cheers over repeal of draconian law
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Our Lobby Correspondent
The criminal defamation law -often compared to a
menacing sword over the independence of the media-is an archaic 120
year old piece of legislation that threatened media practitioners
with penal punishment. After a sustained campaign by the media calling
for the decriminalisation of the defamation laws, the momentous occasion
dawned last Tuesday with the provisions pertaining to criminal defamation
consensus to support the legislation, opinions as always were divided.
The UNP members appeared keen to repeal the draconian provisions
while opposition members though supportive of the amendments, had
serious misgivings about the prudence of such an action.
minister K.N. Choksy presented a bill to introduce the value added
tax (VAT) replacing the GST, PA's Dinesh Gunawardena insisted that
the government should ensure that no more price hikes would take
place until the VAT was actually introduced.
The legal luminary
turned minister assured that the bill was not an attempt to jack
up prices and added apologetically that the government had no control
over the prices decided upon by retailers. " If Shell Gas has
used that as an excuse, we will certainly look into that" he
It was the
ebullient Leader of the House W.J.M. Lokubandara who started the
second reading, enthusiastic about the opportunity presented to
him to repeal a law, long since recognised as obnoxious.
law has curtailed media freedom for over 120 years. These draconian
provisions contained in the Penal Code will now become history,
as the government paves the way for enhanced media freedom".
that harm to reputation or defamation was no insignificant matter,
he said that the drawback contained was the criminal sanction attached
to it. He noted that a public figure needed to protect one's reputation
zealously and naturally would not take it lightly if damage was
caused to one's good name.
minister was PA's Nimal Siripala de Silva. To him, the repealing
of criminal defamation was a cause for worry. What if this becomes
an open licence to malign the characters of public figures, he asked.
Nevertheless extending support, the burly member's contention was
that adequate legal safeguards should follow the amendment. "
Provision for civil action might be woefully inadequate at times.
Many media institutions today are pandering to the ruling party
and taking instructions from Sirikotha and its media head Saman
Athaudahetti who sometimes removed lead stories according to his
whims," he alleged.
thundered that the media had defamed many politicians of stature.
The only remedy available was criminal defamation as the civil action
sought to monetarily compensate when a person's loss of reputation
cannot be actually assessed.
to believe that media practitioners would enjoy the new freedom
in a responsible manner. His said the publication of a right of
reply and corrections should be given near-legal recognition to
prevent 'unfortunate future events'.
Tyronne Fernando, a one time media minister himself who spoke next,
accepted that defamation and harm to reputation were serious issues.
But he questioned whether defamation should lead to imprisonment.
the rapid deterioration in journalistic standards as a spill over
effect of the moral degradation of society was JVP spokesman Wimal
Weerawansa. A master at the game of thrust and parry, he critiqued
the fact that the country lacked a strong civil society, but relied
on groups with vested interest financed by Scandinavian NGOs who
made a living out of the country's miseries.
to only blame the media. Of course they have grown parasitic tendencies,
but they only reflect a tendency in the entire society-the lack
of ethics and standards. Perhaps it is this massive erosion in values
that attract uncouth criminals, drug dealers, mudalalis, smugglers
and underworld elements to enter politics. Naturally, politics in
Sri Lanka has ceased to be an exemplary field where people could
actually respect their representatives" he said.
there has never been a single minister who accepted responsibility
and resigned when he failed in his duty towards the nation. Similarly,
the media practitioners have become stooges of various politicians.
Politicians make a habit of keeping happy their own lap dog type
journalists," he said, admitting that, as always, there were
the occasional principled journalist.
D. Sirisena who spoke next began with a challenge to the opposition
to prove that the Prime Minister's media secretary removed any story
from the Lake House papers. Lauding the move to decriminalise defamation,
he said this was only the beginning and the government had a media
reform package planned which would enable free news gathering. He
did not forget to remind the opposition that the decline began with
the sealing of the "Davasa Group", the introduction of
the Press Council Law and the take over of the Lake House. "
You leave us to correct your pathetic mistakes. The JVP specially
cannot bear any opposing viewpoint. They condemned all those who
had other opinions and hence the desire to condemn the media today,"
Amunugama has always enjoyed controversial status with regard to
media freedom. A former censor turned PA strongman, Amunugama started
off by stating that the government was repaying debts to the so
called free media that campaigned for the UNP's election success.
Making a more
reasonable contribution was former foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar
who agreed that the Sri Lankan defamation laws needed urgent amendments.