The government of President Rajapaksa, which promised a peaceful and free country once “terrorism” is eliminated has decided to establish a Press Council (PC) of its choice, 07 years after the last PC was allowed to lapse in 2002 and self regulation was allowed to be practised by the media itself.
The PC which was previously allowed to lapse under the UNP government was then established under the Sri Lanka Press Council Law No. 5 of 1973 which has the powers to fine and/or sentence journalists and publishers to terms of imprisonment. The present regime has used this same Act, which was under severe criticism then, to reactivate its PC once again.
According to the Department of Information which oversees administrative aspects of media in Sri Lanka, the PC had already been established on June 12th Thursday, with the appointment of Prof. Somaratne Balasuriya as its Chairman. Prof Balasuriya has been puffing over similar State positions from the time of President Kumaratunge and was previously the Chairman of the Public Performance Board.
Other members appointed are, Prof. Sunanda Mahendra, a retired Mass Communication don who had worked very closely with the present regime, Editor of the Sinhala Weekend news paper “Lankadeepa”, Ariyananda Dombagahawaththa, who claims a very long association with President Rajapaksa from his days in the opposition, a Media Consultant Janadasa Pieirs who worked very closely with President Kumaratunge heading many media institutes during that period and Government Information Director Anusha Pelpita, who holds that position on political affiliations.
Media under this present regime in Sri Lanka has been under heavy attack, with over 12 journalists killed during the past 02 years and almost 35 fleeing the country in fear of their lives. Around 21 journalists are reported as having been abducted, some tortured very badly and left on way sides. Journalist Tissanayagam, Jesiharan and his wife were indicted after keeping them in long detention for over 150 days and the AI considers Tissanayagam a victim of conscience, as he is indicted on what he had written in 2003. Much respected Tamil editor Vithyatharan has filed a FR petition against his detention and accusing him publicly as a “Tiger suspect”, while the Courts released him free, without any charges.
Foreign journalists were warned about what they wrote, were denied entry into the country and some were even deported. The charge(s) was that they are not balance in their reportage as per the Tamil Tigers.
War and the “Tiger” label were and still are the main ruse for attacks on the media and journalists, all during the last 02 years. It was the defence establishment that took upon itself the responsibility of taming the media. One year ago, the official Defence website took upon itself the right to lay down strictures on media freedom. It said all who don’t tow the government’s line of the war are “traitors”. The media was told they should not write on “procurement”, about military strategy, war related analyses and news and all information should only be obtained from the official military spokes person and from no body else.
The Defence Secretary remains the only high ranking public officer who could go public with any political statement and has gone on record in dictating terms to the media. He was accused of once threatening a female Editor of a recognised daily news paper over the phone and then getting down 03 media activists to his office and threatening them with dire consequences, if they did not give up on their protests.
With the war officially declared as over, this regime is now turning to obnoxious laws of the past, to continue its suppression of the media. Unfortunately for the SL media, the Rajapaksa government has willing partners in some academics and journalists to officially carry out such suppression, which provides a façade of legitimacy.
The media and their editors too played into the government’s war campaign most willingly during the past years thus providing the society with the justification that the media freedom does not mean criticising of the government. It is this social mood, propped on the war frenzy that the government is now using for its next phase of media bashing.
The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka and seven other media organizations, in a joint letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the reactivation of this Sri Lanka Press Council Law, which gives powers for imprisonment of journalists, said that media culture cannot be based on slapping charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail.
Instead, they noted, the modern world has accepted a self regulatory mechanism by media persons themselves as the way forward.
Following is the full text of the letter:
“It is with a sense of deep concern and disappointment that the media organizations herein undermentioned have learned of the reactivation of the Sri Lanka Press Council Law No. 5 of 1973 which has the powers to fine and/or sentence journalists and publishers to terms of imprisonment.
A media culture cannot be based on slapping charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail. Instead the modern world has accepted a self-regulatory mechanism by media persons themselves as the way forward.
The Sri Lanka Press Council Law has a controversial history-it was meant to have a ‘chilling effect’ on media freedom, which included the power, inter-alia, to send journalists and publishers to jail. On October 13, 1994 by Cabinet paper No. 94. 11. 009,
Your Excellency gave your consent to establish a self-regulatory mechanism in place of the Statutory Press Council. It is our understanding that this consent was given because Your Excellency believed that the Press Council which could impose penal punishment on journalists was an archaic piece of legislation and self-regulation was a more democratic means of regulating the press.
Your Excellency will remember that as Honourable Leader of the Opposition, you spoke (Hansard, 2002 June 18, Col. 888) for an independent and responsible press in Sri Lanka when an amendment was brought to the said Law to repeal the laws relating to criminal defamation. Your Excellency is no doubt aware that this amendment was passed unanimously by Parliament. Following the passage of this amendment the Sri Lanka Press Council Law was made inoperative in or about 2003.
A series of consultations between media associations in Sri Lanka and leaders of all political parties represented in Parliament had culminated in broad, bipartisan agreement being reached that the newspaper industry would appoint a self-regulatory mechanism as a ‘fair exchange’ for the repeal of laws relating to criminal defamation that were used as an instrument of government repression on media practitioners at the time.
Consequently, media organizations united, and together with the newspaper Industry, established a Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, under the provisions of the Arbitration Act No. 11 of 1995 six years ago. Unlike the Press Council, the Press Complaints Commission is no financial burden to the State or the complainant.
It is in these circumstances that the media organizations regret that the Government has reneged on its earlier commitment to support self-regulation.
Furthermore, our disappointment stems from the fact that the Government did not consider it useful, or prudent, or both, to have any dialogue whatsoever with the undermentioned media organizations, which represent the vast majority of publishers, editors, working journalists, media trade unionists and activists who overwhelmingly support the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka. However, if any problem exists with respect to the system of self regulation, such problem (S) should be discussed and resolved immediately. But it’s indeed disconcerting to note that instead strengthening the system of self regulation; the Government has opted to reactivate the Sri Lanka Press Council Law No 5 of 1973 which impedes media freedom in Sri Lanka.
We, the undermentioned media organizations urge the government to reconsider this ill advised decision and have a dialogue with us, the stake-holders to promote self-regulation as part of the media culture in the interest of democracy and a responsible and free press in Sri Lanka.
In view of the public importance of this matter we will be releasing this letter to the media.”
Also Read Kishali Pinto Jayawardne on SL Press Council – http://newsletters.ahrchk.net/js/mainfile.php/0528/1444/