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
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in 1996 that the Law should be repealed in its entirety and that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
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
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.