By Ranga Kalansooriya –
With several celebrations taking place to mark the international world press freedom day, media issues dominated the socio-political platforms this week. Added to this was the controversies surrounded the Secretary to Media Ministry.
Looking at the main topics that echoed in many platforms, two issues that dominated these deliberations were media regulation and professionalism. The well-known media critique Prime Minister himself repeated his strong sentiments at two platforms this week – firstly at the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Muslim Media Forum and then the launch of the report “Rebuilding Public Trust” published by Secretariat for Media Reforms at Kadirgamar Center on the Press Freedom Day.
His basic criticism was on the subject of news reporting by some newspapers. He accused those reports of being biased and challenged their accuracy. In one occasion he said that the journalist in question has not contacted the main subject of the story – in that case it was no other than the leader of the opposition.
These accusations, if carefully analysed are directly relating to the subject of basic ethics in journalism. Hundred percent accuracy and impartiality are among the four main pillars of ethical journalism. The other two are accountability and minimizing harm. If the accusations are true, those news reports have violated all those four norms – the fourth one minimizing harm is being the biggest concern as those news reports directly linked to ethnic harmony in the country.
At the Muslim Media Forum function, the Prime Minister challenged Press Complaints Commission (PCCSL) to take necessary action on those news reports where the CEO of the PCCSL Sukumar Rockwood was also present. Out of curiosity I asked Sukumar yesterday as to what action has been taken with regard this issue as there was an open requests to PCCSL by the Prime Minister of the country at a public speech. “We will be writing to him (Prime Minister) explaining the complaint procedure,” said Sukumar explaining the fact that according to the PCCSL procedures there exists a process that any complainant should adhere to. Either the PM’s office on behalf of the government or the Leader of Opposition could lodge a complaint following the procedure and then the inquiry will begin he added.
Absence of a proactive mechanism and not entertaining third party complaints have been major loopholes of the PCCSL since its inception. It awaits the aggrieved party to come to its door step (even in a digital form) and lodge an official complain. Thus, the print media could be unethical as much as it can and PCCSL will turn a blind eye on such practices until a complaint is received through the proper procedure. In other words, PCCSL is not the ethical watchdog of the print media, but a body of redress for the aggrieved reader. Is it a fully-fledged self- regulation?
In contrast, a head of state did complained to PCCSL during its early days following proper procedures – non-other than President Chandrika Kumaratunga herself against her archrival Sunday Leader. What was the prompt response from PCCSL? Sorry – The Sunday Leader is not a signatory to the PCCSL procedure, thus, we cannot proceed with this complaint. This particular incident drew disappointment from the then regime and it continued until President Rajapakse re-establishing the press council.
And on top of that what could be the maximum remedy or redress that a complainant could receive from the PCCSL procedure? A correction or an apology by the publication which is the usual practice of many such self-regulatory systems in the world.
On the other hand we have Press Council that was established over four hand a half decades ago with draconian laws that could even jail journalists. The then government of Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2002 decided to ‘silence’ the Press Council and pave the way for a more democratic print regulating system through PCCSL. But subsequent political developments in the country pushed the Press Council back into the scene while PCCSL does also exist. However, President Maithreepala Sirisena as the common candidate during his campaign gave a pledge to abolish the outdated Press Council but turned aback and revitalized it within a few months into his office by appointing members to the Council. This shocked the entire media fraternity.
Nevertheless, the media associations continue to refuse nominating their representatives to the council which makes it incomplete and impotent, though it continues to entertain public complaints and mitigate them. However, this fact has to be clarified through a judicial procedure, but no one has so far dared to seek a judicial verdict on the operation of an incomplete Press Council. Only a few journalists and publications have questioned its operations – that included Sunday Times and Ravaya. Journalist Sajeewa Wijeweera has openly challenged its existence, according to Ravaya story last week. Yet, the common understanding of the media fraternity and associations as well expert recommendations is to abolish the stone-aged Press Council and get into more latest and democratic systems of print regulation.
When referring to the so called errant news stories, the Prime Minister, too, avoided naming the Press Council, but he did mentioned the Press Complaint Commission. In that context we can assume that the PM, too, does not believe in this ‘Jurassic Park’ system of regulation but would be more towards to a self-regulatory mechanism which he himself paved the way some fifteen years ago.
But in the context of abolishing the Press Council, PCCSL does not provide a better alternative in its current formation and mandate. As far as I am aware, there had been several reviews on this excellent concept of self-regulation but a little has progressed. It requires more legal teeth and broad expansion of its operational mandate. Better to look at the Indonesian model to get fresh ideas. When compared to the media landscapes in our neighboring countries, the PCCSL and Sri Lanka Press Institute systems provide a classic case study of unity among the industry players, which has not been fully utilized. Though it is united and in a unique position to sit in one room and discuss the industry challenges, the decision making is still within a few individuals. It requires broader representation, pluralistic views and new ideas as well. Youth and gender dynamisms are missing in the system.
Regulating print media is not a state functionality. It should be the responsibility of the industry players. We already have started it, but industry itself has forgotten the fact that we should not allow government to interfere into this sensitive area. Then what we need is the replacement of Press Council with a strong, proactive, dynamic new PCCSL with a broader mandate – without it too becoming another ‘Jurassic Park.’
If not it will only be limited to accusations and attacks on media with no remedy, and the society at large will suffer. And most importantly it will be the biggest attack to press freedom in this country.