Role of media under scrutiny

By Randev Jayasinha

The Easter Sunday attacks and its aftermath brought into focus many social aspects that citizens, as well as the State, need to change, given the new conflicts that have arisen.

Key among these incidents is the role played by the media, or the failure to follow an ethical code of conduct by some media institutions, as well as the Government’s methods of handling certain situations.

The Sunday Morning spoke to stakeholders of several media organisations to seek clarity with regard to the conflicts that have arisen over the past few weeks and the role played by media.

Pressure on press and media
South Asian Free Media Association Sri Lanka Chapter President Lakshman Gunasekara

The bulk of professional journalists in the free news media industry – press, radio, television, and professional news websites – seem to be complying very well with the expected standard and professional ethics.

However, there is a small group in some of the conventional media outlets who seem to be ready to exaggerate news pertaining to different religious or ethnic communities while sensationalising some aspects.

For example, the hunt for gang members involved in the recent Easter Sunday bombings following the incident were sensationalised to some extent, which we can assume was aimed at arousing communal disharmony.

In recent times, a small group of media reporters, especially print media, has resolved to speculative reporting rather than investigative journalism, where the public would be provided with facts rather than heresy.

This style of unethical reporting was clearly visible in the incident involving the doctor who was arrested in Kurunegala.

This had led to the arousal of huge suspicions between communities, which may even take generations to resolve. In fact, it seems to have also provoked some religious leaders to make very dangerous harmful statements as well, adding fuel.

However, on internet-based social media and websites, where there aren’t rules and regulations, things seem to have gone completely out of control as anyone can post their opinion without a filter.

These acts have led to the evoking of fear, paranoia, and communal unrest between different communities, which would then lead to mistrust and hatred in society.

With regard to restrictions by the Government, comparatively speaking, in contrast with the issues that the media community had to face with the last Government, media professionals at present have a sense of freedom and an unrestricted canvas to work on.

There is no direct intimidation by the Government or by government officials or other local authorities. More pressure seems to be coming from non-governmental and ultra-naturalistic groups expressing certain hostilities towards the media.

For example, at least one well-known columnist and a very young notable novelist were both subjected to police criminal investigations prompted by complaints made by unknown, non-governmental sources.

Therefore, I believe that Government involvement has been quite liberal and perhaps this liberal atmosphere we live in now is being abused by certain individuals for their own personal gain.

Print media has become a commodity
Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) CEO Sukumar Rockwood

Yes, several print media institutes have violated the witness code, and they continue to do so, which is extremely unethical.

In spite of the PCCSL’s constant effort to go to news rooms, educate journalists, inform sub-editors, and speak to editors, this code has always been broken several times.

As journalists and those addressing the public and conveying a message, we have responsibilities that we must uphold; not only when reporting the news, but when addressing a social problem too, we are heavily weighed down with certain ethics that we must stand by. These include a non-critical view point, refraining from expressing our own opinion, making sure that no individual is blacklisted in society through our words, and expressing only the facts so that the reader can make their own judgment.

The clear violation of this code was glaringly visible in the recent incident involving Dr. Shafi from Kurunegala and the supposed accusation of having committed sterilisations while conducting caesarean operations.

We are still uncertain as to how far this story is true, but my opinion is that from the very beginning, most newspapers gave the public a flawed perception of the incident, even before the authorities could conduct their investigations.

Once that specific print media published that story, the PCCSL immediately wrote to the media organisation and made them understand that they had done something terribly wrong, but by then the news had already spread like wildfire.

The usual process followed when someone is accused of having committed a crime is that there will be an investigation. If the individual is found guilty, the media will pick up on it and report it in that light. However, in this case, even before the authorities can conduct an investigation, the public had already charged the man.

We cannot cite excuses claiming that the Code of Ethics document was outdated or didn’t specify the code of conduct, as it clearly states these factors.
The PCCSL ensures that the code is reviewed and renewed every two years through discussions held amongst a committee appointed by the PCCSL; it was last updated in January 2016.

It clearly states that reporters must respect the privacy of the individuals they are reporting on.

This is why I keep stating that print media has become a commodity – the public will accept the news in the manner in which it’s dressed and presented to them. This is the sad state print media has to face today.

My final message to journalists and editors is just that we have a responsibility as providers of information to go about it the right way; it’s not just about selling your news or newspaper. You must have a passion for what you do. Then, we wouldn’t have the need to be persecuted by anyone.

Activities to restrict freedom of expressions
Tamil Media Alliance, Colombo Executive Committee Member Amirthasun Nixon

Compared to the past, media freedom and freedom to write is relatively better at present.

However, we are not in a position to write freely about the Government and tri-forces of Sri Lanka, in the name of national security.

Former intelligence officers and armed personnel who were arrested on suspicions of killings and threats to media persons were granted bail recently while some were reinstated.

