A media culture cannot be based on slapping charges against journalists, fining them or sending them to jail. Instead the modern world has accepted a self-regulatory mechanism by media persons themselves as the way forward.
The Sri Lanka Press Council Law has a controversial history-it was meant to have a ‘chilling effect’ on media freedom, which included the power, inter-alia, to send journalists and publishers to jail. On October 13, 1994 by Cabinet paper No. 94. 11. 009,
Your Excellency gave your consent to establish a self-regulatory mechanism in place of the Statutory Press Council. It is our understanding that this consent was given because Your Excellency believed that the Press Council which could impose penal punishment on journalists was an archaic piece of legislation and self-regulation was a more democratic means of regulating the press.
Your Excellency will remember that as Honourable Leader of the Opposition, you spoke (Hansard, 2002 June 18, Col. 888) for an independent and responsible press in Sri Lanka when an amendment was brought to the said Law to repeal the laws relating to criminal defamation. Your Excellency is no doubt aware that this amendment was passed unanimously by Parliament. Following the passage of this amendment the Sri Lanka Press Council Law was made inoperative in or about 2003.
A series of consultations between media associations in Sri Lanka and leaders of all political parties represented in Parliament had culminated in broad, bipartisan agreement being reached that the newspaper industry would appoint a self-regulatory mechanism as a ‘fair exchange’ for the repeal of laws relating to criminal defamation that were used as an instrument of government repression on media practitioners at the time.
Consequently, media organizations united, and together with the newspaper Industry, established a Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, under the provisions of the Arbitration Act No. 11 of 1995 six years ago. Unlike the Press Council, the Press Complaints Commission is no financial burden to the State or the complainant.
It is in these circumstances that the media organizations regret that the Government has reneged on its earlier commitment to support self-regulation.
Furthermore, our disappointment stems from the fact that the Government did not consider it useful, or prudent, or both, to have any dialogue whatsoever with the undermentioned media organizations, which represent the vast majority of publishers, editors, working journalists, media trade unionists and activists who overwhelmingly support the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka. However, if any problem exists with respect to the system of self regulation, such problem (S) should be discussed and resolved immediately. But it’s indeed disconcerting to note that instead strengthening the system of self regulation; the Government has opted to reactivate the Sri Lanka Press Council Law No 5 of 1973 which impedes media freedom in Sri Lanka.
We, the undermentioned media organizations urge the government to reconsider this ill advised decision and have a dialogue with us, the stake-holders to promote self-regulation as part of the media culture in the interest of democracy and a responsible and free press in Sri Lanka.
In view of the public importance of this matter we will be releasing this letter to the media."
- The Island