The Sunday TimesPlus

4th May 1997



Unholy Landmarks

Govt. vs the Press

1970-1977* United Front Government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike begins to realize the advantages of using enacted law to control the independent media. The Press Council law of 1973 which imposes legal constraints on newspapers by prohibiting publications of Cabinet decisions, Cabinet documents, certain defence security and fiscal matters is passed in the National State Assembly. Another obnoxious law that nationalized Lake House and vests 75 percent of the shares in the Public Trustee is also approved.

* The government proceeds to tame the press more drastically, and seals the printing presses of Independent Newspapers Ltd. To prevent the regulation being challenged in court, an emergency regulation is gazetted the same day, precluding the court from inquiring into the validity of the law.

* Periods of press censorship are imposed, and are an ominous harbinger of worse things to come.

1977 - 1994 * Muzzling the free media continues to be the favourite sport of the United National Party Governments of Presidents J. R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa. In a singularly hypocritical manner, the UNP does not hesitate to make use of laws abusing media freedom which they themselves had once condemned as being draconian. Lake House continues to be a state monopoly and the Jayewardene Government takes over the Times Group of Newspapers in August 1977 running it into bankruptcy.

* The Press Council Law is used to frighten independent journalists into submission. (in fact, it is only after 1980 that section 16 of the law which prohibits disclosure of Cabinet secrets is actually exercised by the Government to bring prosecutions against particular journalists)

* Meanwhile, bolder attempts are made to control the free media. During the run up campaign to the Referendum of 1982, a state of emergency is imposed and a censorship clamped down on the press. Several small Opposition newspapers and printing presses are sealed and the climax comes when the Government orders the seizure of 20,000 copies of leaflets put out by a group of Sinhala and Buddhist clergy. The seizure is challenged in the Supreme Court and in the landmark Pavidi Handa case, the police officers responsible for the seizure are rebuked and compensation is ordered to be paid to the petitioners.

* President Jayewardene proceeds to amend the Parliament Powers and Privileges Act, and journalists are hauled up before the House for the publication of the then Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed under a misleading caption. A leading lawyer of that time S. Nadesan, Q. C. criticises this action and is himself charged for breach of privilege. Fortunately, the case is referred to the Supreme Court which holds that he has committed no offence. The Act is again amended to provide for a new offence of wilfully publishing words or statements uttered in the House after the Speaker has ordered them to be expunged.

* Under the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, threats to media freedom enter a new phase. Press censorship on grounds of national security continue to be enforced on a more intense level as the war in the North intensifies and Southern insurgents threaten the stability of the entire country. Personal violence is perpetrated on journalists, the most well known example being the killing of reputed journalist Richard de Zoysa.

* The Premadasa era sees the emergence of tabloid journalism which seeks to project a more radical and independent image that the mainstream press. Years of direct and indirect intimidation of the media however result in the quality of journalism being diminished. Undue state interference and overt political patronage of journalists has obvious effects in a lowering of professional standards, self censorship and the loss of credibility.

1994-1997 * The newly elected Peoples Alliance Government pledges to free existing media from government/political control. A democratic media culture is promised and PA party chief Chandrika Kumaranatunge goes so far as to state that the same standards of media freedom prevalent in the United Kingdom would be allowed to flourish here.

* Fore a while, an atmosphere of heady freedom does prevail in the press. Social and political issues which previously had been discussed in the smaller "alternative press" are given broader coverage in the state owned media. Working journalists speak of a true freedom of expression. This however is not to last for long. The assassination of UNP Presidential candidate Gamini Disssanayake and more than fifty five others in October 1994 just before the elections brings a sudden change in government relations with the media.

The government faced with mounting opposition to ongoing peace talks with the Tigers responds by exerting intense pressure on the state media and mounting a wave of government manipulation/censorship of the press. Direct interference with the content of news reporting includes the remaking of the front page of the Dinamina issue of 28 October 1994 by the staff of Temple Trees.

* The editor of a Sinhala language weekly "Trishule" is charged with incitement to violence under the Prevention of Terrorism Act after publishing an article where he calls for the Sinhala people to "rise up and fight for their rights" which he suggests are being threatened by the peace talks with the Tigers. A magistrate later dismisses the charges.

Meanwhile editors of English language newspapers are taken to the fourth floor of the CID and interrogated, others are assaulted by unknown assailants. Two criminal defamation suits are launched against editors of two English language mainstream weekly newspapers. This move is criticised vigorously as being detrimental to the functioning of a free media.

* In February 1995, antagonising the media still further, the government announces that it is setting up a committee to formulate a code of ethics for journalists, the President publicly referring to the media in the country having the "freedom of the wild ass". Later this proposal is quietly dropped.

*Later on in the year as military activity in northern Sri Lanka begins to intensify, the President issues emergency regulations imposing censorship of news on military matters.

* The Government meanwhile appoints four committees to inquire into how the media could be improved on an overall basis.

All four committees submit their reports by mid 1996 but subsequent developments would be laughable if they were not truly tragic. While marginal progress is made with regard to the recommendations made by the Committees on the Working Conditions of Journalists and on the Establishment of a National Media Institute, the fate of the other reports are different. One year after its release, the report of the Committee on the Reform of Media Laws has not even been made public.

* The image of the PA Government media policy and of its Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayke suffers further damage as a Broadcasting Authority Bill that seeks to establish a politicised body to control the issuing of licences to radio and television stations is presented in Parliament. The Bill is immediately challenged in court by the Opposition and free media bodies, and is currently being heard. Antagonism between the media and the government plummet to depths not previously apparent in three years of governance.

Continue to Plus page 6 - A passion for plumbing and cars * Book review

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