The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

25th May 1997



The alternative Bill:

Now they are talking sense

Kishali Pinto Jayawardana

Stung by comments that Sri Lankan civic soci ety groups are only skilled at criticising and not presenting concrete proposals on national issues for discussion, a Sri Lankan NGO together with the Free Media Movement last week put forward the draft of a Broadcasting Authority Bill as an alternative to the Government Bill which was thrown out by the Supreme Court recently.

“We have sent the Bill to the Media Ministry and have asked for an appointment with the Minister to discuss the matter. So far, we have received no response.” said a spokesman for the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The draft is being presented in the hope that it would be studied and critiqued by journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, the Government, the Opposition, political parties and other interested groups. The bill has been prepared by a working group of activists who emphasize that it is time to start focusing on real issues of how broadcasting ought to be regulated, rather than quibble over whether the UNP or the PA fathered the disgraced Bill.

The drafters of the alternative Bill make their intentions very clear at the start itself when they declare that the Act is to provide for the regulating of broadcasting activities in the public interest. The use of the word “public interest” is meant to underscore the fact that whatever regulation is permitted, it should always be in tune with accepted standards of freedom of expression, the freedom of the media, the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas and the freedom of artistic creativity. But what about the argument that broadcasters ought not to have special laws applicable to them, and that the normal laws of the land ought to be sufficient ?

It is significant however that the draft bill makes a distinction between public and private broadcasting stations. The Government bill also made this distinction and imposed far more stringent constraints on the private stations, rather than the public broadcasters. The alternative bill is however quite the opposite, treating the state stations with a certain degree of severity. Public broadcasters are required to see that the public is exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern, to make reasonable efforts to present a fair coverage of controversial issues and to give the right of reply to a person whose views on a controversial issue had been criticized over air. Public broadcasters have also been expressly required to ensure that news would be presented in a balanced manner, without intentional or negligent departure from the facts. Comparatively, the duties cast on private stations are less. Both are prohibited from broadcasting material that are indecent, offensive or obscene.

Meanwhile, the Broadcasting Authority set up to regulate stations and issue licences under the draft is a wholly independent body, free of State, Government and party political influences. A seven member Board of Directors will be appointed by a selection panel consisting of three representatives nominated by the Chief Justice, the Civil Rights Movement and by the existing licence holders.

The Authority has the power to issue licences every five years for radio and eight years for TV. A rather novel feature of the draft is that private stations themselves would have the freedom to formulate their own code of conduct which would have to be presented along with the application for a licence. A licensee could be held accountable if it departs from its specified code. The application for a licence will be at a public hearing similar to what prevails in the United States and South Africa. Acceptance or rejection will have to be for reasons given which will be open to public scrutiny. Any person aggrieved by a decision of the Authority can appeal to the Broadcasting Monitoring and Complaints Committee which shall consist of a retired judge of the superior courts and two members appointed respectively by the Authority and the aggrieved party.

Last week’s presentation of the alternative Broadcasting Authority Bill by the Centre marks a new trend of aggressiveness on the part of Sri Lankan activist groups who are now intent on challenging arbitrary state action by suggesting democratic alternatives.

‘What has been attempted with the Broadcasting Authority Bill will be repeated whenever the Government comes out with undemocratic proposals,” said a lawyer who was involved in the drafting process of the alternative bill.

Such activism comes none too soon. For years, Sri Lankans have been content to live and let live with draconian pieces of legislation that are hastily passed by an arrogant executive. The Attorney General’s Department and the Legal Draftsman’s Department that are ideally supposed to check undemocratic legislation in the making, abscond their responsibilities with ease. This was none better seen than in the case of the recent Bill where it was conceded in court on behalf of the AG that certain clauses were clearly unconstitutional. One is then tempted to question whether this unconstitutionally could not have been perceived by the Department earlier before the Bill was approved ?

Perhaps, the furore over the Broadcasting Authority Bill might wake those responsible for the framing of legislation to a stricter sense of their responsibility, and activist groups to a more defiant course of action. If so, one can yet be grateful to the Ministerial dimwit who had the audacity to present such an illegitimate piece of legislation in Parliament..

