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Media rights and responsibilities

2014 Jan 20

The Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL), the newspaper industry's own 'policeman', celebrated its 10th anniversary this week; an event postponed from last October due to a request from the Government not to clash with CHOGM.
In her keynote speech at the opening of an international conference to mark the occasion, Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, Emeritus Professor of Law and one-time Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo, succinctly pointed out that though modern concepts of human rights of the individual vis-à-vis the state were of Western origin, the principles of dissent, discourse, different opinions and peaceful resolution of disputes were steeped very much in South Asian values.
In ancient Sri Lanka, long before Western laws and the adversarial court system were introduced to this country, disputes were resolved amicably under a shady tree by village elders mediating. The PCCSL operates in that spirit of conciliation, mediation and arbitration. There are no penal provisions -- of powers to send journalists and publishers to jail -- powers that have been given to an obnoxious Press Council, that was recently re-activated by a Government that crows about its subscription to media freedom.
Prof. Goonesekere said (the full text of her speech appears on ST 2 Page 8) that self-regulation was also meaningless if the broader aspect of a Right to Information Law -or access to Government information was not available to the stakeholders, including citizens. Sri Lanka has this dubious distinction of being the only South Asian country that does not have a Right to Information Law. In the modern world, no country can claim to be 'democratic' if it does not have a Right to Information Law.
Among the deliberations this week at this conference was the need for the media practitioners to adhere to an updated Code of Practice. Self-regulation and a Code of Practice are a sine-qua-non to any profession and if journalists want the recognition given to professions, and to be treated accordingly by the general public, they must adhere to such a Code, no doubt drafted by their peers, however much they may resent it.
Judge C.G. Weeramantry who has helped draft a universal code for scientists, in a recorded statement to the conference referred to the many matters that confront each profession and relate to their impact on the public that are not covered by laws. This area, he said, required a code that would be the guideline for the professionals of a particular field.
Those who say that media personnel must have unrestricted freedom -- which opponents call the 'freedom of the wild ass' -- in a backhanded comment on Sri Lankan journalists say that this is to "muzzle sheep". Still, there is a clamour for responsible journalism and the Editors' Code that has been drafted by The Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka some years ago serves as that guiding light for journalists to practise their trade or profession. The PCCSL is the implementation arm of this Code.
This Code needs to draw other related fields like advertising, the electronic media, and social media into the orbit of self-regulation rather than have the Government force laws down their throats. Media freedom must be accompanied by social responsibility which was the theme of those who formulated the road map for the twin complementary subjects back in 1998 through the Colombo Declaration when the Government of the day began enforcing its writ through outdated laws.

Lanka hooked by India's bait
The bilateral talks between India and Sri Lanka in New Delhi this week to discuss the issue of illegal fishing and the arrest of fishermen by both countries have been clouded with mystery with the Sri Lankan side issuing a formal statement only yesterday.
Alas, from the wording therein, Sri Lanka has equated the mass scale systematic invasion of Sri Lankan waters by thousands of Indian fishermen with the straying of Sri Lankan fishermen to Indian waters as "crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and fishing illegally in each other's waters". What a sell out?
We are told that an expert committee has been appointed to look into the contentious issues in the Palk Strait waters. There is already a Joint Working Group on Fisheries (which ought to be realistically called a JWG on Poaching) between the two countries but their deliberations are at a standstill, not having met since 2012 as India has refused to give a date. So what then is the earthly purpose of another committee other than for mere cosmetic purpose and a tactic to prolong the issue -- for the status quo regarding poaching to continue?
While the JWG has been in limbo, armadas of fishermen from Southern India, mainly Tamil Nadu, brazenly intruded to North, North Eastern and North Western Sri Lankan waters thrice a week and stole the fish disturbing the environment with their illegal fishing methods and destroying the livelihood of the people of these areas for whom the Indians have plenty of crocodile tears.
From what the Indian Minister has told the media of that country, the emphasis at least on their part has been for this new committee to ensure Indian fishermen are not arrested, and if arrested be treated humanely and released in the shortest possible time. To hell with the issue of stealing fish in Sri Lankan waters; and pocketing the billions of Euros that go with their export industry.
Has Sri Lanka then caved in for fear of reprisals by India at the forthcoming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva; or is it a quid-pro-quo for her support to ward off any upcoming resolution that could have disastrous effects on Sri Lanka's political leaders.
The Sri Lankan complaint has seemingly fallen on deaf ears. The Indian Central Government has deftly passed the buck saying it will 'inform' the State Government of Tamil Nadu about the concerns of the Sri Lankan Government. India's position can be likened to asking that a house-breaker be treated well when he is caught by the victim whose possessions he steals regularly, and be released soon. On their part they will inform the thief's handler to see that the intruder does not make a mess of the house he breaks into and to see what they can do about the robberies taking place.
To expect anything from either the Central Government of India or the State Government of Tamil Nadu is asking for too much with general elections due in a few months' time in that country. Therefore, the Sri Lankan ministers' trip to New Delhi, accompanied by a high-powered delegation of officials, seems to have been a waste of time and money.
The question of poaching, the use of illegal fishing practices that are causing long-term damage to the eco-system of the area apart from the billions of rupees this country is losing to India will continue regardless. The Sri Lankan Government will need to look at alternative avenues to resolve this issue -- but only if it has the spine to do so.

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