Amidst All Deliberations Media Code Of Ethics Publicised
By Easwaran Rutnam
While the debate continues if Sri Lanka needs a media code of ethics or not, the Media Ministry last week made public the draft code on its website prompting strong reactions from international media rights groups and human rights organizations.
Also last week President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quoted by his office as saying that an all-inclusive code-of-ethics for the media should emerge from within the industry and the government is simply playing a supportive role on the matter.
In neighbouring India, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the rapid growth of revenue-hungry Indian media and recent scandals involving news outlets have prompted growing calls for external regulation and in the process raising concerns about independence of the press.
The calls for regulation follow controversy over the widespread practice of paid news—essentially “advertorials” giving favourable coverage to an individual or issue in exchange for advertising revenue.
While many journalists in India accept that the industry’s standards are falling, the growing calls for external regulation raise many questions. Geeta Seshu, consulting editor for The Hoot, a South Asian media watchdog group, agrees that it is time to address maladies in the media. “It is definitely the need of the hour, especially with a media that has grown untrammelled, has covered itself in the most inglorious manner with corruption, paid news, sensationalism, and violations of privacy and suffers little scrutiny in terms of ownership, working conditions, and professional practices in newsrooms,” Seshu told CPJ. “The question is, as always, who will bell the cat?”
CPJ says the draft media code introduced for the Sri Lankan media would impose harsh restrictions on journalists’ ability to report freely.
“As Sri Lanka prepares to host the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime should stop expending energy on imposing a code that would further suppress the country’s already dwindling free press,” CPJ’s Asia program coordinator Bob Dietz said.
CPJ says the Code of Media Ethics, introduced by the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, uses broad and vaguely worded language to prohibit “criticisms affecting foreign relations” and content that “promotes anti-national attitudes.” It also prohibits “material against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature” and warns against the publication of content that “offends against expectations of the public, morality of the country or tend to lower the standards of public taste and morality.”
CPJ notes that according to media report Keheliya Rambukwella, the minister of mass media and information, has said the code would not become law. It is not clear what legal ramifications would occur if the code is adopted or in what ways the government would seek to enforce it.
Local journalists have said the code will further the self-censorship that is already pervasive in the country.
Sri Lanka has remained a highly restrictive and dangerous nation for the press. At least 26 journalists have already fled Sri Lanka in the past five years to escape threats, intimidation, violence, and imprisonment, according to CPJ’s newly released 2013 exile report. At least five journalists have been killed in the same period, according to CPJ research.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) meanwhile joined partners and affiliates in Sri Lanka in calling on the Government to reconsider its move to introduce the new code of ethics for the media.
The Sri Lanka Press Councils Act of 1973 has a provision which enables the government to notify a code of ethics for the media. A code was in fact introduced in 1981 though never enforced since the Press Council itself lapsed into a phase of inactivity. The newly introduced code is seen by media observers in Sri Lanka as a refurbished version of the 1981 version, though this has not been acknowledged by the government.
The introduction of this code comes in the wake of the revival of the Press Councils Act in 2010, despite serious concerns among journalists about its many harsh provisions, including the power to prosecute under criminal law for any perceived violation of the laws in force, IFJ said.
Despite active government efforts to reconstitute the Press Council as a functioning body, it remained inactive for long, since few journalists were willing to accept the invitation to join. This changed in 2012.
“Much of the deterioration of the media environment in Sri Lanka today could be attributed to the government’s tendency to use the platforms it controls for launching partisan political attacks against opponents and the independent media. This has created a climate in which the news websites have felt themselves free of any obligation to play by a fair set of rules”.
IFJ notes that the newly introduced code covers the print and electronic media, news websites and advertisements published in all forms of media. It incorporates strong language requiring that it should be “honoured in letter and spirit” and introduces thirteen specific grounds on which media content could be prohibited. Well over half of the code deals with explicit prohibitions on advertisement content. Many of its clauses are vaguely phrased and would allow for broad interpretations.
The IFJ observes that the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL), which is in its tenth year of fairly successful operation, has been promoting self-regulation and a Code of Professional Practice written up by the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka. This code is reviewed every two years and is adopted by the independent print media and online newspapers.
“We fail to see how the GoSL effort to introduce a media code to supersede the existing practices in the profession will contribute to the public interest. From our partners and affiliates in Sri Lanka, we gather in fact, that the immediate priority lies elsewhere: in reforming the government-owned media so that it functions truly as a public service. We urge the GoSL to withdraw the proposed code of ethics and instead lend its support to the professional code drawn up by the Editors’ Guild and endorsed by IFJ partners and affiliates,” the IFJ Asia-Pacific office said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also said that the new media code proposed by the Sri Lankan government contains overbroad and vague language that could have a severe and chilling effect on free speech.
HRW says the proposed code comes at a time when the government has taken various measures to clamp down on Sri Lanka’s once vibrant media, including forcing some electronic media critical of the government to close down.
“The government’s proposed media code is part of a sustained campaign to control the media and curtail dissent,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lankan journalists are already under enormous pressure not to be critical of the government, and the vagueness of this code will likely lead to greater self-censorship to avoid government retaliation.”
The minister of mass media and information, Keheliya Rambukwella, announced that the code is intended to create a “salutary media culture in the country” because the actions of unnamed media houses had led to many problems.
Extracts of the Code:
No publications should be published which
a) Offends against expectations of the public, morality of the country or tend to lower the standards of public taste and morality
b) Contains criticism affecting foreign relations
c) Contains derogatory remarks on religious groups or communities or promoting communal or religious discord which may affect religious and communal harmony
d) contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate falsehood and suggestive innuendos and half truths or wilful omissions
e) contains information which could mislead the public
f) is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which may promote anti-national attitudes
g) Contains anything amounting to contempt of court
h) contains materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative
i) Criticizes maligns or slanders any individual or groups of persons such as ethnic, linguistic or religious or such segments of the public
j) contains details of a person’s family life, financial information, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability and one’s home or family and individuals in hospitals unless it has a direct relevance to the public interest
k) Encourages superstitions or blind belief
l) Promote atrocity, drug abuse, brutality sadism, sexual salacity and obscenity
m) Denigrates the poor