Fears, 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defamation laws, the momentous occasion dawned last Tuesday with the provisions pertaining to criminal defamation being repealed.

Despite the 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.

When finance 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 said.

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.

"The oppressive 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".

Emphasising 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.

Following the 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.

Heatedly, he 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.

He refused 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'.

Foreign minister 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.

Attributing 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.

"I refuse 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.

He charged 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.

Minister R.A. 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," he sniped.

Dr. Sarath 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.

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