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The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

23rd, March 1997



Media reform: coming, coming, not coming

In an appendix to the country report on Sri Lanka, the Article 19 has cited a series of recommendations on freedom of expression and whether actions have been taken by the Sri Lankan govt. to implement them. Excerpts from the appendix 1:

Recommendation 13: Repeal the Press Council Law in order to safeguard press freedom and the principle of editorial independence.

March 1997: No change. In its final report, the committee established by the Media Minister to advise on legal reform affecting freedom of expression reiterated the recommendations on this issue that it had made earlier.

It specified that the Media Council Act, which should replace the Press Council Law, should cover both print and electronic media, and that it should articulate the freedom of the media in terms of the requirements of the ICCPR, and seek to uphold and promote freedom of the media in these terms. The committee recommended that the objectives of the Act should include: promotion of freedom and responsibility of the mass media of social communication; ensuring the right of citizens to be informed freely, factually and responsibly on matters of public interest; ensuring the maintenance of high standards of communication ethics; keeping under review developments likely to restrict the supply of information of public interest and importance, and developments within the media which may tend towards monopoly, and taking appropriate remedial action.

The committee recommended certain criteria to ensure the full independence of the members of this body, and specified that its powers should include the power to order a correction or apology, or to censure the particular medium of communication, depending on circumstances. There should be no provision in the Act prohibiting publication of Cabinet decisions or other matters, and there should be no possibility of political interference in its functioning.

February 1996: The Committee established by the Media Minister to advise on legal reform affecting freedom of expression recommended that Section 16 of the Press Council Law, which prohibits the unauthorized publication by the press of the proceedings of Cabinet meetings and decisions among other things, should be repealed.

It said that it would address in its second report the replacement of the Press Council Law by a Media Council Act. The second report had not been submitted by late February 1996. It was unclear from the reporting of the Media Minister's December 1995 speech in which he said laws relating to parliamentary privilege, defamation and oaths of secrecy were among those to be amended in 1996 whether the Press Council Law would be included.

March 1995: The govt. media policy promises "reform" of the Press Council Law. This is under consideration by a Committee reviewing legislation which affects freedom of expression. After it took office, the new govt. made new appointments to the Press Council.

Recommendation 14: Defamation law should be reviewed and amended to ensure that the media are able to freely perform their twin roles of informing the public and acting as a watchdog of government. In particular, Section 479 of the Penal Code, which makes libel a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment, should be repealed, and politicians and other public officials should be expected to tolerate a higher level of criticism than private individuals in defamation cases.

March 1997: No change. In its final report, the Committee established by the Media Minister to advise on legal reform affecting freedom of expression reiterated the recommendations on this issue that it had made earlier. The govt. has made no changes to this legislation.

February 1996: The Committee established by the Media Minister to advise on legal reform affecting freedom of expression recommended the repeal of Section 479 of the Penal Code, or alternatively that an amendment be introduced to empower a High Court Judge to decide whether to indict for defamation, with specific guidelines. In his December l995 speech, the Media Minister said the defamation law would be amended in 1996, but he gave no further details.

March 1995: The govt. media policy does not mention the law on defamation as being among those laws which will be reviewed.

Taking turns: two brave mavericks

Maverick'' is a delightful American contribution to the Queen's English. The Oxford dictionary informs us that it refers to an unbranded calf or yearling, an unorthodox or independent person. Its origin (c.1850) is traced to a Texan engineer who owned but did not breed cattle.

The two great mavericks in our time who persist in making news, and quite often grabbing the headlines, are of course Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Fidel Castro of Cuba, the Colonel and the Commandante one in the turbulent oil-rich, Islamic and Arab Middle-east, the other in the Caribbean. One confronts Israel, the Jewish state (only one of its kind), and the other stands up bravely to the American colossus next door. The US, now the sole superpower, is thus the link. It was the United States rather than the United Nations that created Israel..... in the Arab heartland.

This very special Israeli-US relationship is now under the severest strain. So much so this extraordinary exchange of words took place just the other day. And in the most unlikely place..... a memorial ceremony to the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a brilliant soldier and war hero, assassinated by a young Jewish fundamentalist.

When Rehavam Zeevi, a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, called Mr. Martin Indyk, the American Ambassador a ''yehudon'' (a slur word in Hebrew meaning ''a Jew boy'' or ''Yid") the US diplomat replied: ''The last time somebody called me a Jew boy, I was fifteen years old and I punched him in the face''....... meaning, I dare say, that he would have done the same had he not held the exalted post of the Ambassador of the United States of America, appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Zeevi, MP, was far from impressed, by this show of American muscle. ''Try me'', he snapped ''let's see if you mean it. You are a Jew boy''.

