By Lal Wickrematunge –
The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa will continue to seek total control over all public opinion and opinion makers including absolute control over the entire spectrum of the local media, be it print, electronic or social. The oldest trick in the book of playing “good cop, bad cop” between him and his brother, the Secretary of Defence, yet hold currency. It is to be admitted the Secretary of Defence, has support from a section of the public for his role in the war and has added a few more through his Colombo beautification programme.
Instilling fear, by the constant projection of the tri forces into civilian areas of development, there remains a major portion of intelligent people who are apprehensive that this may lead to more later, than what is seen on the ground at present. The fear factor is real and not perceived. Many would venture as far to say that most government and opposition politicians too fear, the Secretary of Defence. His uncompromising views and attitude to all areas of politics and public life is the underlying cause. They know that the entire range of enforcement come under him and that he wouldn’t hesitate to use them if and when he decides it is deemed necessary. He(the Secretary) has said many a time that his actions are to ensure national and public security. Now, how does that affect the media?
The print media in Sri Lanka are required to follow a set of guidelines laid down by the Editor’s Guild which functions alongside the Newspaper Society (Publishers), Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Press Complaints Commission. Of course the codified laws applicable to civil defamation laws reign supreme. The Press Council Act has been deliberately left out of this discussion as the Commissioners are appointed by the government. The entire argument against a Code of Ethics rests on the core principle that the Rajapaksa government’s sincerity is in question in regard to their professed acceptance of a free press and tolerance of dissent. That together with the “fear” factor has led to apathy and self censorship amongst journalists in Sri Lanka. That is a fact that needs to be accepted. The two emotions are now firmly embedded, amongst the practicing journalists within the country.
Any journalist doggedly following his/her profession on the principle of the public’s right to information has had to pay a high price. Does one need to elaborate why many journalists were murdered, abducted, assaulted and of course, fled the country? The record shows it. The sixty million dollar question that needs to be answered is why a government, given the total control it has over the media, needs to thrust a “Code of Ethics” during this period? Would it not be the final nail in the coffin? Where does that leave the profession? Many within the journalistic fraternity can hazard a guess that the new code is to stifle the few remnant journalists who are yet defiant.
On the 17th of July the Sri Lanka Journalist’s Trade Union held a confab on the proposed Code of Ethics for the media at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. Present as the Chief Guest was media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella who doubles as the Cabinet Spokesman, together with his ministerial Secretary Charitha Herath, Chandra Jayaratne, the former head of the Chamber of Commerce, Senior Lawyer JC Weliamuna, KD Lalkantha, the head of the JVP trade union, and Mandana Ismail Abeywickreme, President of the SLJTU. Invited as panelists for the Q and A session were many but TNA MP MA Sumanthiran’s short narrative summed it all up in a nutshell.
Prior to the panel discussion Senior Lawyer Weliamuna ,explained the principles of journalism in simple language. Lawyer Weliamuna said that a journalist will first check if a story is true and then verify the facts before writing. Hence a code of conduct should be from within the industry and not by way of legislation. Chandra Jayaratne raised concern with the timing and sincerity of the government in suggesting a Code of Ethics. Minister Rambukwella confirmed that the proposed Code was not to be introduced by way of legislation but was deemed necessary as a guideline for the industry. Secretary to the Information Ministry unwittingly let the cat out of the bag when he said that the media was a powerful tool. He had probably forgotten that Sri Lanka had been named as one of the most dangerous countries on Earth for journalists to practice their trade.
TNA MP MA Sumanthiran asked the audience (which were mainly journalists), whether the government respected freedom of expression within the country. He pointed out that the Jaffna based newspaper Uthayan had been attacked 37 times and weapons were used in all of such attacks. When he ventured to point out that only the military carried weapons in the North of the island, the answer to where such attacks originated was clear to the audience. Sumanthiran said that there were many articles and cartoons published for and against politicians, including that of the President of the country. He further stated that no public servant, bar one, speaks publicly on national policy and governance. He challenged any journalist to dare publishing even a cartoon depicting the Secretary of Defence, without consequence.
The panel discussion saw Minister Rambukwella between a rock and a hard place but he was certain to carry a message to the government that a Code of Ethics if at all was best drafted from within the industry.
The state owned media has been used by successive governments for their propaganda. It has reached a new low with this government. A journalist who turned politician and now acting as head of a radio station conducts a programme each morning spewing venom and uses a delivery which borders on filthy language to target political opponents. Nary a word, has been raised against this programme nor the so called electronic journalist. The ITN is presently under fire for targeting a renowned artiste without an iota of truth. Government Parliamentarians under the cover of privilege lie through their teeth knowing that they are immune from prosecution. Ethics do not matter to these favoured individuals as long as they defend the government and vilify those opposed to it.
Be that as it may, is a Code of ethics through a parliamentary process, required at all? The answer is a resounding NO. If the government proceeds to investigate all the murders of journalists, attacks, abductions and threats made against them AND prosecute the perpetrators in a court of law with convictions AND introduces the Right to Information Bill, a Code of Ethics may be discussed as proposed by the Rajapaksa government. The sincerity of the government would be proven if they pass this litmus test. A government, which controls all arms of law enforcement, and yet cannot/will not find the murderers of journalists have NO moral right to regulate nor propose a code of anything for the media.