A shadowy group calling itself the National Secretariat for Media Reform (NSMR) funded by an international non-governmental organization, International Media Support (IMS) and lobbing for a badly drafted Bill of independent Council for News Media Standards has led to huge public agitation and concern in Sri Lanka.
Concerns have arisen as to whether this is an attempt by certain international forces sympathetic to the ‘yahapalanaya’ Government to throttle journalists who are now critical of the Government. These concerns are heightened given that Director General of Information Ranga Kalansooriya is the one pushing the draft while the Ministry of Media is silent. Kalansooriya earlier worked with IMS as its regional advisor to Asia, and is well known to be still the one pulling the strings.
“I still do international consultancies, that is all I have to say. Please contact IMS for further details,” on 22 December 2016 he told Colombo Telegraph .
Social media activist Nalaka Gunawardene now serves as country programme manager for IMS which he clarified to an email query sent by Colombo Telegraph.Admitting that he ‘occasionally’ seeks Kalansooriya’s advice, Gunewardene has been pushing the draft on numerous social media platforms.
On Saturday, the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) denied claims by Kalansooriyathat SLWJA had been associated with the draft, accusing Kalansooriya of ‘telling lies.’
The draft that was discussed in a series of consultations around the country funded by IMS establishes a Council that will have strong powers to punish editors and journalists for violation of the standards that it lays down which are vague and arbitrary. Kalansooriya and Gunawardene have tried to justify the Council by saying that it will be similar to the RTI Commission of Sri Lanka established under the internationally recognised RTI Act. This comparison was ridiculed by journalists and media activists.
“The RTI Commission has got respected people as members, at least at the start, because of the strength of the RTI law itself and because civil society and media backed it strongly. The media was behind its drafting. How can this be the same here? This is a bad draft. Who is backing it? What is this Secretariat? No journalist or academic of repute serves as a member on it. No recognised person will want to come and serve. They will say this will be like the RTI Commission as an excuse and put government ‘pandankarayas’ on the Council who will act against journalists’ said a media activist.
Even though earlier, the Free Media Movement and others were involved in the process, they have now delinked themselves. The draft permits a court to order disclosure of a journalist’s sources. Journalists describe this as shocking when even the existing attitude of Sri Lanka judges has not been agreed as to whether a court should exercise that power or not! This judicial attitude was seen in cases filed against the Sri Lankan newspapers, for i.e. against Lakbima in 1995, where the High Court refused to hold the editor responsible for not disclosing sources.International standards were quoted by Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane for the refusal. When discussing this point with her at the international symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility in 2008, the editor of the Colombo Telegraph Uvindu Kurukulasuriya (then a Director of Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Press Complaint Commission of Sri Lanka) was informed as follows; Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane
“My thinking was liberal and inclined towards the protection of sources. What happened was that the other judge made an error of law. So what happened was – we make errors of judgment and it is rectified by the higher court. That happens all the time. But what happened when this case came up was that Parliament repealed the criminal defamation law itself. The two conflicting judgments remained without being decided upon by a higher court. But I say that my thinking is right. You do not have to divulge your sources. To me, you should not divulge your sources because you are the voice of poor people and if they come and tell you something today you have to protect whoever is telling you. If I was a journalist, I will go to jail. I will say, I am not going to divulge. You have to fight these things. I mean, life is about fighting for what is right. Anyway, the correct judgment is a Supreme Court Judgment of Justice Mark Fernando’s which says that you do not have to divulge sources. That is the law at the moment.”