Media freedom: The good, the bad and the ugly

By Ameen Izzadeen
How free are Sri Lanka’s media and how responsible are they socially? Experts, media activists and senior journalists expressed their views within the scope of this question at a landmark symposium to mark the 20th anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility. The 1998 declaration is a milestone in Sri Lanka’s media history. It paved the way for the abolition of the draconian and archaic criminal defamation law which had been misused by the powers-that-be to intimidate and penalise journalists. It also led to the setting up of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, a non-statutory body promoting self-regulation.
Another of the 1998 Declaration’s achievements was the passage of the Right to Information Act. Despite its few flaws, this piece of legislation is regarded as one of the best RTI laws in the world and it, indeed, has empowered the citizens, though much needs to be done to explain its benefits to grassroots level people who are being lied to and misled by unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats.
However, the 1998 Declaration’s two key aims remain unfulfilled. One of them is the abolition of the Press Council Law, under which a government-appointed Press Council operates to address the grievances of those who are wronged or defamed by the Press. The council can initiate legal action against a newspaper or magazine if, in its opinion, the newspaper or the magazine has defamed someone. This is a good arrangement, only as long as the council maintains its independence. But the issue is there is room for interference and abuse. Self-regulation activists say their opposition to the Press Council is based on the provision that the Council has the power to jail journalists and publishers.
A free press is a key feature in a vibrant democracy, where self-regulation by the press itself is preferred to regulate media freedom rather than a government-imposed and politically manoeuvrable mechanism. Perhaps, some Sri Lankan political leaders out of sync with democratic values and enlightened principles see in the Press Council Law an instrument to gag the media. Or, perhaps, the Press Council Law is still relevant in the absence of a rule to make membership in and compliance with the industry-led self-regulation mechanism – the PCCSL — compulsory for registration as a newspaper or a magazine. At present, the PCCSL membership is voluntary, and most mainstream newspapers and periodicals have voluntarily subscribed to its rulings and accepted the Editors’ Guild’s code of practice. But there are those which still have not. Years ago, a mainstream popular Sunday newspaper withdrew its recognition of the PCCSL following a trivial dispute.
The Colombo Declaration’s other key objective is the enactment of contempt of court legislation. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his speech at Thursday’s ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Declaration, said, “We can go into the contempt of court issue. We need legislation but we have to remember there are other stakeholders — including the judiciary. We have to work together with judiciary and Parliament. We need laws on contempt. I don’t think it’s impossible. The Parliament oversight committee on the judiciary can also go into it but this requires extensive consultation.”
The sooner this law is enacted the better it is for Sri Lanka’s democracy, given the surge in contempt cases in recent months and years, and also given the need to insulate judges from allegations of judicial dictatorship.
Another key area that drew much discussion at last week’s symposium was the possibility of extending the self-regulation mechanism to electronic media and online media, which, at present, virtually have a free run, with some of them enjoying the freedom of the proverbial wild ass. The symposium was told that the Norwegian media have adopted such an all-encompassing self-regulation mechanism.
The symposium also saw some media activists turning the searchlight inward to express their disgust at sections of the media which abuse the new found media freedom after the 2015 change of government.
Journalism may be one of the best of vocations and may be hailed as the voice of the voiceless and the watchdog or the fourth estate to monitor the government’s actions. But there are good journalists, bad journalists, evil journalists and those masquerading as journalists.
Good journalism is largely an ideal concept and there are only a few who sincerely strive to practice it. Bad journalism manifests when media practitioners lack professionalism. Evil or ugly journalism is found when journalists become pawns of politicians and businesses. There is no harm in a media outlet supporting a particular politician or political party, provided it openly declares its endorsement of the politician or the political party.
It is not ethical journalism when we bash the guy whom we hate or with whom we have some personal disputes and cover it up with a public interest label. If journalists resort to skullduggery like politicians, and twist and turn news to promote the agendas of politicians, political parties or businesses, then they are qualified to be called ‘presstitutes’.
Journalist and worker rights activist John Swinton (1829-1901), who worked for the New York Times and, later, other publications, described such journalists as intellectual prostitutes.
Of such intellectual prostitutes, he said:
“The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press?
“We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
Journalists who are embedded to a political agenda or to a businessman to make money through backdoor channels only produce bastardised news.
People with high media literacy can spot such crooks in journalism. But how many of us are taken for a ride daily by stories planted by unscrupulous journalists?
In journalism, we say dog does not eat dog, but we are duty bound to expose the scoundrels among us, for our silence in the face of blatant deterioration of professional standards and ethics is tantamount to endorsement of foul journalism.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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