By Kusal Perera –
The code of media ethics the Ministry of Media and Information says the government has planned to introduce, would cover all electronic and print media. For now, there is no code of media ethics for the electronic media. Though the Secretary to the Media and Information Ministry is ignorant, there is a very comprehensive code of ethics for the print media, drafted and adopted by “The Editors’ Guild” in collaboration with the Free Media Movement (FMM) and accepted by the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) and its Complaints Commission, since year 2001. This is not functional for two major reasons. One, the Editors themselves don’t take any interest in adhering to their own code of ethics. This raises the question, why did they bother themselves to draft and adopt a set of codes for media ethics, to simply insult it ? Two, most journalists are not aware of it and its relevance for their profession, for quality journalism. Well, when their own Editors don’t pay heed to this Code of Media Ethics, it is just logical, the journalists would not bother to know what it is about.
The reason for the government to introduce a set of ethics for media, has nothing to do with any of that. Of promoting professionalism and quality coverage and programming. It has other political reasons. Sajin Vas Gunawardne, MP, told parliament they need to re-introduce the once shunned draconian Criminal Defamation Law, to prevent heads of media organizations from acting like ‘underworld thugs.’ For now, let’s not start discussing what law this country would need to prevent political monkeys from looting tax payers’ money and national wealth. For now, this venomous statement in parliament from one who is still closest to the regime, tells the Rajapaksa regime has other interests in stepping into the media industry from different paths.
The media, technically called “print” and “electronic”, in this global world has moved into web based media too. Usually the media was categorised as “State” and as “privately” owned. It was such when Rajapaksa assumed office as President, 07 years and 07 months ago. The media was fast transformed into a different categorisation with the escalation of the war. Then it became “pro war” and “anti war” to begin with. Journalists had to choose their place within that. Attacks on media were carried out against those who were thought to be “anti war”.
The first attacks on media and journalists therefore targeted Tamil media from as early as 24 January, 2006. Sunbramaniam S. Rajan was shot dead that day by an unknown gunman on a motor bicycle in Trincomalee town, presumably for publishing photographs in “Sudar Oli” news paper and some investigating reporting on the killing of 05 youth on 02nd January, 2006 in Trincomalee. Year 2006 recorded 09 media workers killed with 01 young Sinhala journalist among them, Lakmal Sampath de Silva and also 08 more, 04 among them Tamils, abducted and some gone missing. This attack on media and media workers, was not taken up in Colombo by mainstream media dominated by Sinhala journalists, as seriously as it should have been. That was how the war helped create a divided media, with Colombo going under the regime, not only through coercion and verbal / physical threats, but ideologically too.
The war thereafter becoming a “patriotic” war of the Sinhala Buddhists and every aspect of civil life in the Jaffna peninsula taken over by the military, the Tamil media thereafter was no big issue for the warring Rajapaksa regime. In Colombo, what Sinhala patriotism could not do in curbing dissent, in restricting media independence, the State intelligence and police were to do. There were a spate of arrests in 2007 and 2008. Individuals were taken in on charges of “suspected terrorism” or as “informants”. In years 2007 and 2008, there were 12 cases of arrests reported, including two foreign journalists and also Tissanayagam and Jesiharan. The irony again is that, these were always played down by the media itself, adhering to the police version of immediately labelling yesterday’s journalist as today’s “terrorist”. In some instances, as with “Maubima” journalist Miss. M. Parameswary and SLBC Relief Announcer Miss Susanthi Thambirasa, some mainstream Sinhala media had no qualms calling them “LTTE suicide bombers”, while both were freed without any charges filed against them.
The fact remains, the mainstream media and working journalists were attacked in many ways, including attacks of arson as in the case of “Sirasa” station in Depanama, Pannipitiya, with no protest worthy of note. Free Media Movement though voiced concern and protests, had its own limitations. It never represented functional media and was never a journalist based organisation of the mainstream. It was therefore not strong enough in making any noticeable dent in the declining media culture. The electronic media (TV and FM stations) that contributes very much on social gossip runs with media tinsels as celebrities, who don’t even know what rights they should have as employees.
With such advantage on the side of the Rajapaksa regime, they also enjoyed the presence of a totally submissive group of media owners and publishers, ever willing to compromise with the regime. We thus did not see any publisher or their collective forums protesting against their own employees being threatened, abducted and tortured or when arbitrarily arrested. Neither did the SLPI, a tri-partite organisation of publishers, editors and journalists, ever took up any of the attacks on journalists and the media, with purpose. I doubt whether they ever intervened and protested against their own employee, Namal Perera’s near abduction.
That period of brutality during the heightened war finally witnessing the killing of Sunday Leader editor, Lasantha Wickramatunge in January 2009 and the war itself concluded in May the same year, the media went under a different phase of an evolution. Categorisation of media as “State” owned or “privately” owned, lost all validity. End of the war saw a media that basically ran on the ideological pattern created and dispensed under the patronage of the defence establishment, politically rubber stamped by the Rajapaksa regime, never mind who ever owns it. The business and trader community (Sri Lanka still lacks a conscious capitalist class) ended up heavily entrenched in this battle minted, patriotic mindset and is wholly dependent on the regime.
Economic life has thus taken a serious bashing. While the economy is not “State controlled” as it was in the pre 1978 era, it is no more a free economy. It is a market economy under the dictates of this regime. Therefore all investors and investments have to have the stamp of this Rajapaksa regime. Media in SL functions within this Rajapaksa dictated market economy, owned as family based or single proprietor businesses, tied up with the regime on other business ventures. In fact even the big and well established ones in media, are only having and using them as “business props”, for political mileage. Changing of or taking control of such family based or single proprietor businesses are much easier than broad based ownerships. We have thus come to live with a media that is either directly run by the regime, or not so indirectly towed by it. Where there is possibility, the regime has taken financial and management control through trusted proxies. In such cases they have installed editors with ease, willing to tow their line and live within undeclared conditions.
Now it seems in praxis, the only odd one out though not large, is the Sinhala weekend broadsheet, “Ravaya”. It is also now evident, Ravaya is trying to wriggle out of any possible “swallowing” with its readership, the editorial and those who still want media freedom, experimenting with a public campaign to broad base its ownership. Possibly the first in South Asia to evolve as a reader – owned, public news paper.
Today, we are therefore left with a print and electronic media, that is within Rajapaksa politics and any Code of Media Ethics, practically irrelevant. What we are engaging in is, discussing a Code of Media Ethics for a media that would any way live as the regime wants. If we are talking of an independent, impartial and an informative media, it is more important to liberate the media from the clutches of this regime. Code of Media Ethics can only be relevant and practical for a media, that can first be financially independent from this regime. There is no purpose in discussing editorial independence in media, where publishers and owners are part of the regime, though technically they are private entities.
Today, if any one wants a good Code of Media Ethics, the existing Code done by The Editors’ Guild is there for all improvements. But that is not the issue. The issue is, media ethics drafted by the State media ministry has nothing to do with media independence and freedom of expression. Today, media ethics is part of the larger political debate in how media ownerships could be kept independent from regime control and the editors too. And for now, [quote] Here’s how it works: the President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home.[unquote – Stephen Colbert / political satirist, comedian, television host]