By Latheef Farook –
The government is to introduce what Mass Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella described as a “Code of Media Ethics” to all print and electronic media. According to government owned Daily News “a Draft Bill containing a Media Code of Ethics aimed at creating what was claimed as “a salutary media culture” in the country’ will be tabled in the Parliament for adoption in September.
Already the country has a comprehensive code of ethics, since 2001, for the private media introduced jointly by The Editors’ Guild and the Free Media Movement .This was accepted by the Sri Lanka Press Institute and its Complaints Commission. On the other hand guidelines to the media should be given by the media community and not by the government.
Most journalists view this move with suspicion fearing this is wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The Bill has a clause to ban the publication of hate speeches.
However, the imperative need of the hour is not code of ethics but to strictly impose the banning of publishing and telecasting hate speeches and statements, which has become the foundation for communal hatred and disharmony. This also needs to include demonstrations, rallies and public meetings provoking people.
Only a few months ago a small number of racists were almost instrumental in fanning the flame of communal discord and hatred in the country. Though subdued for reasons better known to them these destructive forces remain active promoting their, or perhaps their American, Norwegian and Israeli masters’ agendas, against Muslims not realizing the damage they cause to the image of the Sinhalese majority and the overall communal harmony.
This country which has emerged in May 2009 from a three decade of destructive ethnic war cannot afford another carnage which is bound to put it decades back to the detriment of all. However, the performance of certain section of the media especially during the past year clearly demonstrates the need to ban all hate speeches, statements or any such material which could poison the hearts and minds of people of one community against the other.
This also shows that neither politicians who used racism to come to power or to remain in power since independence in 1948 nor the media which tried to thrive on chauvinism under the guise of protecting the religion, culture and the community have learnt any lesson from the recent past. In fact for all practical purposes certain section of the print and electronic media virtually became propaganda machines of destructive elements who emerged from nowhere with vengeance.
This is not something new as this trend started decades ago. For example in the immediate aftermath of the independence in 1948 the two leading newspaper organizations, Lake House and Times Group of Newspapers, did highlight issues affecting different communities. However, by and large, they did not incite rancor and violence among communities.
This tradition was shattered with the appearance of the Dawasa Group of Newspapers which unleashed blatant chauvinism as its main platform to promote its business.
For example it was around August 1968 when the then Prime Minister late Dudley Senanayake tried to introduce a “District Council” Bill in the Parliament to honor his pledge to Federal Party in return for its support to form the National Government which also included Tamil Congress.
This was a mild form of power sharing, compared to what was offered subsequently to LTTE, and it could have prevented the subsequent militarization of Tamil youths which turned this country into one of the worst killing fields in Asia.
However, Dawasa group of newspapers opposing the proposed District Council Bill unleashed a ferocious campaign whipping up anti Tamil feelings among the majority Sinhalese. The campaign was so vicious that a Tamil journalist attached to Dawasa Group’s Tamil daily Dinapathti said” it was really frightening. Where will this hate campaign take the country”? Now we know where we are!
The opposition to the proposed District Council Bill was so vehement that Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake had to drop the Bill. Inevitably, this situation forced the Federal Party to leave the National Government as they have failed to provide the District Council which they pledged to their electorates. When asked what was FP’s option the assassinated Federal Party leader A Amrithalingam told me and late Thiagarajah of Virakesari that “Dudley genuinely tried to fulfill his promise, but racist forces blocked it. Thus the FP had no choice but to leave the government and support it from outside”.
Had the media been reasonable and the District Council was given as pledged, the militarization of Tamil youths, subsequent ethnic carnage and the overall setback to the country could have been averted.
But forty five years later, after all the destruction and carnage, it appears wisdom has dawned when the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna,MEP, an ally of ruling UPFA, suggested the setting up of District Council as the unit of power devolution and called for the abolition of the provincial council system established under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This is an inglorious farce as the move is not for power sharing but to abolish the Provincial Councils and deprive the minorities of the rights ensured under 13th Amendment.
In the aftermath of the military defeat of LTTE in May 2009 all including Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims expected politicians and the media to learn from the past, take a positive direction to bring communities together and move the country ahead.
Unfortunately all such hopes were dashed. Politicians continue to aim at vote banks while the irresponsible coverage of events in the media inciting the Sinhalese against Tamils and, lately against Muslims, continued unabated leading to the situation where we are today.
The role played by certain section of the media in highlighting explosive agendas of a small group during the past year indicate that the local media has no vision other than serving as tools for politicians to implement their agendas paying no attention to the interest of the country.
Though these elements remain very small, yet they make loud noise disturbing the entire nation. For example they do not count more than 10 or so members in the parliament of 225 members. The remaining being moderates accepting the reality of the multi racial, multi religious, multi lingual and multi cultural nature of the country where all need to live in peace and harmony with dignity and equal rights.
Nevertheless the prominence given to views of this tiny group in the media has been such that saner voices of the majority of around 215 members pale into insignificance.
Most media institutions freely publish, often with prominence, provocative outbursts inciting Sinhalese against Muslims. They raise issues such as halal food, animal slaughtering and the like though they remain non issues. However, media go to town with these slogans to create sensationalism.
The ongoing heated discussions over 13th amendment only shows that neither politicians nor the media changed a wee bit and learnt any lesson from the past .Their attitude today is not different from the days of proposed District Council in 1968.
Under the circumstance the need of the hour is for a very comprehensive set of laws banning the publication and telecasting of any item which could incite hatred among communities and not laws to provide guidance to the media. In fact guidance to the media should be provided by the media community itself and not from the government.