Revival of press council seen as step to control media

Sri Lankan journalists and publishers brace themselves for a fresh confrontation with the government following news that the Press Council will be revived.

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COLOMBO // Sri Lankan journalists and publishers are bracing themselves for a fresh confrontation with the government after President Mahinda Rajapaksa's administration announced the revival of the now-defunct Press Council. The Press Council, which had the power to imprison or fine journalists for false and defamatory articles and dealt with complaints from the public against media reports, faded into oblivion in 2000 after media organisations set up the self-regulatory, industry-run Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The new move to revive the Press Council has alarmed some journalists, but to others it is not a surprise. "The government wants to control the media and this is another attempt," one journalist said. On Monday, the Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka, the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and six other national media organisations wrote a letter to Mr Rakapaksa urging him to reconsider the move. "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 as the way forward," the letter said.

The other media organisations are the Working Journalists' Association of Sri Lanka, the Tamil Media Alliance, the Muslim Media Forum, Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions, the South Asia Free Media Association (Sri Lanka Chapter) and the Free Media Movement. Despite a proliferation of media rights groups emerging in the past decade in Sri Lanka, journalists have never felt as threatened as they do now.

Fifteen journalists and media industry workers have been killed since 2006 while another 15 have been abducted or arrested by police. At least two newspaper offices have been ransacked and equipment destroyed. No one has been arrested, detained or blamed by the government in a single case despite "extensive investigations" by state agencies. Last year was a particularly difficult year for the media, as journalists were told to refrain from criticising the government in the campaign against Tamil separatist guerrillas. Journalists were also barred from visiting war-torn areas and in recent times, visits to camps in the north for some 300,000 displaced persons are restricted and permitted only if accompanied by government officials.

The owner of a small newspaper, who declined to be named, said the effort to revive the defunct Press Council is another attempt by the government to control the media. "If the council is reactivated it would make the PCC redundant and all complaints to the council would be esssentially over articles criticising the government," he said. Senior government officials say the PCC has not been an effective medium for public complaints. "There were only a few complaints that were entertained last year," a senior official at the media ministry, who declined to be named, said.

However, an official at the PCC rejected this claim saying the commission received 93 complaints from the public and inquiries held. In 2007, the commission received 125 complaints. The government official also said the cabinet last week approved the proposal to revive the council as it felt society needed a more effective and independent mechanism to entertain complaints against the media from the public.

He said journalists need not worry about its revival as the council, enacted in 1972, has not enforced all its laws and resorted only to requesting newspapers to apologise to complainants, if a complaint was valid, or carry a correction. But the editor of a daily newspaper rejected this view, saying all over the world, the media mostly regulates itself. "If the government had an issue with the PCC, there should have been a dialogue with this body ? instead of reviving the council, which will do the same work as the PCC," he said.

After a long campaign for a self-regulatory process and proper training facilties, journalist groups in Sri Lanka joined to established the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), about five years ago as the main media development institute in Sri Lanka. The SLPI operates the PCC and the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, which offers professional training for journalists, promotes self-regulation in the print media and advocates a free and responsible media in Sri Lanka.

Monday's letter by the media organisation referred to an agreement between media organisations and parliament in which the newspaper industry agreed to appoint a self-regulatory mechanism in exchange for the repeal of criminal defamation laws. Journalists are now concerned that the reinstated Press Council will be used to enforce its own set of defamation laws, despite government assurances. "It is in these circumstances that the media organisations regret that the government has reneged on its earlier commitment to support self-regulation," it said.