The government has apparently softened its stance on the question of imposing a new code of ethics on journalists by the State. President Mahinda Rajapaksa during a meeting with the newspaper editors and the heads of the media institutions on Friday said it was up to the journalists to develop a code of ethics after studying the existing codes and the one that had been introduced by the government. He also instructed the Media Ministry to make available the copies of the government code to media heads.
"The need of the hour is not another code of ethics for journalists, but a bridling code of conduct for politicians as suggested by the Deputy Minister for Economic Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene days ago"
Needless to say that this is somewhat a positive stand compared to a situation where the government imposes a so-called code of ethics on journalists and compel them to adhere to it. What many leaders of the government forgot was the fact that the media is/ should be the watchdog of any society that includes the government as well. And whatever the party in power, it is the incumbent government and those associated with it that are always accused of corruption, lawlessness, waste of public funds, malpractices, maladministration, nepotism, graft and all other ills under the sun. Hence, developing or presenting a code of ethics for the journalists by the government is tantamount to attempting to discipline the watchdog by the accused or would-be accused, which is ludicrous and that in itself is highly unethical.
It is true that the government of a country too has a responsibility to maintain the decorum and etiquettes in every field of the society including the media. However, in an atmosphere where politicians are looked down upon as hooligans by the general public which is depicted in thousands of media cartoons for years, without being challenged by politicians of ruling parties or the oppositions, the moral right of the politicians to frame a code of ethics for journalists is extremely questionable.
In the light of many politicians being exposed in their involvement in murder, rape, plundering of public funds etcetera on a daily basis and the inability of or the condoning by the higher-ups to contain them, the need of the hour is not another code of ethics for journalists, but a bridling code of conduct for politicians as suggested by the Deputy Minister for Economic Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene days ago.
By implication the President had admitted the fact that there were codes of ethics with Sri Lankan journalists and he did not reject them as inappropriate. What he suggested was to improve them with the inputs of the government’s code. What he seems not to be aware is that the code of conduct developed by the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka and recognised by the majority of Sri Lankan journalists was being reviewed and improved periodically. And the government’s code does not contain anything new for the improvement of the existing code, but several ambiguous clauses that could be highly exploited by the present as well as future governments, against free expression.
As far as the many ambiguities of the government’s code is concerned, it wants the journalists to desist from publishing anything that offends against expectations of the public, anything that contains materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and the Legislature and anything that misleads the public, among others. However, one could easily identify the possibility of these clauses to suppress the dissent.