In my opinion, we view this as a threat to media freedom. Media organisations feel that this is an act of not respecting the laws of the land.

As social media is not bound by the rules and regulations governing mass media, it cannot be considered a mainstream media entity.

In the name of freedom of expression, people are able to express their political views on social media.

However, this freedom is also now being restricted in times of political crises where the Government completely bans these types of activities for some weeks.

These decisions made by the Government cannot be accepted.

Even after May 2009, the Tamil media in the North and East have been under constant vigilance by national intelligence. Tamil media personnel are not in a position to gather news freely; they feel threatened and their activities have been restricted by the Army. Activities have been taking place to restrict freedom of expression.

A prime example of this would be when last month the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) demanded the Editor of the Tamil Thanthi Sunday journal in Colombo reveal the details of a Tamil journalist who wrote articles about former LTTE Commander Balraj.

The Editor refused to do so; as a result, the TID filed a “B” report at the Jaffna High Court and mentioned that withholding this information was a threat to national security.

In my opinion, media organisations view such actions as a threat to media freedom.

More recently, many Muslim youths were arrested after the Easter Sunday attack under emergency regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, Sinhalese youths who violently attacked the properties of Muslims were arrested under normal law and granted bail after a short period of time.

The Tamil media is reluctant to highlight social injustice and biased laws.

They are well aware about the consequences faced by Tamil journalists during the war; the Tamil media is not in a position to speak about social injustice and biased treatments.

Govt., media, and local authorities must act responsibly
Sri Lanka College of Journalism Director Shan Wijethunga

In my personal opinion, I do not see the Government trying to deprive activities of organisations or media freedom. However, individuals can argue that from time to time, the Government restricted activities pertaining to freedom of expression.

This was visible when the Government banned social media during crises, but this can be interpreted in two ways. One argument could be that the authorities took these decisions to curb the spread of hate speech and false information. Still however, some activists argue that curtailing the spread of hate speech and fake news was not observed even though these restrictions were implemented.

What I feel is that the Government is not trying to misuse existing laws to curtail media freedom, but is instead instructing authorities act upon certain elements of writing and reporting they feel may be sensitive or harmful to national security.

In the most recent incident involving journalist Shakthika Sathkumara, we must understand that it was not the Government that made the complaint which led to his arrest, but rather a group of monks, after which the Police proceeded to take the necessary actions.

Therefore, we cannot state the Government is suppressing media; there are also other factors we must take into consideration such as the Police, Intelligence Service, and tri-forces.

My argument is that although everyone is free to express their views and ideas, there is a responsibility that must be borne by journalists to report the news ethically and accurately.

Given the circumstances that persist in Sri Lanka, as journalists, we must understand that we too have a civic duty to society to act in an appropriate manner and report our stories ethically while exercising some caution.

The Government must not bear the blame for certain incidents that have taken place today; the Police as well as the media must take some responsibility for some incidents that have arisen at present.

That being said, I would like to clarify that I’m not being non-critical of the Government, because they too need to take control and take the initiative to ensure order in this country.

Govt. and media organisations must communicate
Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association President Duminda Sampath

The problem lies in communication. There is a serious lack of communication between the Government and media organisations, which results in conflicts between the two parties.

We have approached the Government to make them understand this fact, and to get them to start a conversation with media organisations in this regard.

As journalists and reporters, I believe that we too must practice self-censorship, as that seems to be rather lax in our community at present.

I believe that many journalists have crossed certain lines when reporting news or publishing articles – it’s a fact and it’s very wrong. This kind of activity cannot be excused, but the action the Government is taking seems to be rather inappropriate.

As such, we are pushing for this conversation between the media and Government to soften this blow and ensure that there will be no boundaries crossed by reporters and journalists either.

Govt. could have stopped the spread of hate speech and fake news
Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum President N.M. Ameen

There was a change in public opinion about the Muslim community following the Easter Sunday attacks.

To express their opinions, a majority of the press as well as the public took to electronic media.

In my view, information was shared to an unwanted extent across mainly electronic media outlets.

Although the Government tried to restrict this spread of false information and hate speech, they were unsuccessful.

In my opinion, the Government should have approached the media rights organisations as well as the editors of these media groups before taking their action.

The Government, instead of restricting these sites, should have spoken to the media community and made them understand the situation and prohibited them from adding fuel to fire.

Current media laws sufficient to combat false info
Attorney-at-Law Shehara Herath

I think the current laws are sufficient to tackle the misuse of media freedom.

However, currently, instead of using these laws against large media corporations, the authorities as well as other law enforcement bodies are swift to enforce them against individual persons, journalists, and reporters who sometimes publish ideas without malicious intent.

I believe that the misuse of the ICCPR Act can be cited as an example of these actions.

In my opinion, although there needs to be some laws enacted in term of the right to privacy, the current laws on media are sufficient to combat false information.