Amidst the cacophonous politics of the last several months with all manner of charges of political malignity a body that one hoped had been overcome with rigor mortis has suddenly and almost surreptitiously come alive. Unknown to the public at large that is regularly treated to a political nadagama that is both vile and bile, it [...]


Let sleeping watch dogs lie


Amidst the cacophonous politics of the last several months with all manner of charges of political malignity a body that one hoped had been overcome with rigor mortis has suddenly and almost surreptitiously come alive. Unknown to the public at large that is regularly treated to a political nadagama that is both vile and bile, it has probably had little time to absorb the significance of this resurrected body.

Like Lazarus it has risen from the dead though it has taken much more time to do so than the biblical character. The perturbation of newspaper publishers, editors, journalist’s organisations both in Sri Lanka and abroad is understandable. The Press Council which was set up in 1973 was and continues to be a reviled institution for it has the power to fine and jail journalists and editors but there is no recourse to an appeal once a decision has been made by the worthies who sit on it.

In a hard-hitting statement media organisations criticised the President and the government for reviving the Press Council which one would strongly urge undermines the media freedom that those committed to yahapalanaya and good governance promised ahead of the January presidential election and soon thereafter.

So why was the Council revived by filling some vacancies in the 7-member commission just weeks before a crucial parliamentary election, a gesture that serves to expose the perfidy hidden by the fig leaf of political promises or by officials placed in positions of power and influence?

Perhaps it was thought by those who initiated this Lazarus-like resurrection that it would go unnoticed by a public otherwise preoccupied.

It was natural and understandable for the media organisations to raise it as it concerns them. The media cannot perform its responsibilities when, to use a weathered phrase, the sword of Damocles, hangs precariously over its collective head.
What is unclear and requires an explanation from those responsible is why it was necessary to fill the vacancies just now to awaken the dead or dormant?

Earlier this month, Karunarathna Paranavithane, secretary to the Media Ministry said in an interview with a Sunday newspaper, that the government had not reactivated the Press Council. It was there, he said, and had not been deactivated. It has just filled “some vacancies”.

What has not been stated publicly is how many vacancies existed and since when, on what date they were they filled and the names of new members. That information would tell us whether the council did or did not have the necessary number of members to form a quorum, which according to the Press Council law must consist of five of the seven members.If there were three or more vacancies then obviously the Council could not have functioned as it would not have had the required quorum for a meeting.

The question then is whether the very act of filling vacancies has provided the Council with the necessary number of members to permit it to legally meet and, if necessary, adjudicate on public complaints or other matters the council perceives to be offences under its law and take punitive action against editors and journalists.

While it is correct that it is the president’s prerogative to appoint members of the Press Council- two of them being nominees of journalist organisations and industry unions- the council itself functions under the Ministry of Mass Media. Unless we are told otherwise, it would be fair to assume that it was the Media Ministry that brought to the attention of President Sirisena the existence of vacancies in the Press Council and probably proposed that they be filled.

I doubt that with all the political and other problems on his plate Maithripala Sirisena would have been aware of these vacancies in the council unless somebody alerted him to it. If that assumption is correct who is it that drew the president’s attention and suggested that the vacancies be filled?

In doing so the untimely activation of a dormant body could only have adverse repercussions for a president and a government that had faithfully promised media freedom and lifted the previous stranglehold and fears under which the media and its practitioners functioned.

A great disservice has been done not only to the media but to the public which surely has a right to know.In fact the Right to Information Bill which should have gone to parliament much earlier and become law by now obviates the need for such bodies as the Press Council that constitutes an obstacle to the people’s right to know.

Why is it that a president and government that led from the front in assiduously promoting the public’s right to information subject to certain restrictions set by law, are now giving oxygen to a Press Council that negates the very essence of the public right to receive and impart information and hold dissenting views and opinions?

I remember the political ethos in the days that the Press Council Law was passed followed by the bill to take over the Lake House group of newspapers. It is well to remember that initially in the early 1960s the SLFP and the LSSP tried to pass legislation to control the press. Later in the early 1970s the SLFP with the LSSP and Communist Party in tow passed the Press Council and Lake House takeover laws.

These parties do not have a clean record when it comes to media freedom. Not that the UNP is lily white in these matters either having taken over the Times Group under the Business Acquisition Act and later dismissing several Lake House editors and journalists because they would not bow to the dictates of their political masters.

But the media cannot merely condemn government control if the self-regulatory system they propose is also replete with fault lines. If self regulation is to be the alternative then the media itself must turn the searchlight inward and ask itself whether its practices the ethics and standards that it has set itself.

At the beginning of this century the then government of which Ranil Wickremesinghe was prime minister, allowed the Press Council to go into hibernation while at the same time it erased the charge of criminal defamation from the statute book.
The intention was not hard to see. Ranil Wickremesinghe preferred to see the media establish a self-regulatory system that would obviate the need for state intervention to control what many politicians consider a recalcitrant press.

He said so at the Commonwealth Press Union conference in Colombo in 2003 advocating a self-regulatory system which was certainly considered a much more acceptable alternative to state intervention and regulation.The situation has become more complicated today than when Mr Wickremesinghe addressed the CPU. The expansion of the electronic media and emergence and spread of a generally uncontrollable social media have made self-regulation much more difficult and even unachievable.

The other day the CEO of the Press Complaints Commission Sukumar Rockwood said that four English language newspapers did not co-operate with the PCC that is trying to give some respectability and legitimacy to the media. If even the print media cannot get its act together, blaming politicians for displaying their claws seriously dilutes the legitimacy of the media objections.

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