The Government’s intention to set up a Broadcasting Authority has raised concerns among not only stakeholders in the media but also human rights activists as well as political parties. Media freedom is an integral part of the freedom of expression and therefore a key component of a democratic society. It is also closely linked with the well being of society and its people.
When efforts to ‘regulate’ originate from the Government it is almost always viewed with suspicion by media practitioners. In the current context when public expression of dissent in the form of demonstrations and protests are frowned upon, any attempt to tinker with the media will always give rise to alarm bells among the public.
The Government itself does not help its cause by giving different reasons for such intervention thus giving rise to further confusion.
Media Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena was the first to shed light on the Government’s intentions when he answered a question raised in Parliament by Galle District SJB MP and former Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka.
According to a media report, Minister Gunawardana responding to the Samagi Jana Balavegaya Parliamentarian’s question said that there are 25 registered television channels and 51 registered radio channels in the country.
He went on to state that there was a large disparity between the conditions of national television and radio channels. “There is a serious disparity in the granting of licences to individual radio and television channels. There are those that have been given licences without any formality or regularity. We are not responsible for any of these. It has happened according to different circumstances.”
“As the minister, I requested special permission from the Cabinet to issue licences with transparency. Accordingly, a special sub-committee chaired by Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was appointed by the Cabinet.”
According to Dr. Bandula Gunawardena’s clarification the decision to set up a Broadcasting Authority was the outcome of his request to Cabinet for licences to be issued with more transparency. The Media Minister revealed that the special sub-committee chaired by Minister Rajapakshe appointed by the Cabinet for this purpose had completed a large amount of work on the Broadcasting Authority Bill.
However, Justice Minister Dr.Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe at a news briefing on Friday stated that what had been prepared was not a Bill but a set of proposals to be discussed with media institutions and other stakeholders prior to converting it into draft legislation. He said that the set of proposals had already been sent to media institutions and would be discussed with them at a meeting on June 7.
In the past there has been considerable discussion on the awarding of licences to television channels and allegations have been made that there had been no transparency in such a process. The attempt to regularise and lay down definite criteria for the award of such licences is therefore most welcome provided that it is not used by the State to control the media directly or indirectly.
However, what has disturbed media activists are reports that the proposed legislation has various provisions which can have the effect of curbing media freedom.
According to one media report the proposed legislation will include the power to imprison journalists, levy fines on journalists, and even cancel the broadcasting licences of electronic media organisations.
According to the same media report a 5-member Commission will be set up by the legislation and will have the power to investigate complaints made on reporting that allegedly affects national security, religious harmony and the national economy. However, these areas have not been defined. In addition, the Commission would be empowered to investigate any broadcast media organisation even without any complaint being received.
If these reports are true then clearly the intended legislation goes far beyond mere regularisation of the award of licences to radio and TV Channels and will have drastic repercussions on media freedom and therefore democracy.
Over the years there have been attempts by successive Governments to ‘regulate’ the media which have not met with success. The print media was smart enough to preempt such moves by setting up a process of self regulation under the auspices of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and a Press Complaints Commission.
The electronic media however has failed to initiate any such process of self regulation and has thus laid itself open to inroads on its freedoms by Government. It may be more difficult for electronic media institutions to sit together and discuss such a process in view of the intense rivalry between such institutions unlike in the case of the print media where such rivalry is far less intense. It is nevertheless necessary to safeguard and strengthen the freedom of the alternative media in order to strengthen and preserve democracy.
The fact that the media, both print and electronic, have not always succeeded in maintaining the highest standards of journalistic ethics has provided Governments the opportunity to initiate action to ‘regulate’ the media.
The events of the past several weeks and the reporting of the events associated with Pastor Jerome Fernando and Natasha Edirisooriya highlight such behaviour.
What was said by the two of them was spoken within the four walls of a building and heard or seen only by those present. However distasteful may have been Natasha Edirisooriya’s statements or however much Jerome Fernando may have failed to adhere to the golden rule that one should be sensitive to another’s religious faith, it would have remained confined to the audience who heard them.
It was the media (print, electronic and social ) that gave the pronouncements of Natasha Edirisooriya and Pastor Jerome Fernando a boost by spreading it far and wide. If any individual or organisation felt that either of them had violated the law, the appropriate remedy would have been to lodge a complaint with the police who would be required to investigate and take action as appropriate.
In fact the programme in which Natasha Edirisooriya had been featured had taken place over a month prior to the time the media began publicising its contents. Here the media violated even its own salutary practice when reporting defamatory statements made by individuals.
In reporting the fact that a letter of demand had been sent by an individual to another, the media would always confine themselves to the fact that a letter of demand had been sent but would never publish the contents of the alleged defamatory statement. In the above instances the contents of both Natasha Edirisooriya and Pastor Jerome Fernando were repeatedly given publicity by the media.
Be that as it may, any attempt to ‘regulate’ the media must be subject to strict scrutiny and must be permitted only to the extent permitted by the provisions of the Constitution. There is considerable wisdom in the saying “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” ([email protected])
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