A shadowy group calling itself the National Secretariat for Media Reform (NSMR) funded by an international non-governmental organization, International Media Support (IMS) and lobbing for a badly drafted Bill of independent Council for News Media Standards has led to huge public agitation and concern in Sri Lanka.
Concerns have arisen as to whether this is an attempt by certain international forces sympathetic to the ‘yahapalanaya’ Government to throttle journalists who are now critical of the Government. These concerns are heightened given that Director General of Information Ranga Kalansooriya is the one pushing the draft while the Ministry of Media is silent. Kalansooriya earlier worked with IMS as its regional advisor to Asia, and is well known to be still the one pulling the strings.
“I still do international consultancies, that is all I have to say. Please contact IMS for further details,” on 22 December 2016 he told Colombo Telegraph .
Social media activist Nalaka Gunawardene now serves as country programme manager for IMS which he clarified to an email query sent by Colombo Telegraph. Admitting that he ‘occasionally’ seeks Kalansooriya’s advice, Gunewardene has been pushing the draft on numerous social media platforms.
On Saturday, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) denied claims by Kalansooriya that SLWJA had been associated with the draft, accusing Kalansooriya of ‘telling lies.’
The draft that was discussed in a series of consultations around the country funded by IMS establishes a Council that will have strong powers to punish editors and journalists for violation of the standards that it lays down which are vague and arbitrary. Kalansooriya and Gunawardene have tried to justify the Council by saying that it will be similar to the RTI Commission of Sri Lanka established under the internationally recognised RTI Act. This comparison was ridiculed by journalists and media activists.
“The RTI Commission has got respected people as members, at least at the start, because of the strength of the RTI law itself and because civil society and media backed it strongly. The media was behind its drafting. How can this be the same here? This is a bad draft. Who is backing it? What is this Secretariat? No journalist or academic of repute serves as a member on it. No recognised person will want to come and serve. They will say this will be like the RTI Commission as an excuse and put government ‘pandankarayas’ on the Council who will act against journalists’ said a media activist.
Even though earlier, the Free Media Movement and others were involved in the process, they have now delinked themselves. The draft permits a court to order disclosure of a journalist’s sources. Journalists describe this as shocking when even the existing attitude of Sri Lanka judges has not been agreed as to whether a court should exercise that power or not! This judicial attitude was seen in cases filed against the Sri Lankan newspapers, for i.e. against Lakbima in 1995, where the High Court refused to hold the editor responsible for not disclosing sources. International standards were quoted by Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane for the refusal. When discussing this point with her at the international symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility in 2008, the editor of the Colombo Telegraph Uvindu Kurukulasuriya (then a Director of Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Press Complaint Commission of Sri Lanka) was informed as follows;
“My thinking was liberal and inclined towards the protection of sources. What happened was that the other judge made an error of law. So what happened was – we make errors of judgment and it is rectified by the higher court. That happens all the time. But what happened when this case came up was that Parliament repealed the criminal defamation law itself. The two conflicting judgments remained without being decided upon by a higher court. But I say that my thinking is right. You do not have to divulge your sources. To me, you should not divulge your sources because you are the voice of poor people and if they come and tell you something today you have to protect whoever is telling you. If I was a journalist, I will go to jail. I will say, I am not going to divulge. You have to fight these things. I mean, life is about fighting for what is right. Anyway, the correct judgment is a Supreme Court Judgment of Justice Mark Fernando’s which says that you do not have to divulge sources. That is the law at the moment.”
Responding to a query by Colombo Telegraph, the person who drafted the bill, Wijayananda Jayaweera, former Director of Communication Development Division at the UNESCO said that he volunteered to draft this bill following a discussion of a committee convened by the Department of Information. He wasn’t paid by the government or by any other organisation. He admitted he wasn’t aware of the Supreme court judgements re disclosure of a journalist’s sources. He also said he has nothing to do with the ongoing advocacy project.
Another question bothering media activists is as to why the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) is silent on the matter without a statement being issued while individual national newspapers, the electronic media and some political parties have come out in vociferous protest. They have pointed out that the website of the Secretariat only lists some little known journalists and junior academics as members. It has also been observed that Pradeep Weerasinghe who heads the Secretariat has come out of nowhere with no long established credentials in media law reform to back the effort; read here, here and here.
Journalists Lasantha Ruhunge, Poddala Jayantha and some others have spoken out against the draft law. But the question is as to where is the voice of the SLPI which represents all the print media, a powerful opinion forming body in the country? Several senior editors of mainstream newspapers sit on the SLPI Board. CEO of SLPI Kumar Lopez was recently featured in social media pictures at an RTI training organized by Transparency International. Toby Mendel, the head of the Canadian NGO, Centre for Law and Democracy who was in Sri Lanka last week trying to push the new law while speaking at the event where Nalaka Gunawardene, another hand behind the IMS funded law was the moderator. As media activists point out, this shows the ties between these few individuals behind this sinister effort to throttle the Sri Lankan media.
A concerned journalist asked ‘so does this mean that the SLPI is approving this new draft? Why did this Secretariat include the SLPI as involved in its founding? Is that correct? Or is this an attempt by its CEO to curry favour with interfering foreign hands who are behind this draft? We do not know and would like the SLPI to clarify its stand without permitting misleading impressions. Does it agree with the electronic media which is opposing the effort – or is it asleep as usual? First and foremost its CEO should be changed as he seems to be either clueless or collaborating with all these forces ’ (Chamindri Karannagoda)