In the ‘90s in the United Kingdom, the press was experiencing the beginning of a new era with the recent establishment of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and the encouragement to self-regulate.
This had come about following serious debate about the role of a free press in a democracy and an obvious decline in newspaper standards across the industry in a period of fierce competition between titles in the previous decade. The press had been ‘drinking in the last chance saloon’ and under the threat of statutory controls.
But with the PCC and the setting up of an editors’ code it put its house in order.
At the same time, 4500 miles away in Sri Lanka, the newspaper industry was facing major problems under an even more authoritarian government who had no love for an independent and increasingly critical press. Criminal defamation was being widely used as a political weapon to muzzle it and journalists generally were experiencing harassment and intimidation. There was a statutory press council, which had become moribund and there was no forum for public debate on the rights and wrongs of the press.
As Director of the PCC in the UK from 1996 I was always very interested to hear of experiences of other countries and offer help where possible, and so it was in the 1990s that the Commonwealth Press Union approached us to seek assistance in Sri Lanka where the press wished to establish self-regulation and an appropriate body to oversee it at the same time as campaigning for the abolition of criminal defamation.
At the request of Lindsay Ross who was then the exceptionally experienced Press Freedom Director of that august body, we embarked on a programme of professional assistance to the Sri Lankan newspaper industry as it moved towards self-regulation.
The first visit of a member of the PCC of the UK, Professor Robert Pinker marked the start of a longstanding involvement with the press in Sri Lanka as they ventured to establish their own self-regulatory body.
Over the years this took the form of advice and training for the staff of the newly established body and from time to time, visits by our staff. It is universally accepted that press freedom is a cornerstone of any democracy but it is equally true that as democracy has evolved, the sum of press freedom has-regrettably-decreased.
Sri Lanka has a very long established and vociferous tri-lingual press. For many years the English language press, in particular, produced exceptional journalists who went on to lend their expertise throughout the Commonwealth and many, such as Mervyn de Silva and Esmond Wickremesinghe, became legendary figures.
Sri Lanka also had the benefit of men of exceptional vision on the publishing side and in D.R. Wijewardene, founder of the Lake House Group, they had the great luck to have an articulate and very influential spokesman who truly believed in the importance of a free press in a democracy and who was prepared to stand up for his journalistic rights.
By the 1990s many of these pioneers had retired or died and the nascent independent press were facing hard times under an increasingly intolerant government. But the willingness to defend the rights of a free press has been continued by their successors in the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka under the calm guidance of D.R. Wijewardene’s son, Ranjit.
With their support, and working closely with the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, the slow struggle to achieve self-regulation began. As a quid pro quo for setting up an effective regulatory body, the press sought the abolition of criminal defamation, which was increasingly used by politicians to muzzle ‘recalcitrant’ editors. Indeed, at one point in the mid-90s, it seemed that most editors were facing criminal defamation suits from senior politicians, the President, no less, in particular.
It took many years, much sweat, toil and commitment, but in 2002, the government announced that criminal defamation would be abolished and the country’s media associations reciprocated by announcing that a self-regulatory body, the Sri Lanka Press Complaints Commission, would be formed.
The inaugural meeting took place in October of the following year. It is an enormous tribute to those who fought for so long that the body continues today-one of the very first successful self-regulatory frameworks to be established in the Commonwealth, and a great example to so many who are treading the same vital path.
The events recorded in this important and timely book reflect a very difficult and dangerous time for the press in Sri Lanka. But it should also be regarded as the story of a major victory in the struggle for press freedom in that country and a symbol of hope in the wider Commonwealth.
Dr. Rajiv Weerasundera started his journalism career as a reporter in the Sun newspaper published by Independent Newspapers Ltd in 1985. He has been contributing regularly as a columnist to the Sunday Times since 1989. Having qualified as a doctor, he is also a University lecturer.
At present he is practising in Australia. Priced at Rs. 990, the book is available at leading bookshops