By Ameen Izzadeen
In journalism, dog does not bite dogs. Yet, there are times when, as civic conscious journalists, we need to, at least, bark. After all, we are watchdogs. In recent months and years, sections of Sri Lanka’s media have knowingly chosen a path to promote racism and hate speech, showing scant regard for journalistic principles. Their choice tends to reverse the journey Sri Lanka’s media right activists have embarked on to take Sri Lanka’s journalism to the peak of professionalism. In this journey, some have been killed, some have disappeared, some have been assaulted and some faced jail terms.
Call them black media, as Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera once referred to some media elements for their blatant breach of media ethics and their embrace of deceptive journalism.
At a time when national unity and reconciliation are seen as a sine qua non for economic progress, the black media have been committing a horrendous social crime by practising hate journalism and becoming cheerleaders of forces of hate. Instead of being the voice of the voiceless or the oppressed, they have become the ideological spokespersons for supremacists.
The right to free speech is not a licence to vilify a target group. Bashing the people whom we dislike for some reason or the other is not journalism. Ideal journalism is about detachment from bias and prejudice. It is about objectivism — a bond with the truth. Journalists are truth seekers for the benefit of all beings.
As journalists, we need to be mindful that the freedom we seek to practise our vocation without fear or favour is not the freedom of the wild ass to present rumours as facts and mythology as science. Whatever freedom we enjoy must be exercised with responsibility. We serve the people. We are bound by industry ethics and human decency to give our readers the truth and nothing but the truth. We are not in the profession to peddle fake news. That is immoral, indecent and outright deception.
In this age of social media and news-in-a-flash, the newspaper is still relevant today, because of the ‘trust factor’. Our readers believe we publish a news item only after we check its veracity, the credibility of the source and its conformity with the code of ethics. If, by mistake, we publish an item based on incorrect information, we are duty bound by our readers to carry a correction. Besides, we also recognise an aggrieved reader’s right of reply. This is what makes newspapers a cut above the social media news platforms. We give information with integrity. It is fair, balanced and accurate.
In Sri Lanka, media activism has led to the abolition of the criminal defamation laws. It has succeeded in virtually making the Press Council Law obsolete and given the industry a code of ethics and a mechanism to deal with complaints. Another landmark achievement is the enactment of the Right to Information Act (RTI), which has empowered the citizens to know what the government is doing with their taxes.
Time has come again to galvanise media activists into action, as the media field has come under the spell of an evil force. Journalists who are committed to objective journalism need to come forward to exorcise the demon and free the media from the claws of racism.
Just as journalism does not promote harmful habits such as smoking, narcotics drug use and porn, it needs to eschew racism. Terrorism and racism are the two sides of the same despised coin. Just as terrorism is condemned and targeted for elimination, racism needs to be condemned and abhorred. In a responsible media outlet, there is no place for terrorism and racism.
Yet we saw in recent months some media outlets publishing wild rumours as facts. The stories include a Muslim doctor allegedly making thousands of Sinhala women infertile, his daughters allegedly distributing sanitary pads to Sinhala students and a Muslim charity distributing free meals to patients visiting key hospitals. The manner in which these stories were presented indicates the editors have binned the code of ethics and found refuge in racism, preferring chaos to order — and war to peace. Does racism sell newspapers? Some news channels give a spin to statements. They highlight a negative part and play down the positive aspects of a statement or speech of a public figure or a political party.
By not adhering to the code of ethics the editors themselves had played a role to produce, before they carried the news items, which CID detectives say have no basis, they have created an obnoxious stain on Sri Lanka’s social fabric.
Worse still, hate-speech propagandists are given lavish air time and space. We agree that the media need to report what newsmakers do or say. But, as responsible journalists we need to check facts. Let me cite an example: Addressing a public meeting, a former governor claimed that Saudi Arabia had deposited large sums in Sri Lankan banks to enable Muslim entrepreneurs to borrow at 1 percent interest, whereas non-Muslims have to obtain loans at exorbitant interest rates. The television network which gave airtime to this speech should have verified from the banks concerned whether the politician’s claim had any basis. That’s journalism 101. The failure to fact-check is conspicuous. On Wednesday, the Saudi embassy denied the story.
Fact-checking is a journalist’s job, not the work of NGOs. Journalists are not naïve not to know that most politicians resort to racism to win votes.
We need to act fast to stop the rot, lest the media as a whole be accused of spreading racism, publishing or broadcasting fake news and being a vehicle for hate mongers, some of whom exhort or endorse violence against a target ethnic group. To name and shame racists masquerading as journalists, we need to devise a mechanism.
On January 25 this year, this column pointed out how Microsoft browser Edge’s NewsGuard plug-in carried a ‘Proceed with Caution’ tag to warn visitors to websites that generally fail to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability. Newsguard is an industry-based body consisting of veteran journalists.
Sri Lanka’s media industry and activists should form a NewsGuard like body so that readers, listeners and viewers could be warned to proceed with caution. We need to strengthen the code with an enforcement mechanism to deal with violators. The code is not merely an exercise by publishers and editors to protect themselves from costly litigation. It should reflect a commitment to journalism’s highest values. Preparing an annual ‘good journalism’ ranking is one way of getting about the issue. This can be done by an industry-run body with the help of an expert panel.
If the industry does not step in to plug the holes, we will be inviting the state to step in with new draconian laws. We will be giving an excuse for the state to regulate the media. Already, the state is utilising the ICCPR Act in an arbitrary manner bordering on oppression of the freedom of expression. The Act in question appears to have filled the vacuum created by the abolition of the criminal defamation law to imprison journalists.
Good journalism is fact-based, value driven and agenda-free. Unfortunately, the question we need to ask is not whether we fall within this definition, but how far we have strayed from it.
(This articles first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)