By Kath Noble –
It would be funny if it weren’t so disgusting. In the week that the Government distributed a code of ethics for journalists, one of its MPs made possibly the most unethical statement of the year, from the safety and comfort of Parliament.
I am of course talking about Arundika Fernando and his claim to have seen missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda in France.
I don’t know about you, but if I had been introduced to the man who has become the symbol of the Sri Lankan media’s descent into hell – thanks to the extraordinarily courageous campaigning of his wife Sandhya – I would remember where it happened. I would make a note of it, maybe even take a photo. I would certainly ask the person who introduced us how on earth Ekneligoda had found his way out of the country undetected, what he was doing now, and why it was that he felt so amazingly confident in his disguise as to join Sunanda Deshapriya (wearing an oh-so-discreet turban, as Fernando has since added by way of supposedly reassuring detail!) in trying to disrupt a pro-Government rally outside the United Nations. I would also tell somebody to investigate further, because such a huge deception should not be allowed to pass.
And I am not even a Government supporter.
Fernando, he would have us believe, didn’t bother with any of that. He just forgot about it, then several months later when MPs got together to talk about the amount they should charge newspapers by way of registration fees, he dropped it into the debate.
This after the Government’s name has been dragged through the mud at the international level, not only because of the disappearance of Ekneligoda but also for the admission in a Sri Lankan court by former Attorney General and now Chief Justice Mohan Peiris that his statement to the Human Rights Council that Ekneligoda is alive and well rather than murdered by the State or forces associated with it was based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
Frankly, if Fernando is telling the truth, he should be prosecuted for treason.
And if he is lying, he should be prosecuted for torture. Because that is what it would be, telling a woman that she should continue to hope for the return of her husband without good reason. (Good reason doesn’t include trying to browbeat Sandhya Ekneligoda into giving up her protests against the Government.)
Either way, it is definitely irresponsible.
Indeed, this is exactly the kind of irresponsibility that the Government has suddenly decided has to be dealt with in journalists.
Apparently, journalists report things that simply aren’t true and poor old politicians don’t have any means of redress – some idiot has made it illegal to kill them, and I think beating them up and burning their presses and studios is probably outlawed as well. (Maybe that’s something Mahinda Rajapaksa could look into while he still has his two thirds majority in Parliament?)
To be honest, I didn’t realise that the Government had such a frightful burden to bear. I was sure that it had plenty of even perfectly lawful ways of setting the record straight, not least its own massive media empire.
In any case, there is already a code of ethics for journalists, adopted by the Press Complaints Commission with the approval of all of the major media organisations.
What is different about the one that was circulated last week?
The original document prepared by journalists includes all of the necessary elements, like the need for accuracy in reporting and for verification of stories prior to publication. It calls for the issue of corrections and apologies where appropriate, and specifies the conditions under which people must be offered the right to reply. It urges restraint in covering issues of a particularly shocking nature, such as violence and obscenity, requires care to be exercised to avoid promoting communal or religious discord, and lists details that should not be included in a story, such as the identity of the victims of sex crimes and repetition of methods of suicide. It also states that journalists should not use financial information that they become aware of before it is published.
One of the most useful parts explains what constitutes the public interest, in the pursuit of which a certain degree of invasion of privacy or the use of methods such as secret recordings may be acceptable. It also encourages investigative journalism in the public interest.
Whether journalists stick to these guidelines is not the point. That is a matter of compliance, not the code of ethics itself.
As The Island has pointed out editorially, if the Government really feels the need to act, it had better start by ensuring the good behaviour of its own publications and broadcasters, and only then consider developing rules for others.
However, back to the new draft.
What the Government has done is add to the existing very sensible document a set of totally ridiculous criteria that it would like to use to rule out altogether the publication or broadcast of a whole lot of things. Included here are stories that ‘offend against the expectations of the public’, whatever those may be, and stories that ‘may promote anti-national attitudes’ or ‘contain criticism affecting foreign relations’. Since the term ‘anti-national attitudes’ is nowhere defined, experience suggests that this would be interpreted by the Government to mean any and all criticism of its actions. And whatever the definition, the stories need not even promote ‘anti-national attitudes’ – this only has to be a possible outcome. Vaguer criteria are almost impossible to imagine. As for the clause expressing concern about foreign relations, there can be no doubt whatsoever about the Government’s intentions, since even the reproduction of transcripts of its own announcements at press briefings would damage its standing in the world.
In addition to these extraordinary criteria, the new draft also outlaws stories that ‘contain materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature’. Again, what on earth does this mean?
The only conclusion that can be drawn from this whole exercise is that the Government is quite happy to look keen to crush the media (and pretty thick, incidentally!).
It is apparently completely unconcerned at the prospect of looking keen to trample on Sandhya Ekneligoda.
Arundika Fernando made this even clearer when he addressed the media, accusing her of behaving in an unpatriotic manner in calling on the Government to bring her husband home, as if that were not the obvious course of action in the circumstances. Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared just days before the last presidential election, in preparation for which he had been working for the common candidate of the Opposition, Sarath Fonseka.
Whatever his politics, it is the Government’s job to explain what happened to him, not by making wild assertions but with the use of actual proof.
*Kath Noble may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.