The new Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, speaking to the Sunday Times said looking back Sri Lanka had some of the finest journalistic traditions in the South East Asian region. The press today has to take an equal if not larger responsibility for propagation of conflict issues. Journalists play a much bigger role than a politician as by writing they help formulate the views of society. Columnists on the 1950's and 60's devastated some of the politicians of the day, while still maintaining the finer civilized ethics of journalism. Politics was analyzed on issues and policies. Unfortunately lately this tradition seems topsy turvy as a few journalists, have superimposed a racy kind of sensationalist journalism to that witty humorous but responsible reportage. This is where all the problems began, between the government and the media, he said.
A committee headed by R K W Gunasekara, whose report was finalized last year, Samaraweera said, will be included among other issues to be discussed when a parliamentary Select Committee for media is appointed maybe by July 8 this year. One of the issues stated in the report calls for the abolishment of criminal defamation suits filed against the members of the media, which cases could otherwise be heard in a civil court. At present five members of the Editors Guild face criminal defamation charges vs. the State.
The new Media Minister says the broadbasing of Lake House will have to wait for the moment. This again is an issue that has been highlighted whereby a law enacted in 1973 stipulates 49% of ANCL shares be sold over a period of time to the public. Successive governments, however, have not seen fit to do so for the last 24 years.
The newly appointed Parliamentary Select Committee will further study proposals for a new Broadcasting Authority Act, acceptable to the majority press and Government, and a Committee to study the implementation of the Media Council Bill, will be appointed. The proposed Media Council would act as a regulatory body to preserve the good ethics of journalism, he said. The Council may take over the functions of the present Press Council. This is why, he said, intellectuals and people with a vision have been appointed to the Press Conucil who will be able to steer the committee through this transitional period.
Approval has been granted by the President to repeal the 1978 Parliamentary Privileges Special Provisions Act, which Mr Samaraweera says J R Jayawardena introduced in a "very indecent hurry" in a matter of two days. Editors have been taken to the well of Parliament and humiliated under this Act, Mr Samaraweera, said.
Refuting allegations that he canvassed for the media portfolio, the Minister stated he has been given " a razor blade to eat curd with". Denying he had the President's ear for many an issue, Mr. Smaraweera asserted the Government remained committed to releasing the media both from the Government and the Opposition.
Criticizing a government does not indicate freedom of expression, as a true free media should be released from political pressure of any sort, he said. Future policy will include minimum intervention in the private media, while certain rules and regulations will be formulated to govern the conduct of the Fourth Estate.
Asked why he has made disparaging remarks against journalists Mr. Smaraweera said he still maintains some journalists, minority, can be bought not with just a bottle of arrack but a shirt as well. "It is the lesser calibre journalist I am referring to," he said.
Mr. Samaraweera reiterated the government is committed to creating a strong liberal media. The hostile environment between the government and the media is more of a cosmetic creation, which is a result of misunderstandings. For example the 'Right of Correction'. When we ask some newspapers to publish a correction they either do not publish it or carry it in some insignificant corner of their newspaper. Some newspapers do not publish articles that would oppose their view. For example early last year some leading Buddhist monks held a seminar at the BMICH supporting the devolution of power. A certain newspaper attacked them mercilessly making crude references, literally calling them "Naked Sadhus". When the Sangha Nayakas had replied, the reply was never published, Mr. Smaraweera said.
Criticism is welcome, as a government can generally cope with it, he said. "We have the ability to laugh at ourselves". Issues and policies could be highlighted, maintaining a separate column for trivialities if necessary. The media have the right to criticize but we as Ministers and MP's should also possess the right to use the normal courts of this land like any other citizen of this country to regress our grievances when maligned, he said.
With the support of the majority of journalists who I firmly believe are committed to upholding the finer traditions of journalism we can revert back to a truly strong, liberal but a responsible media. I feel the key is freedom and responsibility.
The minister denied the President had been critical of adverse statements made by Lake House recently but specified the President had stressed that her public engagements are not primary news stories. Because of the servile mentality that has been created in the government media they feel the moment the President says something it must be carried as headlines, he said.
Asked why he chose to dissolve boards of media institutions, Mr. Smaraweera said as a new Minister in charge he has the freedom to appoint people he has the confidence in to implement policies, advocated by him. He asserted he has great confidence in these people as they all possess a strong vision for the country.
A Media Training Institution will be constructed as some journalists have no training whatsoever but are there to fulfil various personal hidden agendas, he said. The UDA have been approached to allocate land in Kotte, for the Training Institute, and he hoped to secure an overseas grant for such a project. The Media Training Institute, he said, would cover all aspects, training, education and recreational. Some of the younger journalists today have great potential and should be exposed to such a facility, he said.
Saying he did not have any interest in initiating a newspaper of his own Mr. Samaraweera said, however, he would certainly use the media to promote the Sudu Nelum Movement and the Devolution Proposals. "I certainly feel that if I can use the media in the process of national reconciliation; for the integration of the various minorities in this country, I certainly will not apologize for that," he said.
Claiming some journalists are greatly responsible for some of the country's ills, Mr. Samaraweera says the Fourth Estate are not a special breed of their own. If we both realize that and work together it will help in the development of the country much more, he said.
The United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Param Cumaraswamy has informed UNP parliamentarian Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene, who was compelled to withdraw his plea for copies of listed documents in the Criminal Misappropriation case filed against him in the light of objections of the prosecution last month, that under the International Law the prosecutor was obliged to supply such documents.
The application of President's Counsel Tilak Marapana to the Colombo High Court Justice D. Jayawickrema requesting that photocopies of documents listed in the indictment be made available to the accused had to be withdrawn owing to the Prosecuting Counsel Navaratne Banda's objection that the prosecution was not obliged under the law to provide them. Dr. Jayawardene is indicted under the Public Property Act with having misappropriated government funds. It is alleged that he unlawfully received salary payments for performing the duties of a state appointed medical officer during 1991 to 1993 when no such duties were in fact performed by him during this period.
The special Rapporteur has buttressed her point by citing Principle 21 of the U.N. Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers which states that it is the duty of the competent authorities to ensure lawyers access to appropriate information, files and documents in their possession or control in sufficient time to enable lawyers to provide effective legal assistance to their clients. It adds that such access should be provided at the earliest appropriate time.
Ms. Cumaraswamy has further noted that Rule 12 of the U.N. Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors was also pertinent. This rule reads "Prosecutors shall, in accordance with the law, perform their duties fairly, consistently and expeditiously and respect and protect human dignity and uphold human rights, thus contributing to ensuring due process and the smooth functioning of the criminal justice system."
Replying to some faxes sent to her earlier by Dr. Jayawardene on the matter, the Special Rapporteur has also undertaken to do whatever she could in this connection within the parameters of her mandate. A copy of her reply has been sent to the U.N. Centre for Human Rights in Geneva.
The case will come up for hearing on July 30.
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