3rd February 2002

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Thoughts from London
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 have got.

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 now.

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. 

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