The government has drawn flak from eight media associations including the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and the Editors` Guild of Sri Lanka over the re-activation of the draconian Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) Law of 1973 in spite of the existence of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) to regulate the press. In a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, those associations have accused the government of having reneged on its earlier commitment to the promotion of self-regulation of the media. They point out that the establishment of PCCSL, which came into being as `a fair exchange for the repeal of laws relating to criminal defamation`, had the blessings of all political parties represented in Parliament.
There is no way President Rajapaksa can justify the lifting of SLPC out of a state of suspended animation. Media associations quote him chapter and verse: He as the Opposition Leader waxed eloquent in Parliament defending as he did media freedom to the hilt, when an amendment was moved to repeal laws relating to criminal defamation. The amendment was carried unanimously rendering the Press Council Law inoperative in 2003.
One may wonder why on earth the media should oppose the Press Council law tooth and nail while demanding that the laws of the land apply equally to one and all and that the Head of State be stripped of his legal immunity. Yes, journalists are ordinary citizens who are neither above nor below others and there must be legal mechanisms in place to deal with them when they either err or transgress the law. But, why should a sledgehammer be used to crack a nut or why should an artillery piece be employed where an assault rifle is sufficient? Anyone who feels his or her rights are violated by the media could seek redress either by moving PCCSL or taking recourse to ordinary law. The Press Council with powers to fine and/or sentence journalists and publishers to prison is a detestable anachronism and its reactivation smacks of an ulterior motive on the part of the government.
There have been various allegations and charges against the media. Some journalists have been accused of collaboration with terrorists. The government itself claimed that some journalists were in the pay of the LTTE. There may have been some problems with the system of self-regulation of the press. If that was the case why didn`t the government consider it meet and proper to discuss them with media organisations before taking the genie out of the bottle? After all, the government had discussions even with the LTTE, didn`t it?
The government is damaging its democratic credentials irreparably. None of the assassins or assailants of journalists has yet been nabbed. Attacks on media continue. To cap it all, the government has brought back the Press Council, which we reckon, is nothing but a statutory white van to tackle the media.
Suppression of the press is a self-defeating exercise for any regime. President Rajapaksa, a one time champion of media freedom who is au fait with the disastrous consequences of such repressive measures, must desist from reviving the czarist Press Council.