silva! Indeed the common parameter of intense boot licking was reached by all state media journals. This perhaps is the objective of this new Code of Ethics for the Media where common agreement will be called for all media on all reports regarding all vital issues.
Politicisation of Crime
Herath says that abiding by this proposed Code of Ethics will be voluntary and that is directed against sensationalising crime. The Press Council Law of 1973 specifically provides for that. If so what’s the need for an entire new code? Is it that in this era crime has been politicised and some news organisations particularly TV organisations are relentlessly exposing acts of political criminality. Is this code a red flag being put up for those institutions?
As the Sinhala saying goes: Ena pota honda nehe – Coming colour not good.