Far from silenced, Ambassador punched again: ''You are a disgrace to your people'' but only to receive an ugly below-the-belt blow: ''You are a son of a bitch''.

What readers should note and students of the increasingly tense Middle-east scene mark well, is that Rehavan Zeevi is an MP of the ultra-nationalist Moledet party.

Likud alliance

The character of the 8-party Likud-led alliance and Likud's total dependence on these ideologically assorted partners makes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for all his tough-guy postures, a very vulnerable leader. The scandal which led Attorney-General Roni Bar-on to resign after holding that important post for 24 hours, is probably the most striking evidence of this vulnerability.

Quoting anonymous sources, Associated Press (AP), the American news agency, reported that ''Prime Minister Netanyahu's office struck a deal to appoint an Attorney-General who would reduce criminal charges pending a political ally''. State Prosecutor Edna Arbel also demanded that Israel Television which broke the story, hand over the material to the police. She spoke of ''the supreme national interest''.

But behind all this was a simple political horse-deal. Mr. Roni Bar-on's appointment as AG was "part of a deal, an illegal deal, reached between senior officials in Prime Minister Netanyahu's office and the ultra-orthodox SHAS party which holds a deciding vote in Netanyahu's coalition government''. Attorney-General Bar-on would drop a court case against SHAS leader Aryer Deri, who is charged with fraud and embezzlement! SHAS threatened to quit the coalition if Roni Bar-on did not get the job.

This is just one example of the large price Mr. Natanyahu and his not-so grand coalition has to pay to remain in office. While Israel was always exposed to attack on its aggressive anti-Arab policy and its refusal to yield on the fundamental issue of Palestinian rights, it was admired for its vigorous democracy, and the respect for individual rights and good governance. But now......

Libyan response

It would have surprised students of Middle-east politics, if Libya's mercurial Muammar Gaddafi did not get into the act. Well, he did not disappoint his admirers. He rose to the defence of the Jordanian soldier who fired on a group of Israeli schoolgirls, killing seven. ''We are against striking civilians and children.

We are fundamentally against that.... but the Jordanian soldier who fired at the Israelis is not mad. He was driven crazy by the Israeli occupation........'' said Colonel Gaddafi.

He may have added that unlike Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his able foreign minister Shimon Peres who were genuinely committed to the ''Land for Peace'' formula, Mr. Benjamin Natanyahu has only one overwhelming concern, a pre-occupation in fact. He wants power; he would make any horse-deal, to remain Prime Minister.

To do that he simply must satisfy his partners in the grand alliance, and that includes SHAS, to name just one party.

Gaddafi defiant

The disunity of the Arab camp is one of the main sources of Israeli strength. Ever since the able strategists in Jerusalem decided that Israel, for all its military prowess, could not fight a united Arab world, much of its diplomacy was devoted to create and promote conflict in the Arab camp. And of course make sure that the US would protect Israel.

To achieve this, Israeli policy makers, skillfully using the Jewish lobby in the US (and, of course, the Jewish vote), succeeded in building a strong US-Israeli alliance. The US, on its part, saw the advantage in this partnership in terms of the deep Soviet penetration in the oil-rich Middle-east.

The collapse of the Soviet Union lost Jerusalem this leverage. Israel cannot offer the US the services of a cop-on-the-beat, since Washington does not see any credible threat from a USSR that has become Russia and an economically besieged Russia at that. The radical Arabs have no big powerful patron. They are on their own. They must mobilise their own strength. And this explains the statement issued by the ''Union of Arab writers'' after a recent convention in Tripoli and a meeting with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.''

In these days when the colonialists are escalating their vicious attacks against the Great Jamariya, to punish it for its progressive stand and adherence to principles, there is no one more worthy to take a steadfast stand to deter such insolence than the educated and enlightened people who represent the conscience of mankind....."

Cuban courage

No country can be more defiant of course than Cuba and its leader Fidel Castro........ the revolutionary leader of a small nation that has had to cope with invasions, attemps at assassinating Castro, plots and coups, than Cuba. There was a time of course when Cuba could rely on a protective Soviet umbrella. No more. The Soviet Union has collapsed and Moscow cannot even cope with nationalist revolt such as the separatist Chechen uprising.

And yet these two charismatic leaders Castro and Gaddafi, retain the respect, regard and fierce loyalty of their people. The Cubans and the Libyans did not have it easy like the Israelis. Despite their reputation as a tough people, the Israelis look as if they are now in serious trouble.

Nice guys may finish last as a great American coach warned but Benjamin Netanyahu's brand of toughness may invite even greater trouble.

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