Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Code of Ethics to Stifle Sri Lanka's Media



Sri Lanka’s Government is set to impose a code of ethics on its already stifled media. The code which affects print, broadcast and online media will become law once the bill is passed by the country’s Parliament. It is not clear when the bill will come to Parliament or what penalties will be given for non compliance.

“The government’s proposed media code is part of a sustained campaign to control the media and curtail dissent,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lankan journalists are already under enormous pressure not to be critical of the government, and the vagueness of this code will likely lead to greater self-censorship to avoid government retaliation.”

Presently Sri Lanka is placed 162 of 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders (RSF) Index. In the last year alone, five news websites were shut down and a leading Tamil opposition newspaper office was been burned down and had its journalists assaulted. Impunity is rife and there has been progress in investigations into murders and disappearances of journalists.

The latest imposition of a code of ethics comes after the media has reported protests against the Government for rising cost of living, shortcomings in rehabilitation of minority Tamils following the country’s brutal ethnic war and runaway corruption.

The code is couched in broad and vague language which press watch dogs fear could be used as a weapon to harass journalists even further. For instance, prohibiting content with “anything against maintenance of law and order or which may promote anti-national attitudes” is directed at recent protests against the Government on issues as militarisation, suppressing trade unions and even sustained attacks on the media. The code also restricts content that “contains criticism affecting foreign relations,” which means that Sri Lanka’s media could be penalised for carrying stories of international criticism.

This is not the first time there has been an attempt to enforce regulation of the media through a code of ethics. A code was introduced in 1981 under the Press Council Act but not enforced. Instead a Press Complaints Commission was set up where media professionals drew up a code for self-regulation. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) commenting on the Press Complaints Commission said it had “operated fairly successfully” for the past 10 years. “We fail to see how the … effort to introduce a media code to supersede the existing practices in the profession will contribute to the public interest,” said the IFJ Asia-Pacific.

“The new media code is unnecessary and little more than a heavy-handed assault on the remnants of Sri Lanka’s free press,” Adams said.

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