The Sunday Leader

Wanted A Binding Code Of Ethics For Politicians

By Gamini Weerakoon

Each time when some politico or panjandrum declares the urgent need for reform of the media, some stout defenders of the freedom of the media in the government controlled sector go under the bed – in the tradition of a revered king of Lanka – to emerge days later with a confident announcement that it was a ‘pus vedilla’. Much more aggressive defenders of the media, will thunder in editorials, breathing fire and ‘vas kavi’ against all those conspiring against this sacred freedom of ours.

Nothing happens after that and life goes on with daily editorials back patting of the authorities on ‘development’ taking place in the country and the sagacious leadership we are blessed with. Whether this strategic pusillanimity and the practiced editorial bravado have saved our freedom of the media we do not know but like chicken pox and now dengue, the threats keep coming back.

While unknown but pusillanimous strategies and fiery editorials to save media freedom may have saved this media freedom or not they are very clearly not enough. Concerted action such as protests by journalists on the streets and continued agitation daily in the media are called for as seen in countries where media freedom is threatened. The new Code of Ethics may be a prelude for worse things to come especially with the possibility of a general and/ or presidential election close at hand.

Old hat

The threat of a ‘new media culture’ has been coming from the days of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mangala Samaraweera but not materialised and under Mahinda Chintanaya it is coming under different guises. The new Media Secretary, apparently the new media commissar made some astounding though inane statements to media heads and TV chief executives in January this month. He declared that a common agreement of all media channels in state and private media sectors is necessary. An agreement should be made regarding sources of information as well, he had declared in his media blog. We commented at length on this strange observation but received no response. Now comes a bill on Media Ethics for Journalists about which we read only in report in a newspaper which has ‘scooped’ the bill. By normal standards such a communication should have reached all media centres but under this dispensation it does not appear to be so.

We will not comment on the bill not having seen it in its entirety but question of the need for such a bill demands answers. On Thursday night we heard on TV, while we were writing this column, a speaker on TV, quite likely from the government, declaring that the proposed amendment to the Code of Ethics under the Press Council Law is not a binding law but only a call for abiding by the stated ethics. It was like the Fourth Precept in the Pancha Seela in Buddhism (I shall not utter falsehoods) and there is no legal binding. It was not a law but only a pledge, he declared.

Certainly in journalism the primary and the most basic precept should be refraining from uttering lies. The question thus arises whether with a near 75 per cent of this country taking this vow to observe this precept almost every day, we should have a Press Council Code of Ethics superseding or supplementing this precept propounded by the Buddha?

A Code of Ethics will not be binding. The Penal Code, other criminal and civilian laws are binding. Why then impose a new Code of Ethics on journalists? Already there is a Code of Ethics enacted under the Press Council Law way back in the eighties. Another Code of Ethics was supposed to be enacted under the Press Complaints Commission on the recommendations of the Editors’ Guild.
What is the obsession in foisting all these Codes of Ethics on Sri Lankan journalists?

State of the profession

Before this question of Codes of Ethics for Journalists is raised, the pundits in Mass Communications and politicians who profess to know all about journalism should inquire into prevalent conditions in the profession. What is the method of recruitment of journalists and what are the qualifications of highly placed journalists in state media institutions? What are the salaries paid to journalists of state media and even private institutions at the commencement of their careers? With so many unemployed graduates what is the percentage of graduates in editorial departments? With even some of the ‘famous’ journalists or even the big chiefs not having even basic educational qualifications, it is natural that graduates have no place in editorial staffs in state and even in the private sectors.
It is an open secret that the main criteria for selection of journalists are political stooging and dependable ‘loyality’ in the private sector.

In the context of this sad state of journalism in Lanka, this proposed Code of Ethics is a sham exercise for some undetermined reasons.
Finally, since politicians are the last word, in every professional institution – judiciary, medical, academic, police, administrative and journalism and more, why has the all important issue of a binding Code of Ethics for politicians of every status not been thought of. This Code of Ethics for politicians should have the force of law and be enforceable by the Supreme Court. That would rid Sri Lanka of most of the crippling ills from which it is suffering today.

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