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Ensuring Media Freedom – Sunday Leader

By Waruni Karunarathne

After years of pressure on media institutions and media personnel, the present state of media freedom and standards of local media should be comprehensively analysed in order to improve the standards of local media and to meet the international level of reporting.

Last week, the International Media Assessment Mission to Sri Lanka issued a joint statement based on their assessment on the media freedom situation in the country. Based on their observations during their visit to Sri Lanka from May 8 – 14 several recommendations were issued to the government authorities and media institutions to assist the stakeholders in addressing those concerns. The International Mission was represented by ARTICLE 19, Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Media Support (IMS), Open Society Foundations (OSF) Program on Independent Journalism, South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) and UNESCO, with support from Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI).

The International Mission noted important positive changes in the environment for media freedom since the new government came into power – which included steps to end the climate of threats against and pressure on media outlets and journalists, the unblocking of websites, moves to provide legal protection for the right to information, an invitation to exiled journalists to return to Sri Lanka, and the allocation of relatively greater editorial freedom to the State media.

Meanwhile, they recommended that comprehensive legislation on broadcasting should be adopted in line with international guarantees of freedom of expression. Accordingly, the three State broadcasters should also be transformed into independent public service broadcasters which enjoy editorial independence, have a clear mandate to serve the public and benefit from public funding which does not compromise their independence.

The recommendations included proper adoption and implementation of a right to information law, giving individuals a right to access information held by public authorities and other bodies which are funded or controlled by public authorities, which is in line with international standards. “An independent Commission of Inquiry should be created with a mandate and adequate powers to investigate past killings of, threats to, disappearances of and other attacks on journalists, media workers and media outlets, with a view to ensuring that those responsible are prosecuted and that appropriate compensation is paid to the victims and their families,” the joint statement noted.

According to the statement, the Press Council Act should be repealed and the government-controlled Press Council should be abolished and steps should also be taken to ensure an independent and effective system to address complaints regarding the professional conduct of both the print and broadcast sectors.

Among many they recommended civil and criminal law restrictions on media content should be reviewed so as to bring them into line with international standards regarding freedom of expression. Among other things, they noted that the Prevention of Terrorism Act should be repealed and replaced with carefully tailored legislation which strikes an appropriate balance between respecting freedom of expression and the need to address terrorism, and the rules on contempt of court should be codified through the adoption of legislation on this matter.

Wijayananda Jayaweera of the UNESCO mission said that by and large almost all the recommendations were accepted by the leaders of the government including the Prime Minister who they met during their assessment. According to him, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesignhe without even being asked, has said that he is committed to establishing an independent broadcasting regulatory authority – yet it would be done if he is elected in the next general election. However, Jayaweera added that they observed certain commitment in the new government to ensure media freedom.

Toby Mendel from Centre for Law and Democracy in Canada said that based on what they heard from almost all the stakeholders, there is a problem of professional standards of media and a need for a standard system for professional training, academic training and ongoing probation training for journalists. He said that they could not do an in-depth analysis within a short period to plan what areas of training needed.

“There is also a serious challenge in terms of professional standards in the media, with issues in terms of qualifications of journalists, the quality of academic training programmes and the availability of quality ongoing training opportunities for journalists. This is exacerbated by low wages and poor working conditions and benefits for many journalists, obstruction of the right to join trade unions, weak systems for promoting and supporting ethical standards, and ethnic divisions in the media, including instances of negative reporting and a culture of ‘communalism’”, the joint statement noted.

Ranga Kalansooriya of the International Media Support said that they have initiated a process called media development indicators together with Sri Lanka Press Institute and various other organisations to assess the media situation in Sri Lanka. According to him, they are using a UNESCO model in Sri Lanka to assess the media situation in four different areas out of specified five areas. “Nalaka Gunawardena has done an initial rapid assessment of media situation in Sri Lanka. We have also started a much longer mid term assessment together with Colombo University, Sri Lanka Press Institute, the Ministry of Media, University of Jaffna and Eastern University. The Media Summit which was held last Thursday was part of that,” Kalansooriya added.

According to Nalaka Gunawardena’s report, a major drawback of Sri Lanka’s governance has been the absence of transparency on the part of the state and governments which has been sustained from colonial times under a strong culture of authority and secrecy.

“Editorial independence is not guaranteed in Lankan law. It regularly comes under pressure from within and outside media organisations. Within privately owned media organisations, it is common for owners to interfere with both news coverage and commentary to suit their own political and/or commercial interests,” the report stated.

It also noted that Sri Lanka does not have a specific law guaranteeing the right of journalists to maintain the confidentiality of their sources – as a result, journalists and media organisations come under pressure from law enforcement officers from time to time to reveal sources. The report also observed that Sri Lanka’s broadcast regulatory system is not well defined, and nor is it independent. “There is no formal obligation for the Ministry to promote pluralism. In fact, the state has so far ignored civil society advocacy to transform state owned broadcasters into true public service broadcasters, and to license genuine community broadcasting,” the report stated.

Further it added that there is no law or regulation requiring all journalists to register before they can practise their profession – without being a legal requirement, an administrative arrangement known as Media Accreditation is issued by the Department of Information (under the Media Ministry).

“During the war period, a prior censorship concerning all matters related to national security was maintained for several years (and by more than one government). It was imposed under emergency regulations (which lapsed in August 2011). Media organisations felt that the application of censorship rules was often arbitrary and erratic,” Nalaka Gunawardena’s report noted.

It also pointed out that the first documented blocking of access to a website within Sri Lanka was in June 2007, when TamilNet, a news website, was blocked by all major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on the orders of the government. The report added that Since then, there have been many instances where ISPs blocked access to news websites and those carrying political commentary – all apparently under instructions from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRCSL).

The report compiled by Nalaka Gunawardena is still in the draft stage and was released to facilitate the National Media Summit on Media Reforms held last week – it highlights many other concerns and issues related to media freedom which are open for discussion.

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