A move to make the sword mightier

By Easwaran Rutnam
In journalism there is a popular quote which states that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. In other words it means that, as far as the media is concerned, journalists can make a change through what they write. However now there are fears the government maybe attempting to stifle that freedom given to journalists, the freedom to express an opinion or reports the facts.
Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella announced recently that the government will be introducing a ‘Code of Ethics’ for the print and electronic media, websites and advertisements.
He emphasized that the Code is not a new law but rather a guide to ethical reporting. More or less advice. However under the Press Council there is provision to enforce a ‘Code of Ethics’ and this may well be what the government is hoping to do.
The question many are asking now is who is this “Code” for? Who does the government want to protect? The public, the journalists or the government itself? Most print media institutions in Sri Lanka already abide by a ‘Code of Professional Practice’ agreed upon by The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka and implemented by the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL).
The Code of Professional Practice as stated in the preamble aims to ensure that the print medium in Sri Lanka is free and responsible and sensitive to the needs and expectations of its readers, while maintaining the highest international standard of journalism. The Code both protects the rights of the individual and upholds the public’s right to know.
Chief Executive Officer of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, Sukumar Rockwood, says based on media reports, the ‘Code of Ethics’ proposed by the government contains almost all the points contained in the ‘Code of Practice’ of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka.
He questions why there should be two Codes when the PCCSL Code is full and conclusive except that it does not cover the electronic media, websites and advertisements. So in essence, he says it can be accepted. But the problem arises if an attempt is made to force it upon journalists. Ideally, a Code should be from within the journalist fraternity like the PCCSL Code, since they will have to implement/practice it.
“A Code should go with self control and should not be forced on anyone.  There should be self regulation as opposed to forced regulations. Controlling the media will stifle journalists and we do not encourage that. We encourage media institutions to introduce self regulation by journalists instead of forcing them to do something,’ he told The Sunday Leader.
Rockwood cautions against any attempt to bring in ad hoc rules and regulations on the media instead of carefully discussing the issue and reaching an acceptable solution.
Asked if the government had discussions with the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka regarding the proposed code of ethics, Rockwood said no.
He said that the Media Ministry only sought a copy of the ‘Code of Professional Practice’ of the Press Complaints Commission but did not have a dialogue with them on it.
The PCCSL Code of Professional Practice does not however include electronic media or advertising in the media, something which the ‘Code of Ethics’ does cover.
Rockwood recalled that a recent incident where a monk set himself on fire in Kandy and later succumbed to his injuries raised the debate on ethical reporting after one private television station aired in full the monk preparing and then setting himself on fire.
In instances like that, Rockwood said, there was a need to ensure the electronic media also follow proper ethics when reporting.
“As far as the print media is concerned, under the PCCSL Code of Professional Practice, showing such damaging images including how to more or less commit suicide is a violation,” he said.
The fear though is if the government will eventually use the Code of Ethics to “interfere” in editorial content. That is a fear raised by Bob Dietz, the Asia program coordinator of the Washington based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“Every time we have seen a government try to enforce a code of ethics, or a code of conduct, or a code of responsibility – we’ve seen all sorts of titles used – we have seen the government insert itself into editorial coverage.
Sri Lanka already has Code of Professional Practice developed by the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and subscribed to by nine media organizations.  Journalists in Sri Lanka don’t need to have that replaced by a government-written rule book,” he told The Sunday Leader.
He feels the Code of Ethics is not a bid on the part of the government to make the country’s media better but rather part of an ongoing plan to control the media and silence critics. Former Media Minister in the UNP government Imthiaz Bakeer Marker agrees.
He says that when, apart from the Press Complaints Commission, there is also the government’s own Press Council, to deal with issues that arise in the media there is no need for a Code of Ethics.
Imthiaz Bakeer Marker fears that the government is attempting to play down moves to introduce the Right to Information Bill in Parliament by introducing the Code of Ethics in order to have a noose around the media to prevent them from reporting on anything negative towards the government.
When the UNP was in power, Imthiaz Bakeer Marker claims, the media in Sri Lanka had the freedom to report what they wanted.
“At a time when the government is being isolated by the international community, bringing these kinds of rules and regulations on the media will not go well for the country as a whole.
A Code of Ethics will only spread fear in the media and not encourage them in any way,” he said. Imthiaz Bakeer Marker says the rationale behind the Code of Ethics, as claimed by the government, is not acceptable.
“There are other ways to deal with the issues raised by the government on media ethics. This is not the way to go about it,” he said. He says UNP MP Karu Jayasuriya will push to have the Right to Information Bill passed in Parliament and any moves to block that attempt will be seen as counterproductive for the government.
The National Peace Council says the government’s motivation for coming up with the Code of Media Ethics may be due to its concerns that its image and those of its members are being unfairly tainted by various allegations.
“Sections of the internet-based new media in particular have been severely critical of the government. Distorting the truth or manipulating news for the advantage of politicians or a political party is not an accepted value in a democracy.
At the same time the publication of the truth may not always be in the interest of those who have to run the country,” the National Peace Council said.
The National Peace Council says the draft code prohibits “criticisms affecting foreign relations” and which “promote anti-national attitudes.” It also prohibits “material against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature.”
“These are broad categories which could lead to self-censorship by the media on account of fear of being deemed to have violated the governmental Code of Media Ethics.
The draft contains language that could be used to intimidate the media.
Revelation of military secrets and other sensitive government information may be contrary to the public interest, even if it is true. What is and what is not in the public interest is not an easy decision to make. This problem is compounded by the fact that Sri Lanka does not have a Right to Information Act and hence there is no guideline to the journalists with regard to the scope of the public’s right to know,” the National Peace Council said.
The National Peace Council says presently the media is engaged in self censorship for fear of antagonizing those in positions of power in the context of disappearances and killings of journalists who have dared to expose crimes and illegalities by those in positions of power.
The National Peace Council therefore believes that the threat to media freedom rather than media ethics must receive the most urgent attention of the government.
“There are many unresolved cases of murder and disappearance of media personnel.
The government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which  made a study of this problem, recommended that the government should thoroughly investigate these cases and ensure that those guilty were apprehended and brought to justice.
While journalistic standards in both the state and privately owned media can and must be improved, the National Peace Council believes that this should be a matter for self-regulation and not for governmental imposition upon the privately owned media,” The National Peace Council stated. (Courtesy The Sunday Leader)