By Neville de Silva
Hope PCC will be an impartial body
If all the promises made by politicians in the past
25 years are laid side by side they would surely girdle Sri Lanka.
Many have been the promises made to the media. When in opposition, parties
have faithfully promised to extend the boundaries of press freedom only
to jettison those ideas in power as soon as media criticism begins to detect
political fault lines and expose the corruption, sleaze and intimidation
that often characterise our political behaviour.
Last Sunday, Kishali Pinto Jayawardene in an article headlined "Media
law reform this time around", reminded readers of the various promises
held out to the media at various times but never came to be implemented.
One particular law relevant to the media in Sri Lanka interests me.
That is the one intended to replace the Press Council. Those who have not
only read the Press Council law but had often to tread gingerly round it
unless the rigour of the government machinery was brought to bear on us,
know only too well what a pitiful piece of legislation that was.
What is worse, chairmen and other officials of the PC had the audacity
to attend seminars where they spoke about press freedom in Sri Lanka while
still armed with this law.
The quality of some of the persons who eventually sat on the council
made one wonder whether any administration could have seriously expected
them to monitor the media and act as impartial observers.
The Press Council law might not have been as bad as the one envisaged
by President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe under which the licensing of journalists
too is contemplated.
But Sri Lankans who have lived through politically turbulent times in
the past couple of decades or so, would remember that we had our own potential
Mugabes who thought they had a divine right to rule and that their power
would extend from here to eternity.
But if that deformity called the Press Council must go, then what is
to replace it? Kishali Pinto Jayawardene refers to a Press Complaints Commission
(PCC). I am not aware whether previously when such laws were being discussed
whether the form and shape of a PCC had been taken up. She is not too enlightening
on the subject either. But if the PCC that was mentioned as though it is
a fait accompli as a replacement for the PC, is one on the one that parades
under the same name in the UK, then second thoughts would not be out of
place. Here too the Press Council was replaced by a Press Complaints Commission,
quite quickly established by the publishing industry when it seemed that
the government would set up one of its own under growing public pressure
against an uncontrolled and uncontrollable media.
The PCC consists of 15 members nine of whom are members of the public
and six journalists, including editors from some major newspapers.
As the title suggests, it is the body to which the public goes with
their complaints against anything published by the industry.
But the fact is that not even the newspapers are agreed that this body,
set up as it is, would give the public a fair hearing.
In a devastating attack on the PCC and its chairman Lord Wakeham, a
columnist of The Guardian Catherine Bennett took the PCC to task for its
ruling on a recent case connected with the tabloid newspaper the Sun and
its cheque book journalism.
Referring to this case and Lord Wakeham's reply The Independent newspaper
wrote a scathing editorial headlined "This spineless regulator has let
down itself, the press and the public".
It said "If the regulatory body fears to speak obvious truths, the prospects
for self-respecting journalism in Britain in the years to come look poor.
The spinelessness of Lord Wakeham's PCC sends the worst possible message
to the world at large".
I am bound to agree with the criticism levelled at the PCC having gone
before it myself in a complaint against the London newspaper the Sunday
Times. Readers might recall the events relating to the injury to the eye
sustained by the American born journalist Marie Colvin last April when
she tried to surreptitiously cross from LTTE-held territory to government
lines in the Wanni. She was injured by an exploding grenade fired by a
soldier. Her injury more than doubled the publicity that she would normally
Two of her articles had serious errors of fact, which were historically
wrong and needed to be corrected. Colvin claimed that the LTTE emerged
only after the Sinhalese had gone amok in July 1983 rioting and killing
hundreds of Tamils.
I wrote to the Letters Editor of the Sunday Times asking for a right
to reply since a number of letters praising Marie Colvin and the paper
had been published. The Sunday Times refused to publish my letter.
At which point, despite advise from colleagues, I complained to the
PCC that the newspaper had violated Article 1 on accuracy and Article 2
on opportunity to reply, of the PCC's Code of Practice to which the Sunday
Times is a signatory.
After seven months of complaining to the PCC, dismissing with documentary
evidence every point raised in defence by the Sunday Times, my complaint,
along with that of another Sri Lankan who had independently complained,
was upheld on both counts. But the behaviour of the PCC left much to be
desired. Every effort was made by the PCC to ensure that the name of the
journalist would not appear in the adjudication notice. Also it obliterated
every sign that would point directly at the offending articles by merely
referring to them as articles published in April and July.
One wondered how any reader, who was not particularly interested in
this attempt to vilify Sri Lanka and the Sinhala people, would recall what
appeared seven months earlier.
Had Marie Colvin's name appeared, then some readers would have recalled
because of the publicity given here to her injury. There is more to this
battle with the PCC that needs to be told, but space would not allow it
Lord Wakeham boastfully said that the PCC hears about 2000 cases a year.
But as an NGO that monitors the PCC and helps complainants rightfully stated
just about one per cent of the public complaints get a favourable adjudication.
I was lucky in a sense because persistence and all the evidence I submitted
could not be ignored.
But one could see from the wording of the adjudication notice which
The Sunday Times was forced to publish, that obfuscation and convolution
were used to cover up the decision.
The problem is that the PCC is funded by the newspaper industry. Can
the public expect fair and impartial decisions from such a body?
If he who pays the piper calls the tune, as it appears with the PCC,
then it is necessary to change the person who pays the piper. It must be
a publicly funded body on which persons of integrity and understanding
sit. The government and the industry must refrain from appointing stooges
if the independence and integrity of the institution are to be held in
esteem by the public which it must ultimately serve.