The dragon is back

The objectives of the Sri Lanka Press Council as set up by Law No 5 of 1973 were, among others, to ensure the freedom of the press in Sri Lanka, to prevent abuses of that freedom and to safeguard its character in accordance with the highest professional standards.

It is now widely acknowledged that the Press Council had been unable to achieve these high objectives for the many decades that it was in existence.

On the contrary, staffed by government appointees, of whom some were eager to dance to the tune of their political masters, it became a convenient vehicle for politicians to vent their anger against some newspapers. In the process, it often became an object of ridicule, both with the press and with the public. Its orders were sometimes unreasoned and in certain cases, propelled by the clearest party political motives. Its chairmen, particularly during the latter years of its functioning until it lapsed in 2002 or thereabouts, commanded little public respect and were known for their ill-tempered outbursts against journalists rather than for the excellence of their decisions.

In short, the Press Council had failed miserably to fulfil its primary mandate, namely of establishing itself as a fair and independent statutory regulatory body for the print media. Giving formal effect to these concerns, a committee on media law reform constituted by the Peoples Alliance administration recommended in 1996 that the Law should be repealed in its entirety and that the Press Council should be succeeded by an independent regulatory body. Subsequent debates and discussions in Parliament drew repeated attention to the deficiencies of the Press Council Law and called for reform. Consequently, the establishing of the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission (PCC) by the media industry during the term of the United National Front government in 2003 was welcomed as a positive replacement of the Press Council.

The PCC signalled acknowledgement by the industry that effective self-regulation was imperative if the Sri Lankan press was to pursue its goal of being a disciplined watchdog of the public good. It formed part of a body of positive media law reform which included the abolition of the laws of criminal defamation and painstaking efforts towards drafting a Freedom of Information Law. These efforts were commended domestically and internationally.

Since the PCC came into being in 2003, it has been engaged in diligent efforts to gradually raise the standards of good and responsible reporting. Making sure that journalists observe the Code of Ethics formulated by the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka has been one of its primary tasks. Its functioning could be streamlined and the efficacy of its sanctions further improved with time and experience. However, there is no doubt as to its salutary impact on the print media.

In this context, the decision of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government to reactivate the Press Council gives rise to a high degree of anxiety that all the commendable achievements of the past several years in raising standards of Sri Lanka's press will come to naught. Are we now to see once again, a politicised body engaging in censure of journalists who are unwise enough to incur the displeasure of the political establishment as a result of their critical reporting? Is this move on the part of the Government, a precursor to heightened attempts to silence the media in this country? Are we to witness perhaps, the resurgence of heavily condemned laws such as criminal defamation?

The re-activation of the Press Council will also bring deeply problematic provisions of that law into the spotlight. While it can no longer be used to launch prosecutions for criminal defamation as a result of Section 15 (1)(b) being repealed by Parliament in 2002, several other provisions are equally worrying. These include Section 16 of the Law which prohibits the publication of Cabinet decisions of which Section 16(3) makes it an offence for any newspaper to publish an official secret. The offences are liable to be punished by heavy imprisonment terms. Our Legal Columnist engages in a detailed analysis of the negative effect of these sections elsewhere in this newspaper.

In particular, the old and very inappropriate definition of official secrets was expected to give way to a Freedom of Information law which, as in the case of enlightened laws in India and other Commonwealth countries, permits only tightly defined exceptions to the general principle of right to information.

Such a draft was finalised following extensive meetings of civil society representatives, academics, the Department of the Attorney General and the Justice Ministry in 2003. Ideally this draft should have been enacted into law by this time. However, what we now see is not a reasoned exercise in balancing the right to free speech and expression with the interests of security or law and order but rather, a return to draconian ideas of the past.

This does not augur well for the years ahead. The Government should reconsider the proposed re-activation of the Press Council and encourage a process of constructive media law reform. To be sure, bringing old and discredited bogeys back into existence will not serve its avowed aim of good governance.


No. 8, Hunupitiya Cross Road, Colombo 2. P.O. Box: 1136, Colombo 2, Sri Lanka.
Tel: 2326247, 2328889, 2433272-3. Fax: 2423922, 2423258
Editor - editor@sundaytimes.wnl.lk
News - stnews@sundaytimes.wnl.lk
Features - features@sundaytimes.wnl.lk
Financial Times- ft@sundaytimes.wnl.lk
Subs Desk - subdesk@sundaytimes.wnl.lk,
Funday Times - funtimes@wijeya.lk

No. 48, Parkway Building, Park Street, Colombo 2, Sri Lanka
Tel: 0115330330, 0115330808, 0115330808. Fax: 2314864
Email: adve@lankabellnet.com


No. 47, W.A.D. Ramanayake Mawatha, Colombo 2, Sri Lanka.
Tel: 2435454, 2448322, 0114714252. Fax: 2459725

Back To Top Back to Top   Back To Index Back to Index

Copyright © 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to