The Sunday Leader

On The Press Council With Manik De Silva

By Gazala Anver

Manik De Silva

President of The Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka, Manik De Silva spoke to The Sunday Leader on the Press Council and the threats it could pose to the independent media, journalists and democracy.

Q: Media groups around the country have been opposing the state appointed Press Council (PC). What are the threats it could pose to the independent functioning of the Sri Lankan media industry?
As I see it, the major problem is that the Press Council is armed with punitive powers including jailing those it believes are guilty for up to two years and also for imposing fines. I am not aware of these provisions ever being used by the Council during the period it was functional. But the powers remain and may be used if the Council decides to do so.
Unfortunately, there is a perception in many quarters that the Press Council is a state institution while the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) is a creature of the privately owned media. This is not the case. Some prominent figures now serving the state media, like Lake House Chairman Bandula Padmakumara, have served on the PCCSL and SLPI Boards in the past. The PCCSL itself will welcome participation of representatives of the state media on its Board of Directors and has in fact been attempting to obtain such representation.

Q: After the PC was repealed in 2002, the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) was established. How successful was it in replacing the PC? Has there been a positive change in the media industry since 2003?
The Press Council Act was not repealed ever. Although the Council has not been functional for several years, the Act itself remains on the statute and since about the middle of 2009 there has been an effort by the government to reactivate the Council of which six of the seven members including the chairman must be appointed by the President.
I believe that four members of the Press Council and the Director of Government Information, an ex officio member, have been appointed but two nominees representing media workers unions and journalists have not yet been appointed as organisations representing these categories have not made nominations. I am aware that the government has been attempting to get such nominations but the concerned organisations are reluctant to make them as they do not wish to be a party to a regulatory body whose membership is dominated by members appointed by the President.
The PCCSL has for many years been receiving complaints from the public and mediating between the complainants and the publishers to ensure the rights of those who may have been wronged in published reports. This has been successfully achieved and the existence of the industry’s self-regulatory mechanism has also facilitated direct contact between those with grievances and the editors of the concerned newspapers where corrections/clarifications etc., have been published without intermediation by the PCCSL.
It is particularly gratifying that this is an inexpensive way of settling disputes.  Where there is no agreement between the publisher and the complainant, the PCCSL’s Disputes Resolution Council headed by Mr. Sam Wijesinha, a former Secretary General of Parliament and Ombudsman and includes several experienced journalists, have adjudicated.
I therefore think that the PCCSL has been functioning satisfactorily although it is necessary to expand its mandate by bringing the electronic media too under its ambit in the future. Currently, the PCCSL process only deals with the print media.  Bringing in the electronic media poses a number of technical and other problems which, though formidable, will hopefully be overcome sooner rather than later.

Q: The issue of how safe it is for Sri Lankan journalists to carry out their jobs is one of deep concern. To what extent will the PC ensure the safety of journalists?
Now that the war is over, journalists are freer than before to perform their functions. However, dark shadows of the past have not altogether disappeared and the public are aware of some post-war incidents. Also we have not seen those responsible for past horrors, including Lasantha Wickrematunga’s murder, brought to justice. Pradeep Ekneligoda is still missing. As to how the Press Council will ensure the safety of journalists, is a matter that you should take up with the Press Council itself. I don’t see how the PC, or for that matter the PCCSL could ensure the safety of journalists except by providing safety valves that will prevent anger building up to murderous proportions.

Q: Will the implementation of the PC pose a threat to democracy? Why?
As I said in answer to your first question, the punitive powers in the Press Council can be abused if the Council is in the wrong hands. That could be a threat to democracy. Ideally, there must be interaction between the media and the government and arrangements acceptable to both sides should be agreed upon by both sides in matters involving regulating the press.

Q: What will become of the industry run Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL)?
I believe that the PCCSL will continue, hopefully with some representation from the state media as well, even if the government goes ahead with its plans to reactivate the Press Council. A lot of public money was spent in keeping a dormant Press Council alive although it performed no functions, for several years. The PCCSL does not depend on state funds for its existence and is a mechanism set up by the industry to regulate itself. It has done a lot of work in creating awareness in the country that a mechanism exists for people with grievances/complaints against the press to find redress and I think that it has performed a useful role. You would be aware that newspapers themselves regularly publish advertisements publicising that readers have rights. Those are public interest notices for which nobody pays. The newspapers themselves carry the cost. Certainly the PCCSL can be improved and it is necessary that both the state and the private media cooperate in doing so without adopting adversarial positions against each other.

Q: What stance will the independent media in Sri Lanka take following the implementation of the Press Council?
If the necessary compromises can be reached and the Press Council is reactivated, the independent media will have to live with the law. Very recently the PC took up a `case’ but was challenged on the grounds that it was not yet properly constituted in accordance with the Act.  What I am afraid of is that the state media, on political direction, may chose to work only with the Press Council and not the PCCSL. This has not been the case up to now although some editors of the state media are ambivalent about cooperating witch the PCCSL. I certainly hope that good sense will prevail so that we can have a well regulated news industry respecting the rights of readers/viewers functioning within the norms of democratic best practices. If the PC is activated, I hope that the two institutions (PC and PCCSL) will not be competitors. Ideally we must have one regulator acceptable to all.

2 Comments for “On The Press Council With Manik De Silva”

  1. D. S. A. Gunaratne

    As Manik de Silva points out both the PC and the PCCL can co-exist without impinging on any aspect of liberal (not libertarian) democracy’.

    PCs and PCCs are necessary institutions to ensure people’s right to freedom of expression and as a bulwark against the misuse of the news media by those who publish and edit them.

    Arrogance and self-conceit of the majority of those who hold executive editorial positions in the Sri Lanka media has prevented the emergence of good journalism in the country. By good journalism I mean journalism that meets the needs and aspirations of the people, not the whims and fancies of the editors and owners.

    PCs and PCCs must ensure to remind the editors and publishers that they are in the news business to serve the public rather than for making ceaseless profits and attacks on their political opponents.

    Additionally, I suggest that each news organization (e.g., Lake House, Upali Newspapers, Wijeye Newspapers, SLBC, etc.) appoint its own ombudsman to take up public complaints against their personnel and editorial practices.

    One more caveat. News media in Sri Lanka may emulate the example of The (Fargo, N.D.) Forum, which has a readers’ panel of a dozen or so community members to advise on the adequacy and quality of its news content. Panel members range in age from 18 to 80 and represent a variety of interests. It has a rotating membership with half of the membership retiring every six months.

  2. Realist

    Well said Sir. Wish other journalists act on principle and safeguard freedom of expression. the public have no problem with the Press which cannot be adjudicated by the PCCL. It is the government which is unhappy because it can’t enforce its will against the journalists.

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