After the new government took office in January last year with a commitment to restore good governance, democracy and a just society, media freedom also has been restored to a large extent.
Yet a conflict if not a crisis situation appears to be arising now mainly because of alleged misdeeds by government leaders or members and the alleged abuse of freedom by some journalists or sections of the media.
President Maithripala Sirisena in recent months has been strongly hitting out at sections of the media, accusing them of distorting his speeches and giving excessive coverage to views expressed by members of the joint opposition and other groups critical of the National Government. At the Mahaweli Centre the President addressed representatives of media trade unions, welfare groups and provincial correspondent associations.
He expressed pride that he was perhaps the first freelance journalist to become the Executive President of the country. The President reiterated that he and the National Government were fully committed to ensuring the freedom, welfare and well-being of journalists and media groups. But he also appealed again to journalists and media groups to put the country first and work for the common good of all the people instead of promoting or giving undue publicity to the vested interests of certain groups. He also appealed for commitment to fair, accurate and balanced reporting and feature writing.
In Parliament this week, Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed that more than any other political leader he had fought for media freedom since he moved into mainstream politics in 1977. While ensuring the National Government would never again allow the killing, abduction or torture of journalists and gang attacks on media offices, he said government leaders and MPs had a right to criticize or hit back at the media on issues where some journalists or media groups were critical of the government.
Media Minister Gayantha Karunatilake, speaking after last week’s cabinet meeting, said he had presented a proposal to set up an independent media regulatory commission. Last Friday the media ministry published advertisements for the people, civic action groups and others to express their views on the proposed regulatory commission.
Deputy Media Minister Karunasena Paranavithana, speaking on a television talk show on Tuesday, said the draconian 1973 Press Council Law had not yet being abolished because there was no alternative mechanism. But the government had asked the Press Council not to strictly enforce some of the provisions which most analysts have described as undemocratic and a threat to media freedom.
At present the Non-State print media have an independent Press Complaints Commission but its decisions are not mandatory and are often not fully accepted. We also have an independent Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka. They have laid down codes of ethics and conduct but these also are not mandatory and are sometimes not observed. The electronic and social media have no regulatory body.
The Media Minister has said print and electronic media journalists, editors and publishers will be consulted before setting up the new regulatory commission. We hope the government and the media could reach common ground on the hallowed middle path whereby both the government and the media would act according to a code of ethics with integrity and trust -- both being transparent and accountable to the people. The executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the media are historically seen as the four pillars of democracy while their foundation needs to be accountability to the sovereign people.