The proposed Media Regulatory draft law pushed by the Information Department provides in clause 12 of the draft, that “the editor-in-chief, as designated by news media outlets, shall be accountable for all the content disseminated by the news media outlet, including advertisements,” Colombo Telegraph learns.
The draft also states that ‘the editor-in-chief shall be accountable to the Independent News Media Council for all the content included in the news media outlet regardless of whether or not any breach of any Code of Practice adopted by the Independent News Media Council is directly attributable to the editor-in-chief.
Asked to comment, an editor stated that a lot of discretion is given to the News Media Council established under this draft and that it can be used as a political tool by the Government. Holding editors liable for even advertisements is contrary to normal practice, he added.
Earlier, Colombo Telegraph had exposed the fact that the draft had contained a clause that a journalist could be forced to disclose sources on a judicial order. Following criticism, a revised clause now reads that “No court may require a journalist to disclose the identity of a confidential source who has provided information to that journalist, nor may any adverse inferences be drawn against a journalist for any refusal to disclose a confidential source.”
Colombo Telegraph had highlighted this clause, pointing to the problems that may arise if a court is given the power by law to order a journalist to give up his/her sources. This was particularly so as the Supreme Court had ruled that source protection is part of the right to information. These questions were raised in the context of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), an umbrella organization of editors and media activists remaining quiet while the proposed media draft regulatory law was being promoted by the Director General, Information Department Ranga Kalansooriya and IMS country programme manager Nalaka Gunewardene without formal involvement of the Ministry of Media.
A doubtful group calling itself the National Secretariat for Media Reform (NSMR) funded by an international non-governmental organization, International Media Support (IMS) had been given the task. Its website (nsmrlk.org/) stated that the SLPI had also collaborated with it.
The NSMR website went off line shortly after the Colombo Telegraph exposure when it was pointed that some of their members had dubious qualifications while others were not recognized members of either the legal or media professions. NSMR has removed the relevant information from its website. Even at this point, the website does not disclose details of its members under ‘About us.’
Despite the revision on the forced disclosure of sources which was prompted by the Colombo Telegraph exposure while the SLPI remained asleep, the draft is still concerning. DG, Information Kalansooriya has tried to justify the proposed News Media Council to be established by this draft to regulate the print and broadcast media by saying that this will be similar to the RTI Commission set up under the internationally hailed RTI Act, No 12 of 2016. But media activists speaking to Colombo Telegraph reiterated that this explanation is not correct as the RTI law was widely accepted with the RTI Commission members of high standing while this is a problematic draft and there is no guarantee as who will be appointed to this Council.
The SLPI has yet not activated itself on the matter apart from its CEO Kumar Lopez issuing a short press statement recently saying that the majority of its members agreed on the need for self-regulation. A senior independent news editor told Colombo Telegraph that the SLPI has lost public credibility because of lack of direction and focus. “They only have trainings, sometimes one-off public lectures attended by the same crowd. It is not seen as a critical meeting place for ideas and discussions by journalists. The CEO is someone whom they got from the private sector as no one else came forward and he only thinks of profits. He runs this way and that way helplessly whenever he is told to,” he said.
“The SLPI must put forward a counter response to this draft of the Information Department and look at it point by point, which it has not done up to now. It did not even raise the problem of sources in the earlier version of this draft which is now withdrawn. Issuing ‘pana nethi’ (weak) statements is not going to help,” he added.
The draft also provides that no liability, civil or criminal, shall attach to the Council, its members or any person employed by the Council for anything which in good faith is done or purported to be done in the performance or exercise of any function or power imposed on or assigned to the Council, its members or its staff.
“Concerns have arisen as to whether this is an attempt by certain international forces sympathetic to the ‘yahapalanaya’ Government to throttle journalists who are now critical of the Government. The newly appointed Media minister should think about it. He should make a public statement regarding this badly drafted Bill,” a media rights activist told Colombo Telegraph. (Chamindri Karannagoda)