Media Freedom in Sri Lanka faces a major threat with moves to bring back laws on criminal defamation, using the recent Easter Sunday disaster situation.
Sri Lanka revoked the Criminal Defamation Law in 2002, but the government is moving under the shadow of the Easter Sunday tragedy and the politics of ethnic and religious hatred, to bring in special amendments to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to restore the anti-democratic features of Criminal Defamation legislation.
The prevailing media freedom, albeit with many restrictions, is seen as a threat to the manipulative politics of those in government and opposition, amidst ethno-religious rivalry in post-Easter politics.
The Criminal Defamation Law was revoked in 2002 by the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP Government. It came after the increasing protests at the use of this law by the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government to curb, curtail, threaten and punish journalists and the media. The UNP that brought this change is not a political party that had a good record on media freedom and the rights of journalists. It was seeking popularity by attacking the political opponents.
It was the party, with then leader Ranasinghe Premadasa, which saw the killing of journalist Richard de Zoysa, and later prevented his killers being brought to justice in the Courts of our land. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe must certainly have considerable mental records of this and other attacks on journalists and the media by the UNP government, which led to rising protests from the public, media and journalist organizations, and trade unions.
The Easter Sunday tragedy has given many opportunities to those who threaten the principles of democracy, especially with regard to social, communal and religious equality. It now appears this tragedy is also being used to pose a major threat to media freedom and the rights of journalists, with moves to amend the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, using the current crisis in governance.
The media is certainly in a far different situation than it was in 2002, when the Criminal Procedure law was revoked. There is a very active Social Media now, posing a major challenge to the regular media. Fake News is now widespread. False reporting is a seriously troublesome aspect in both social and regular media. The use of both social and regular media to spread communal and religious rivalries are realities of major concern.
The solution to this must not be secret and enshrouded moves to bring in repressive legislation, but to have an open and deep public debate on the protection of Media Freedom in the current context; and consider the legislative changes that may be needed to prevent misuse of the media by the manipulators of public thought.
Has the UNP-led government of today, headed by the SLFP’s President Sirisena, given the public any clue as to the provisions of the proposed legislation, and why not? Is the intent to bring it to parliament and rush it through as urgent legislation? We are aware how the electoral system was seriously harmed by rushing through the legislation on Local Government Polls, and also how parliamentary procedure has prevented the timely holding of Provincial Council Elections. This is how democracy has been seriously attacked by this parliament.
It is good to bear in mind that although there is rivalry between the UNP and SLFP, both these parties are not the best known for the protection of Media Freedom. As much as Richard de Zoysa and other journalists and media personnel were killed and attacked by the UNP, we also know how Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed, journalists Keith Noyarh was attacked, and Prageeth Eknaligoda was abducted for killing, by an SLFP led government. We must remember that in 2007, now President, and then Minister Maithripala Sirisena, under the Rajapaksa Regime, said in public the Cabinet had discussed the re-introduction of criminal defamation legislation.
The planned amendments to the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code should not be brought to parliament without a proper and thorough public debate. The Government has to be reminded of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility of 1998, signed by The Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka, the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and the Free Media Movement, supported by the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, after an international symposium, which had much to do with the local and foreign democratic pressure brought to have the criminal defamation laws repealed. UNESCO and several international media associations supported the country’s publishers, editors, journalists and media activists’ campaigns for an independent and responsible press in Sri Lanka.
The repeal of this law saw several cases in the superior courts relating to leading journalists such as editors Victor Ivan and Lasantha Wickrematunge being made void.
Of course in today’s context of narrow ‘island centered’ thinking, we may hear voices who oppose such foreign interests in the progress of democracy in this country; forgetting the reality of universal franchise and democracy that we have came to us from abroad, including colonial powers.
The crooked use of the Easter Sunday disaster, and the threats that political manipulators of race and religion have brought to social stability, must not be allowed to bring new threats to Media Freedom, and the rights of journalists. The government should make a careful study of how the developed democracies in the world are seeking to cope with the issues posed by social media, and also how the social structure in our country has to be advanced to strengthen democracy.
The time may soon come for the defenders of Media Freedom to once again take to the streets, and carry on strong and peaceful campaigns to prevent a reintroduction of Criminal Defamation laws, under the bloody cloud of Easter Sunday; and also call for firmer action to bring to justice all those who have attacked journalists in the not too distant past.