Ethical journalism in Sri Lanka: A work in progress?

By Dinithi Gunasekera 


The recent resurgence of Covid-19 in the island has also brought into focus occasions where some established news outlets, particularly online, have failed to adhere to ethics when reporting about Covid-19 cases.

Such reporting has caused severe backlash from the general public, who call for a more nuanced and ethics-driven approach to be adopted by digital media platforms in Sri Lanka.

Picture this. Your flatmate has tested positive for the novel coronavirus and has been rushed away for isolated treatment. All your friends, family and well-meaning neighbours (for the most part), are petrified of your presence. You are rushed to an ambulance assisted by sanitized medical staff and police clad in protective gear from head to toe. You are surrounded: A dozen reporters asking your name, hurried camera-men. Then: Lights! Camera! Action! Your space and your energy are swamped by an unbearable amount of attention you have never received. Suddenly your face is on national television and all over Facebook. All for the wrong reasons.

The media is regarded as the messiah of righteous truth, and equivocally, it is at the butt end of any and all criticism. In Sri Lankan media’s questionable stance on ethical journalism, there seems to be more than what meets the eye.

Amongst the plethora of mass media outlets, the most time-honoured and trusty constituent is the press, where in some parts of the world, digital media is still a relatively new phenomenon.

Digital news media includes online journalism, blogging, digital photojournalism, citizen journalism, and social media. Although a vibrant addition to the existing collective of mass media, digital news media is on the slippery side of things in the context of Sri Lanka, the reason being the absence of a written Code of Ethics for the said medium.

Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) Press Commissioner Niroshan Thambawita was eager to elaborate on the legal perspective of it all. According to Thambawita, an Act in 1973 talks of the right to produce a Code of Ethics for Mass Media. It was accordingly carried out for press media through Gazette No. 162/5A of 1981, consisting of 11 statements and clauses.


SLPC and the press

When defamation or any such infringement occurs from the side of the media, the only organisation to lodge complaints with, which would work towards resolving the issue, is the SLPC.

Thambawita described the SLPC as an institution that strives to respect and protect the freedom of mass media while safeguarding the rights of the people. At instances of detriment where mass media is involved, the Council acts as a mediating body that is free of the rigidity of governmental interface whilst being rather courteous in its conduct. Although it is gazetted under the Ministry of Mass Media, it has powers similar to a district court and functions as an independent council that is entrusted to do justice at the end of the day.

Though particularly prominent during the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019, where many news items were motivated by racial prejudice and misinformation, within the press media, there are very limited reported incidents of the infringement of people’s rights, said Thambawita.

The prohibition of race-based discrimination is a leading statement in the 1981 guidelines. There is another such prohibition on mentioning names, location, and photographs of relevant individuals with regard to sexual abuse of minors.

In press journalism, in addition to the actual journalists themselves, there are also editors, subeditors, etc., through whom the news item is checked repeatedly and necessary amendments are made, which is one of the reasons why infringement of peoples’ rights is limited through the press.

“When such an incident occurs with regard to the press, we notify the Editor-in-Chief about that allegedly infringing news item using the mandate of the 1981 Code of Ethics and a sort of investigation procedure is conducted. Afterwards, both parties consisting of the responsible media personnel and the complainant would be invited to the premises and further investigations would be conducted by the Board of Directors of the Press Council. It should be noted that the procedure is, at all times, courteous and impartial,” explained the Press Commissioner.


Digital media in focus

In addition to the absence of an arbitrary code that governs the ethical use of digital media, the very nature of social media is challenging in nature in terms of overseeing ethics.

TV Derana General Manager of Digital Media and IdeaHell General Manager Janeeth Rodrigo, in an exchange with The Sunday Morning Brunch, shared that media personnel within the scope of digital media are currently working with a set of guidelines they themselves set, which is also policed by them.

“Unfortunately, when the debate about how these ethics should be enforced comes up, there’s always backlash, especially from the media industry as a whole, where they consider themselves ‘the champions of the people’. We are very averse to any guideline arbitrarily given from outside of the industry, which I think is one of the main problems at present,” shared Rodrigo.

The SLPC Press Commissioner used the metaphor of water to elaborate the nature of social media. Flowing water neither has direction nor regulation. It flows freely and at times recklessly, if not contained. It can be both beneficial and destructive. While water is used for drinking and household purposes, the same water can be responsible for the occurrence of tsunamis, floods, and other calamities.

Rodrigo, further adding to his comment, noted: “It’s a massive grey area as to what constitutes libel or slander that happens on an online platform. Dealing with social media and ethics is difficult because it’s very platform-specific. If we take the most popular social media platform Facebook into account, there’s a set of community guidelines that determines what is ethical and what is not.”

Most of the time, social media users are not aware or educated of the ethics that media and journalism abide by. With the rise of the new phenomenon of “influencers”, a segment of individuals who have risen to popularity in popular social media platforms are able to make a greater impact on people than the press.

“The problem with digital media is that everyone is in a hurry to report. There is a lot of competition involved. In terms of us as a media agency, we strive to prioritise what’s accurate even if we are not the first to report it,” stated Rodrigo.

In any case of digital media or social media infringement, the two organisations that assist in resolving the issue are the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT) and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Rodrigo added that he personally knows that they are quite efficient and prompt in what they do. The problem-solving protocol not only consists of contacting the relevant social media platform directly, but it also takes legal action locally.

From his expertise gained in digital media at Derana, Rodrigo revealed that there is a limit that the media organisation can do to counteract infringement caused due to fake news; it can make official announcements to control whatever damage that has been caused.

