20 years have passed since a group of forward-thinkers decided to set up a cause to promote the ideals of a liberal democracy through a free and responsible press. The Colombo Declaration, a document which was signed in April of 1998, bears testimony to this cause. Over the years the live wires behind this cause have stood firm ground in bringing about freedom of expression and freedom of information for the citizens of Sri Lanka. Although 20 years have elapsed with several positive developments, there are many goals that remain unfulfilled. However in a changing media landscape, that has stepped into the digital age, newer challenges have been identified. Topping these challenges are issues such as media credibility and regulation and therefore the Colombo Declaration 2018 re-evaluated the progress in the field of ethics and responsibilities in media. Hence the recently concluded three-day symposium to mark the 20th anniversary of the Colombo Declaration and Media Responsibility, attracted a diverse group of speakers both local and international who spoke, discussed and debated on a variety of crucial and timely topics.
It was also revealed that in Sri Lanka there’s no public service broadcaster, but the fact that there’s plenty of state media. However, in this changing informational environment, the need for a quality public service broadcaster is important
Struggle to protect media freedom
At a time when the media was threatened with criminal defamation charges, the country’s four main media associations joined hands for the first time to bring about media law reforms in Sri Lanka. They included the publishers, editors, working journalists and media activists. Towards the end of 1997 several media organisations, together with some lawyers and well-wishers, met to discuss on the subject of criminal defamation. What resulted was the signing of the Colombo Declaration in 1998 followed by an international symposium that discussed a wider range of issues. The declaration was signed at a time when the then Government engaged in serial indictments against editors and publishes with criminal defamation charges. The declaration was instrumental in repealing criminal defamation charges and several other positive developments. The Sri Lanka Press Institute along with its constituents including the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka, Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association and The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka has made great strides to make it a success.
Hence, over the past two decades, the following positive developments have taken place :
- The Abolition of Criminal Defamation provisions in the Penal Code and the Press Council Law in 2002, the repeal of Section 118 of the Penal Code, which had penalised attempts by contumacious or insulting words or signs, to bring the President into contempt.
- Repeal of the 1978 amendment to the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act (1953), which had given Sri Lanka’s Parliament the power to deal with serious breaches of privilege.
- The Establishment of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Press Complaints Commission and the Sri Lanka College of Journalism.
The adoption of the 19th Constitutional Amendment adding Article 14A, guaranteeing a constitutional Right To Information, the adoption in 2016 of the Right to Information Act and the establishing of an independent Right to Information Commission. However it is regrettable that apart from these positive developments, there has been little else that has been done to implement the proposals set out in 1998.
Highlights of the Colombo Declaration 2018
On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the recently concluded four-day symposium touched upon various topics from media regulation to ensuring the safety of journalists to training upcoming journalists, challenges with implementing the RTI and the way forward, incorporating technology in the media industry and the power of journalism.
There was another session on Right to Information and one of the very bright points in the Sri Lankan trajectory has been the adoption of the Constitutional Guarantee for the Right to Information
Touching on the key highlights of the sessions, Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy, a Canadian-based international human rights NGO, said that it’s a special occasion as the 20th anniversary version of the Colombo Declaration is signed. “What was an attack on media with criminal defamation cases got turned around into a victory for press freedom. It in fact mobilised and unified the community to fight back and alternately led to the adoption of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility. I work all over the world on media freedom and Right to Information issues and I could say that people are making statements and declarations, but I don’t see anything as vast as the Colombo Declaration. It’s a comprehensive statement about why the press is important and it’s a roadmap to show what needs to be done to secure press freedom in this country. It’s incredible how 20 years later it’s still a hallmark and a reference point and therefore it’s a globally relevant document,” said Mendel.
Referring to the sessions, Mendel said that the several issues from the idea of broadening the scope of the system to embracing the electronic media in both print and online media were raised. “In addition to that, the importance of media literacy was stressed, as people need to know what real media is and what’s not. It was also revealed that in Sri Lanka there’s no public service broadcaster, but the fact that there’s plenty of state media. However, in this changing informational environment, the need for a quality public service broadcaster is important. Safety was discussed and things have gotten better in Sri Lanka, but we haven’t seen accountability with regard to previous abusers. Sri Lanka was one of those countries which made headlines on the attacks and killings of journalists and people involved in the media. There was another session on Right to Information and one of the very bright points in the Sri Lankan trajectory has been the adoption of the Constitutional Guarantee for the Right to Information. It isn’t just a legal document, but an actual operational system which we heard of in Sri Lanka. In some other countries, notably in India, there are requests from people at the grassroots level. For example it was interesting to hear about a group of mothers - whose sons and husbands have disappeared- went to the Police with a copy of the RTI act and made demands about information about their loved ones,” he opined.
“A panel also spoke on the topic of fake news,” Mendel continued. “It was interesting to hear one panelist say that there is no such thing as fake news, but on the other hand we do have a problem of inaccuracy and misinformation from various sources and we need to combat it. “The panel discussion on contempt of court expressed on a variety of abuses and we heard from the Prime Minister that he’s trying to adopt a Contempt of Court act. However, I find the discussion on Contempt of Court a little bit conservative because in many countries you are pretty much free to say whatever you want about judgments, even before they are issued. This could even be while the case is continuing and it doesn’t matter whether the guy is guilty or not, because the court is able to do its business notwithstanding what the media reports, even on a biased perspective,” he added.
The declaration was signed at a time when the then Government engaged in serial indictments against editors and publishes with criminal defamation charges
Another panel on training discussed about how Sri Lanka needs to move into new methods of training. They stressed on the fact that innovative and hands-on training is important. “This discussion pointed out how journalists need to be trained on a whole package of skills and a journalist should be a multimedia expert. I found an interesting panel on technology and on talking about robot journalists – but I thought it shouldn’t come too quickly because the human being is still important. We need to make sure that we integrate technology into our industry and survive as the world evolves. The power of journalists was also discussed and it is enormous. One of the best descriptions of that is if the media wasn’t powerful why would Governments around the world try to oppress and attack it! And why would they have wars trying to constrain them? Hence these are signs of the power media possess,” he added.
Pics by Kushan Pathiraja