No wonder the media fraternity was taken by surprise when they heard of the return of the state-run Press Council last week. This total ‘U’ turn of the policies of the Yahapalana regime, could be one of many such surprises that we are witnessing today. The promise of President Maithripala Sirisena was to uphold media freedom through strengthening its related institutions; but what we are witnessing today is entirely opposite to what he preached from political platform.
But these surprises are mainly on politics. The revival of the Press Council is not about politics, is mainly about governance and democracy- or rather freedom of expression.
The Devil, the Press Council has been raising its ugly head since 2004. It was in mid-2005 during the first term of President Rajapaksa it initially raised his head amidst objections by media organisations and other stakeholders. Then onwards, the Press Council has been an issue of discussion among media circles, but hardly in civil society and pro-democratic movements.
Why do we call it the Devil? Because its functionality and impact is draconian. The 1973 Press Council Act allows the president to appoint the council members except two, supposed to be nominated by the media associations. Thus, the independence of the council members is in question and its punitive actions could be rigorous. We have seen on many occasions how it was used as a tool for political purposes against the media and its practitioners.
Many democracies have now shifted to the concept of self-regulation where journalists govern or regulate themselves through an established mechanism. Sri Lanka, too, entered into this democratic and more humane system in 2002 through the establishment of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) – an initiative of the media industry itself. The then regime of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took measures to silence the draconian Press Council system to pave the way for the new mechanism.
But the Rajapaksa government took a different approach and made all attempts to bring back the old Press Council system. When it spearheaded first in 2005, Charitha Herath then advisor to the Media Minister Anura Yapa had a series of formal and informal meetings with the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), the managing arm of the PCCSL and provided an assurance that the idea will be “shelved.”
Nevertheless, it came up again after two years. This time it was not a rumour but an announcement by the government. the SLPI again had to lobby the government against its decision. Minister Anura Yapa met representatives of Newspaper Society, Editors Guild and Free Media Movement at and gave another assurance but continuously raised the issue of PCCSL’s inability to regulate certain sections of the media. He had a point. The then regime was looking for ways and means to respond to the continuous attacks by Sunday Leader which was not privy to PCCSL system. But minister Yapa again agreed to “shelve” the move.
However, it was after one year of the completion of war in 2009, the Press Council was reinstated during the second term of President Rajapaksa. Ironically some appointed members of the council were members of organisations that were vehemently opposed to the Press Council and supported PCCSL– such as the Free Media Movement. Nevertheless, organisations like the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association refrained from nominating its members to the council but it did not stop them entertaining complaints and ‘mitigating’ them.
Without its full membership in place, the council had no legal basis to function but it did function and issued rulings against newspapers. As far as I am aware, only one editor stood against it questioning the legal basis of the council.
History is now repeating itself again in front of our eyes. There were repeated claims during the presidential electioneering process that the Press Council system would be abolished paving the way for a better self-regulatory system based on the PCCSL. The present secretary to the Media Ministry Karu Paranawithana firmly stood for this cause and made these claims in several public events. Premier Wickremesinghe made a similar commitment when he met the international media mission two months ago. I have no doubt that both these persons were taken by surprise when they heard of the move by President Maithripala to re-instate the council.
What is required today is to review the existing PCCSL system, identify its loopholes and further strengthen it by providing some legal teeth through a proper legislative process. But what has happened is totally opposite - taking the media back to the stone-age by re-instating the state Press Council. This is a major mistake in the Yahapalana policies.
Of course, mistakes are natural among human beings– but not at the level of the Executive Presidency, since it could impact on millions of people. During these crucial times, Maithri cannot afford to add more to the list of his mistakes during a short span of time – less than 200 days in office. He cannot claim that a group of his own officials have misguided him. But the irony is, such damage controlling acts are not happening at the same speed of the mistakes.
On the other hand what do the media stakeholders do? It was only the SLPI that had been vociferous about the move. How many civil society organisations have raised concerns about it? Some of the prime victims of re-instating the Press Council are editors; but how many editorials have we seen voicing their opposition to this move during the past week? But, how can we expect such a stand when some editors themselves accept posts in the Press Council?