“Additionally, platforms such as Facebook are the most used social media and also the most abused. Facebook has direct links with almost all leading Sri Lankan digital media networks. When there is something going on that is fake and potentially detrimental, we reach out to them and action is taken accordingly.

“As a media organisation, what we follow is the gatekeeper philosophy. The news item is passed through at least six to eight individuals before it is released, starting from the regional reporter to the regional news editor and so on. Still, with that being said, there still could be infringements that occur.”


The media industry

“The biggest problem by far is that we as an industry cannot and do not comprehend that there is a problem at hand,” expressed Rodrigo.

Rodrigo is of the opinion that firstly, we have to identify the existence of a problem in order to look for a solution. “If the industry fixes that as a collective, then there would be no need for legal intervention, but the best possible step is for the industry to come to terms with the state authorities and agree on certain essential guidelines.”

“There is also an apparent generational gap. The media industry is still dominated by a ‘bunch of dinosaurs’ who are very used to the way of doing things the way they have been doing it over the years. So at times, it’s difficult for people with new ideas to have a say in things. I believe there should be a compromise and a middle ground. We cannot continue to do things the way we did it and expect the results to change,” said Rodrigo.


A personalised code of ethics

SLPC Press Commissioner Thambawita revealed that at the moment, there is proactive discussion between the relevant authorities such as a panel of mass media journalists, news directors, and mass media unions in collaboration with the Ministry of Mass Media on the prompt need for an individualised Code of Ethics and a monitoring mechanism not only covering the scope of electronic media, but also for social media. It is learnt that a discussion was also held a couple of weeks ago with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The President’s manifesto “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” itself mentions that the Press Council should be inclusive of other types of media.

“A workshop on the importance of the theoretic base for the proposal was scheduled to be discussed with mass media experts and professors in universities on 15 October. It was however postponed due to the resurgence of the Covid-19 outbreak. It was aimed as input sessions to aid the production of an official Code of Ethics and overseeing mechanisms.”


Negative impact and bigger picture

“During the past few weeks, we have seen how certain digital media reporters covered the Covid-19-positive patients by invoking a thriller film-based effect through the misuse of patients, disregarding their rights as dignified human beings. The reputations of these individuals are nothing but mere stories for them, as if it were a hunt for destructive drugs,” commented the Press Commissioner.

“In addition to the infringement of human rights, more damage was caused by the unnecessary social anxiety that was created by these media personnel, causing Covid-19-positive patients to go into hiding, resist treatment, and run away from their households. No one would want their families, neighbours, friends, households, or belongings to be telecast on national television for all to see.”


Formal education: A cure to all ills?

“Most of the time, it’s regional reporters and correspondents who engage in unethical journalism to gain the spotlight and gain a spot on the news bulletins,” opined Rodrigo.

He said that media organisations treat regional correspondents quite offhandedly. “We don’t consider them as one of our employees. The unfortunate repercussion of this is that it leaves room for an unaccredited handful to represent the media, in both the good and bad. They do a lot of good work as well, such as educating the public on social problems they never knew existed as opposed to main media personnel who utilise a very top-down approach to things.

“However, the lack of training is definitely one of the issues. If all media organisations can cumulatively train their regional reporters and correspondents, it would greatly mitigate this problem that we have at hand.”

A formal education appears to be a deciding factor, which is the case with most problems in Sri Lanka. All the media organisations have to ensure that due training is given to its employees.


Cumulative freedom of mass media

There’s a thin line between freedom of speech and expression, and respecting the rights of the people. If media personnel feel they have the right to unjustly utilise the identity of the common man for the benefit of the media organisation, it is only fair that the people exercise their right to seek justice in the case of the violation of rights, expressed the SLPC Press Commissioner.

“Freedom of speech is not reduced by following a Code of Ethics; it is complete slander in itself, motivated by selected groups, certainly not all, within the network.”

There are also many instances where the relevant media personnel in question are wrongly accused, in which case after the course of justice through the proceedings of the Council, due credit is given to the particular reporter for his/her work.

There are also many issues covered in the Code of Ethics for the press media, such as plagiarism, which is another factor that should be addressed regarding digital media.

“The making of a legal framework does not mean the repression of the freedom of the press, and the freedom of speech and expression. This is not an issue of censorship but rather about moving forward as a society where information is abundant yet ethically obtained.”

SLPC Press Commissioner Thambawita confessed, however, that the 1973 Act should definitely be amended and restructured in a manner that is appropriate for today’s developed society.

International examples

In relation to the global stage, ethical journalism is governed by a variety of mandates, some of which are specialized to specific news agencies. The IFJ Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists is one such internationally recognized declaration. The Charter is based on major texts of international law, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

However, the stray from ethical journalism practices is not something exclusive to Sri Lanka as there are many examples of such gross violations in the global stage from the case of Yazidi women’s painful testimonies on the practices of journalists who covered their stories to prime examples for fake news and misinformation on the world stage such as the Buzzfeed report on President-elect Donald Trump that was based on uncorroborated, unverified work via third-party intelligence. 

For a country such as Sri Lanka, it is apparent that we have ample room for improvement and to achieve more ethical standards in media.

 “Sensationalizing a story does bring in more views, it shouldn’t violate anyone’s rights or bring harm to anyone,” shared Muqaddasa Wahid, a young print journalist of one of the leading news outlets in Sri Lanka.

“As a print journalist, our code of ethics restricts us from such actions and when we see digital and electronic media doing such stories, there is an immense pressure on print media journalists to do the same, which sometimes can be very taxing on our mental health, career and integrity. Such acts happening is a black mark on the whole journalism industry in the country and questions the integrity of the media, which affects many journalists who are honest in their work and work hard to ensure they put out true stories ensuring no harm is done to anyone.”