Charitha Herath, Secretary Media Ministry
The Media Ministry’s proposed Code of Ethics is the Rajapaksa administration’s equivalent to ‘newspeak.’ In the first place, a ‘code of ethics’ drafted unilaterally, and even clandestinely, by the spin doctors of the government, is not worth its salt.
That is not how democracies work. Perhaps the best equivalent to this so-called Code of Ethics would be the fictitious, totalitarian language of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, ’1984.’ Their real world equivalents were much scarier.
This purported code of media ethics, dictated by a regime which is accused, with substantial evidence, on its culpability of murders, abductions and assault of media personnel, and the frequent attacks on dissident media institutions, is simply in bad taste. However, it is not only the questionable integrity of the current regime, in terms of media freedom and human rights that is in dispute. The sinister attributes and motives of the purported code of ethics could be dissected in a closer look. Not any rag that is masqueraded as ‘ethics’ is ethics. The so called Code of Ethics is, in fact, a Bill on press censorship, sugar coated with the term, ethics, just like every warlord in Africa, identifies himself as a liberator, revolutionary, democrat, and so forth. Worse still, this purported Code of Ethics is proof of the increasing authoritarian tendencies of the current regime.
Following are excerpts from the Code of Ethics proposed by the Media Ministry.
1. No publications should be published which:
(a) offends against expectations of the public, morality of the country or tend to lower the standards of public taste and morality.
In other words, the purported Code of Ethics lays down the framework for a cultural police and soon the spin doctors of the Media Ministry would be serving in the roles, equivalent to Teheran’s religious police.
In fact, the interpretation of public morality is broad and expansive. When the warped minds who drafted this so called ethics, eventually have the authority to define the parametres of public morality, that would portend to a very dangerous future.
(b) contains criticism affecting foreign relations
This is patently ludicrous. If the busy-bodies who drafted those provisions, think that the media should be kowtowing to the foreign policy of the government, they should be living in North Korea or Cuba. Perhaps, our Chinese friends may have wanted this clause to be inserted. This clause would effectively prevent the media from critically reporting the foreign policy of the regime. But, though the interlocutors of the government may be oblivious, this would do more harm to the relations with the civilized part of the world, read as practicing democracies, than the critical reporting it aims to censor.
Some of the other clauses of this so-called Code of Ethics sound more or less innocuous and for a naïve observer, they may look pretty acceptable. Still, some may be quite dangerous and deleterious to democracy such as the one which prohibits the publication of material against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature. The mindset of the drafters is self-evident in this clause which would place the three branches of the government beyond public scrutiny. That is notwithstanding that the integrity of those institutions is already disputed. It is a servile culture of subordination that the so called media ethics envisages to entrench.
Following are some of the other provisions:
1. No publications should be published which:
(c) contains derogatory remarks on religious groups or communities or promoting communal or religious discord which may affect religious and communal harmony
(d) contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate falsehood and suggestive innuendos and half truths or willful omissions
(e) contains information which could mislead the public
(f) is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which may promote anti-national attitudes
(g) contains anything amounting to contempt of court
(h) contains materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature
(i) criticizes, maligns or slanders any individual or groups of persons such as ethnic, linguistic or religious or such segments of the public
(j) contains details of a person’s family life, financial information, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability, and one’s home or family and individuals in hospitals unless it has a direct relevance to the public interest
(k) encourages superstitions or blind belief
(1) promote atrocity, drug abuse, brutality, sadism, sexual salacity and obscenity
(m) denigrates the poor
The bottom line is that the interpretation of those terms is extremely broad, and would place media personnel at the mercy of the authorities at the Media Ministry. Journalists already have their own Code of Ethics, which has been agreed to, by the practicing journalists, newspaper editors and media associations. They also have a self-regulating mechanism that they collectively built and operate. The problem with the current regime is that civil society initiatives of that nature is anathema to the current regime, an attribute which prevents it from actively cooperating with such initiatives. In contrast, democratic societies and their governments in those model democracies in Scandinavia are striving to empower the grassroots initiatives. Those advanced civilizations have evolved from the bottom.
Right to Information Bill
Last but not least, the sanctimonious endeavour of the government is hypocritical. The current regime has stalled efforts to introduce the Right to Information Bill. The government defeated a Private Member Motion that envisaged to introduce the Right to Information Bill, and was the only only elected government to do so. When the government’s spin doctors demand that media should not publish half truth, it should be manifestly evident to them, that the task of the scribes, in terms of digging out the truth, would have been much easier, had the government implemented the Right to Information Bill.
That hypocrisy runs deeper in the State media. The conduct of the State- owned and government-controlled media, is also a microscopic of the government’s hypocrisy. Since the current government has a close-knit circuit of ‘intelligentsia’ it is most likely that the proposed Code of Ethics was concocted by some of those state media busybodies. Should the government be genuinely concerned, it should begin with the state media. I bet my two cents that it would never dare to do it.