Back to 13th Amendment

By Fredrika Jansz

Operation Jaya Sikurui, the gov ernment’s set of power-sharing proposals, the 13th Amendment and a ban on the LTTE by foreign governments are the differing positions adopted by the PA and the UNP towards a possible resolution to a bloody ethnic conflict, now into its 14th year, which has claimed more than 50,000 lives.

Tamil political party leaders in the South have expressed dismay at the present military offensive which apart from targeting the LTTE, continues to displace tens of thousands of Tamil civilians caught in the path of an oncoming armed force.

Last week rumour had it that a fresh peace offering is in the offing from two Tiger leaders, Anton Balasingham and Thamil Chelvam, who reportedly have offered to begin negotiations on the governments devolution package. The report has been denied as being a “hoax,” but a separate letter to President Kumaratunga allegedly from the LTTE has made allusions to a confederation of state as a basis for negotiations to begin between the two factions.

Senior UNP party members have queried the feasibility of such a process involving the rebel group, as they ask “what do the UNP at this stage have to offer the LTTE,” as an alternative to the government’s proposal on devolving power. The party leadership however stands firm in its argument that the package cannot be implemented minus the participation of the Tigers.

Parliamentarians have scoffed at a recent approach by Dr. G.L. Peiris requesting the US Government to list the LTTE as a terrorist organization and ban the rebel group. Unless Sri Lanka proscribes the Tigers, it seems “hypocritical” an MP said, for the Constitutional Affairs Minister to request foreign administrations to follow India’s initiative.

EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda is holding discussions with the UNP on resurrecting the 13th Amendment, Kumar Ponnambalam Jr. says, the 13th Amendment was the brainchild of India. Yet, the Indians today says all support must be lent to Chandrika’s peace package. “Is India de-bunking from its own initiative?” Ponnambalam asked.

He reiterated the island is at present in a situation where being a Sinhala Buddhist country is being firmly advocated by Kumaratunga herself who is on record saying there is no ethnic conflict. He asserted, in order that a Tamil identity be established the Four Principles stated in the Thimpu Declaration must be incorporated in any new Constitution for Sri Lanka, and it is on this basis that any other search for a system of government can follow.

In a joint statement issued by the Tamil delegation on the concluding day of Phase I of the Thimpu talks on the 13th of July 1985, four cardinal principles were listed as a must for a meaningful solution to the ethnic conflict.

Recognition of the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a nation, recognition of the existence of an identified homeland for the Tamils in Sri Lanka, recognition of the right of self determination of the Tamil nation, and recognition of the right to citizenship and the fundamental right of all Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The Action Group of Tamils in Colombo (AGOTIC) in a press statement has criticized the present peace initiative by the PA government. The statement says the present lame attempts to search only for a system of government to assuage Tamil concerns, whilst persisting with Buddhism as the foremost religion makes a mockery even of this lame exercise. AGOTIC asserts that therefore it becomes imperative in the first instance to rally round the Four Principles put forward at Thimpu in August 1985.

An Academic, Nadesan Satyendra, in a subsequent paper presented on the Thimpu Negotiations states the talks represented a watershed in the Tamil national struggle for more reasons than one.

Firstly, the recognition accorded to the representatives of the militant movement by both the Sri Lankan government and the Indian government and the open participation of those representatives at negotiations with the accredited representatives of the Sri Lanka government, secured the legitimization of the armed struggle of the Tamil people in an international frame.

Secondly, the Thimpu Declaration, made by the Tamil delegation at Thimpu, served to crystalize the central issues of the struggle and thereby also served as mobilizing platform for the conflict.

The Tamil delegation at Thimpu which included the LTTE, walked out of the talks on the 17th of August 1985, accusing the Sri Lankan Government of acting in violation of the ceasefire agreements which constituted the fundamental basis for the Thimpu talks. The Tamil delegation at the time said Sri Lankan security force personnel had run amok in Vavuniya and elsewhere killing more than two hundred Tamil civilians.

LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran later rejected a proposed devolution of power which he said was extremely limited and failed to meet the legitimate political aspirations of the Tamil people.

The 13th Amendment, the LTTE say, confers dictatorial powers on the President, while the entire Provincial administration of the Island is subject to the dictates of the Centre. President J. R. Jayewardene was accused at the time of abusing emergency powers and continuing a regime of repression against the Tamil people. The Indo-Lanka Accord instead of promoting peace in Sri Lanka’s north and east brought war.

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