Media Organizations in Lanka Present Agenda to Presidential Candidates
A declaration by media organizations presented to the presidential candidates and political parties towards the establishment of freedom of media in Sri Lanka.
The undersigned media organisations hereby present the following agenda of reform to the presidential candidates (2010) for their unequivocal commitment to implement the same;
The said agenda of reform is presented with the following core values and imperatives:
a) Freedom of expression and freedom of information are vital to a democratic society and are essential for its progress and welfare and for the enjoyment of other human rights and fundamental freedoms of the citizens of Sri Lanka ;
b) Every citizen must have access to information if they are able to monitor the conduct of their government, to be politically informed and to be able to participate fully in the working of a democratic society;
c) The existence of a free and independent media during times of conflict is indispensable in the easing of conflict through the promotion of diversity of opinions.
d) Currently laws such as the Official Secrets Act, the Press Council Law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and regulations promulgated under the Public Security Ordinance unjustifiably restrict and restrain freedom of expression and media freedom. State media institutions (both print and electronic) continue to be in the control of the government and are blatantly used for party political propaganda;
e) The existing national legal and regulatory framework relating to the media must be radically overhauled in order that the above values are recognised and protected. There must be clear recognition of the limited scope of restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of information that may be imposed in the interest of national security, so as to discourage the government from using the pretext of national security to place unjustified restrictions on the exercise of these freedoms. The media industry must be self regulated and it is the responsibility of the representatives of the people to create a conducive atmosphere to bring about these changes;
We, the undersigned recall the long history in regard to media law reform in Sri Lanka, particularly the following;
In the year 1994, four committees under the chairmanships of the Hon. Dharmasiri Senanayake, Mr. R.K.W. Goonesekera and Mr. Sidat Sri Nandalochana which were appointed by the then Peoples Alliance government submitted comprehensive recommendations which outlined among others, recommendations towards improvement of the legal and regulatory framework relating to the media and the working conditions of journalists ;
On April, 26, 1998, The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka together with the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka (publishers) and the Free Media Movement, were joint signatories to the COLOMBO DECLARATION ON MEDIA FREEDOM AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY which inter-alia called for the repeal of laws relating to criminal defamation, the enactment of a Freedom of Information Law and a Contempt of Court Act;
In 1999, Parliamentary Motion No 218/99 was introduced by the then Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, seconded by Hon. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, M.P., expressing the Intent of Parliament to implement provisions contained in the said Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility. The Motion was formally tabled and debated in the year 2000 but intervening parliamentary elections prevented the Motion from being put to a vote.
In the meantime, a Parliamentary Select Committee on the Legislative and Regulatory Framework relating to the Media was appointed by the then Media Minister, Hon. Mangala Samaraweera and heard submissions from the public. However, this Select Committee was unable to make any conclusive recommendations relating to Media Law Reforms.
Following the parliamentary elections of December 2001, The Editors Guild, the Newspaper Society and the Free Media Movement interviewed the Prime Minister Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe and re-iterated its demands for a new media culture in a liberal democracy in Sri Lanka. In January 2002, the Prime Minister’s Committee on Media Law Reforms was appointed with representation from the three media organisations. In June 2002, the laws relating to criminal defamation, were by unanimous vote of Parliament, repealed and in the year 2004, a draft Freedom of Information Act was approved by the then Cabinet. Amendments were drafted to the Newspaper Ordinance in order to make compulsory for media institutions to abide by the self-regulatory mechanism of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka. An All-Party Select Committee was also appointed into studying the need to codify the law on contempt of court under the chairmanship of an Opposition Member of Parliament, viz., the Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar, PC. However, with the sudeen dissolution of Parliament in 2004 and the consequent change in administration thereafter, all these initiatives for media reforms lapsed.
We note that only few achievements have been of record during the past years, namely the abolition of Criminal Defamation provisions in the Penal Code and the Press Council Law in 2002 and the repeal of the 1978 amendment to the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act (1953) which had given Sri Lanka’s Parliament the power to deal with serious breaches of privilege.
The Press Council Law was made in-operative paving the way for the functioning of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka. The collaboration of the media industry on the establishment of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka College of Journalism is notable during this period. However, the general media environment in Sri Lanka remains one of the most repressive in South Asia.
During the recent period of conflict, even though freedom of expression and media freedom is protected by Sri Lanka’s Constitution and is a core value of international treaties that Sri Lanka has signed onto, it became a right limited to theory only.
Acts of physical attacks, intimidation and threats to media personnel and property, and the lack of investigations into these attacks, intimidation and threats adversely affected the freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. National security laws were used to harshly punish journalists to the extent of sentencing to twenty years rigorous imprisonment.
In the year 2008 which marked ten years of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility of 1998, the core objectives of the Declaration were reiterated by the Sri Lankan media
An end was called to a repressive culture of intimidation of the media. The need to enact a Right to Information Law and a Contempt of Court law that would bring about a changed legal and regulatory environment in regard to the freedom of expression and media freedom was reiterated
We state that in particular, these laws are sorely needed in Sri Lanka at a time when other South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and over one hundred and twenty (120) countries world-wide have enacted similar laws thus recognizing the need for a domestic framework of a country to properly protect the right to know and the right, if the need arises, to fairly scrutinise the working of government, the administration and the judiciary.
Reiterating these objectives, we call upon President Mahinda Rajapakse to forthwith present the 2004 Freedom of Information Bill, to Parliament with immediate effect, for approval and enactment, to abolish the Press Council Law and to take steps to enact a Contempt of Court Law by re-activating the Lakshman Kadirgamar Select Committee.
In any event, we call upon all Presidential candidates to declare their strong and unequivocal commitment to the protection of freedom of expression and information and in particular on the following, and pledge to implement the following;
a) The enactment of a Right to Information Law and a Contempt of Court Law that is in consonance with modern standards relating to the same;
b) The abolition of the Press Council Law that has provisions to fine and jail journalists up to 20 years, the Official Secrets Act that will become redundant with the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, and those provisions of the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act that impose harsh punishments on journalists arbitrarily and capriciously;
c) The conversion of state media institutions which are under the direction and control of the Head of Government into public service media institutions
d) To implement the recommendations of the four committees (1994) that were appointed by the Peoples Alliance government, in particular, the recommendations which are contained in the Report of the Committee to Advise on the Reform of Laws affecting Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression, 1996 and which still remain valid today;
e) To probe all incidents of attacks against media, bring those responsible to book, preventive action to ensure no repetition of such acts, appointment of an independent panel to recommend awarding of compensation to media personnel and their families, and to create conditions enabling those journalists who had fled the country for safety reasons to return
f) To appoint an independent regulatory commission to supervise and oversee the working of the electronic media.
g) To seriously study all other aspects in the said Colombo Declaration of 2008 with a view to ensuring a free, independent and responsible Media in Sri Lanka.
Free media Movement
Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association
Editors Guild of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance
Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum
Federation of Media Employs Trade Union
South Asia Free Media Movement Sri Lanka Chapter
Sri Lanka Newspaper Owners Association