Abolishing the aged Press Council and adopting a modern democratic system in print regulation is recommended
With several celebrations taking place to mark the International World Press Freedom Day, media issues dominated the socio-political platforms this week. Added to this was the controversies that surrounded the Secretary to Media Ministry.
Looking at the main topics that echoed from many platforms, two issues that dominated those deliberations; ‘media regulation’ and ‘professionalism’. A well-known media critique the Prime Minister himself repeated his strong sentiments at two platforms this week –firstly at the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Muslim Media Forum and then at the launch of the report “Rebuilding Public Trust” published by the Secretariat for Media Reforms at the Kadirgamar Centre on Press Freedom Day.
His basic criticism was on the subject of news reporting by some newspapers. He accused that some reports were biased and challenged their accuracy. On one occasion he said that the journalist in question had not contacted the main player of their story – referring to no other than the leader of the opposition.
These accusations, if carefully analysed were directly related to basic ethics in journalism. One- hundred per cent accuracy and impartiality are among the four main pillars of ethical journalism. The other two are accountability and minimising harm. If the accusations are true, those news reports have violated all four norms – the fourth one minimising harm being the biggest concern as those news items were linked to the subject of ethnic harmony in the country.
At the Muslim Media Forum function, the Prime Minister challenged the Press the Complaints Commission (PCCSL) to take necessary action on those news reports. The CEO of the PCCSL, Sukumar Rockwood was also present at the occasion. Out of curiosity I asked Sukumar yesterday as to what action has been taken with regard to this issue as there was an open requests to the PCCSL by the Prime Minister in a public speech. “We will be writing to him [ the Prime Minister) explaining the procedure regarding complaints,” said Sukumar explaining that according to PCCSL procedures, there exists a process that any complainant should adhere to. Either the PM’s office on behalf of the government or the Leader of Opposition could lodge a complaint following the procedure and then an inquiry will begin he added.
The absence of a proactive mechanism and not entertaining third party complaints have been major negatives of the PCCSL since its inception. It awaits the aggrieved party to come to its door step (even in a digital form) and lodge an official complaint. Thus, the print media could be unethical as much as it can and the PCCSL will turn a blind eye to such practices until a complaint is received through the proper channels. In other words, the PCCSL is not the ethical watchdog of the print media, but a body of redress for the aggrieved reader. So, is it a fully-fledged self- regulator?
In contrast, a head of state did complain to the PCCSL during its early days following proper procedures And it was non-other than President Chandrika Kumaratunga herself against her arch rival the Sunday Leader. What was the prompt response from PCCSL? ‘Sorry; the Sunday Leader is not a signatory to the PCCSL procedure, thus, we cannot proceed with this complaint.’ This particular incident drew disappointment from the then regime and it continued until President Rajapaksa re-establishing the Press Council. On top of that what could be the maximum remedy or redress that a complainant could receive from the PCCSL procedure? A correction or an apology by the publication is the usual practice of many such self-regulatory systems in the world.
PM accusing the media
On the other hand we have the Press Council that was established over four- and- a- half decades ago with draconian laws that could even jail journalists. The then government of Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2002 decided to ‘silence’ the Press Council and paved the way for a more democratic print regulatory system through the PCCSL. But subsequent political developments in the country pushed the Press Council back into the scene while the PCCSL also existed. However, President Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate during his campaign gave a pledge to abolish the outdated Press Council but turned back and revitalised it within a few months in office by appointing members to the council. This shocked the entire media fraternity.
Nevertheless, the media associations continue to refuse nominating their representatives to the council which makes it incomplete and impotent, though it continues to entertain public complaints and mitigate them. However, this fact has to be clarified through a judicial procedure, but no-one has so far dared to seek a judicial verdict on the operation of an incomplete Press Council. Only a few journalists and publications have questioned its operations – that included the Sunday Times and Ravaya. Journalist Sajeewa Wijeweera has openly challenged its existence, according to Ravaya story last week. Yet, the common understanding of the media fraternity and associations and experts is to abolish the stone-aged Press Council and adopt the latest and democratic systems of print regulation.
When referring to the so-called errant news stories, the Prime Minister, too, avoided naming the Press Council, but he did mentioned the Press Complaint Commission. In that context we can assume that the PM, too, does not believe in this ‘Jurassic Park’ system of regulation but would be more inclined towards a self-regulatory mechanism to which he himself paved the way some fifteen years ago.
But in the context of abolishing the Press Council, the PCCSL does not provide a better alternative in its current formation and mandate. As far as I am aware, there had been several reviews on this excellent concept of self-regulation but little has progressed. It requires more legal teeth and broad expansion of its operational mandate. (It is good to look at the Indonesian model to get fresh ideas.)
When compared to the media landscapes in our neighbouring countries, the PCCSL and the Sri Lanka Press Institute systems provide a classic case study of unity among the industry players, which has not been fully utilised. Though it is united and in a unique position to sit in one room and discuss the industry challenges, the decision making is still with a few individuals. It requires broader representation, pluralistic views and new ideas as well. Youth and gender dynamism too are missing in the system.
Regulating the print media is not a state functionality. It should be the responsibility of the industry. We already have started it, but the industry itself has forgotten that we should not allow government to interfere into this sensitive area. What we need is the replacement of the Press Council with a strong, proactive, dynamic new PCCSL with a broader mandate – without it too becoming another ‘Jurassic Park.’ If not, it will only be limited to accusations and attacks on media with no remedy, and the society at large will suffer. And most importantly it will be the biggest setbacks to press freedom in this country.