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The battle for media freedom and social


 Sri Lanka’s media and activists celebrate landmark 20th anniversary of
Colombo Declaration
 PM says judiciary has to be consulted to change laws relating to
Contempt of Court
 SLPI seeks Govt. tax concessions for struggling newspaper industry
Revisiting the Colombo Declaration of 1998.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya participating in the symposium to mark the 20th
anniversary of the Colombo Declaration
 Sunday, September 30, 2018

Thursday September 27 marked the 20th
anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social
Responsibility. An international conference on the Media Freedom and Social
Responsibility started the same day at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, with the
participation of many local and foreign media stakeholders.
The “Colombo Declaration” was signed by the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, the
Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and the Free Media Movement in April 1998.
It came at a time when media institutions and journalist in Sri Lanka were
being challenged with oppression and violence.
At the inauguration ceremony on Thursday, Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe spoke about the Colombo Declaration and a twenty-year
struggle to establish media freedom. He said:
When we look back, there are many of you here who walked the whole length
with us, who fought to establish media freedom. Among them are those who
are not with us, who sacrificed their lives – Lasantha Wickramatunga,
Pradeep Eknaligoda and a group of journalists form the Uthayan newspaper.
I was asked what is happening to the inquiries (into these incidents) and I said
that one of the police officers inquiring told me, “Sir, how can we inquire
when the media are accusing us and making us the villains.” So this is a good
issue for you to discuss in the next few days in your deliberations. If you want
evidence I will certainly provide it and I am sure the Minister of Media will do
the same, we have stood for the principal of media freedom and that is best
seen in Sri Lanka by the fact that the most abused person in the media
directly or indirectly is me.
All of sudden from standing up for the right of expression, I have to say that,
like someone in France did, I defend to my last drop of blood your right to
abuse me. We have to now look at what needs to be done in the next 20 years.
This is a serious situation because we all fought on the basis that facts are
sacred, comment is free but we have a media now which say comment is
scared, facts are free. This is the view of someone who has fought and proved
he is committed to upholding the freedom of the media.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe having a conversation in lighter vein
with Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and SLPI chairman
Kumar Nadesan.
These are issues that are as important as others to mention here. We can go
into the contempt of court issue. We need legislation but we have to remember
there are other stakeholders — including the judiciary. We have to work
together with judiciary and Parliament. We need laws on contempt. I don’t
think its impossible. The Parliament oversight committee on the judiciary can
also go into it but this requires extensive consultation.
Sri Lanka Press Institute Chairman Kumar Nadesan said:
The standard of journalism sets the standard for democracy in any country.
The Colombo Declaration which has been endorsed by the Newspaper Society
of Sri Lanka, the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, the Free Media Movement
(FMM), and the Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association (SLWJA) and
now by multiple affiliates is a road for journalist and the media in Sri Lanka.
Its ultimate aim is to raise the standards in our profession and our
professional conduct so that democracy and good governance will flourish.
Having a moral framework in place is also why it is necessary to formally
dissolve the Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC), a redundant and vestigial
organisational body. The existence of this council is the main reason for the
inability of a free press to act independently of government influence due to
the worry of punitive and criminal punishment for the publication of popular
and factual news.
The SLPC laws are blatantly undemocratic and a slur on this country. The
need for a full and legal dissolution is clear from the actions of the previous
government which was able to reactivate the SLPC only because the SLPC
Act had not been repealed. We call upon you, Mr. Prime Minister, to complete
your campaign of your youth and that of your father to denounce and
repudiate an anti-democratic and draconian law that works against the press,
to elevate our democracy to the highest standards.

In the Colombo Declaration, there are few
other goals among which is the need for a Contempt of Court Act, a
framework of law that exists both in India and the UK so that the media and
the public understand the clear and defined boundaries within which the
contempt laws operate. At this time, it is not clear if a journalist is asked to
reveal his or her source by court would be charged with contempt if he or she
refuses to do so. Without clarity, leaving the subject entirely in the hands of
the judiciary, allows for the same ambiguity to intimidate the press.
Newsprint which is imported has escalated in price and with the depreciation
of the rupee has impacted heavily on the industry. We would request that the
taxes by way of CESS, Port Levy and VAT be reconsidered so that we may be
able to provide the people with affordable and credible news as against other
news platforms which may not be altogether true or valid.
On a lighter note I might add that even Mr. Trump has removed all tariffs
imposed on Canadian newsprint presumably for the benefit of the American
Needlessly to say the media certainly enjoy freedom that it did not previously.
Our membership will be very happy to work with the government to foster
and promote democracy so that the country’s image as a democratic nation
where journalists have a constitutional right to practise their profession in
safety and an independent media can be a model to the world.
Lindsay Ross, former Executive Director of the Commonwealth Press Union
(CPU) and Trustee Commonwealth Media Trust.
Twenty years ago, in April 1998, I sat in the BMICH and listened to the case
being forcibly put for a self-regulatory body for the media in Sri Lanka,free
from the threat of criminal defamation and free from government
interference. It seemed an unlikely ambition at the time given that five editors
had been indicted for criminal defamation. Three days of discussion and
debate and a lot of hope was finally distilled into the Colombo Declaration on
media freedom and social responsibility. The CPU fully supported the aims
and aspiration of the Sri Lanka Press. The CPU has had long ties with Sri
Lanka and Sri Lankan newspapers have been members since the origins of
the organization in 1909 so we felt we should provide whatever help we could
to strengthen the independent media here and enable the industry to move
forward. In a perfect there would be no regulation of the press. As neither
the world nor the press makes any claim to being perfect, the need for some
sort of regulation has long being widely accepted. The dilemma lies inevitably
in fashioning a system that minimizes the mutual pain .It must preserve the
essential rights of the individual, the right not to be falsely accused.
misreported, maligned or suffer invasions of privacy without reason without
crushing the fundamental principles of press freedom-, the right to
free expression, the right to be fearless and robust , the right to investigate
and expose and , indeed, the right to be wrong.
M.A. Sumanthiran – TNA MP –Jaffna District

Public service vs private broadcasting
largest number of journalist killed in the last 20 years was in the District of
Jaffna, six in one news agency alone which suffered 33 attacks. Around 14
Tamil journalists were killed and it is unfortunate no investigation have
commenced into the killing of these journalists. It’s a shame given that we
have made progress with regards to stopping intimidation of journalists in the
country. Other investigation has been going on for three years now but don’t
seem to be going anywhere. The Colombo Declarations is about two things-
media freedom and social responsibility. A lot will no doubt be said on media
freedom but we, as part of reading public expect some deliberations on social
responsibility of the media as well. Media freedom is necessary so that the
press reports the truth. Unfortunately in Sri Lankan we see a lot of reporting
of falsehood with impunity. The pendulum it seems to have swing to the other
end from 1998. It’s good we repealed criminal defamation, set up a self-
regulatory body but to what extent has it freed the media to report the truth is
a question. Today our struggles seem to be against the press- a press that is
irresponsible, that it has no inhibitions in reporting untruths. We are
exasperated time and again by the irresponsible conduct of the press in Sri
Lanka. I wish this other aspect would also be addressed.
Norway’s Ambassador Thorbjørn Gaustadsæther said:
The Colombo Declaration has been the road-map to establish Sri Lanka Press
Institute in 2003 with the financial support of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
The Norwegian Embassy is proud of its strong, decades-long relationship with
SLPI. Sri Lanka has taken several noteworthy measures in media freedom
and social responsibility in recent years, such as endorsing the Open
Government Declaration in October 2015 thereby becoming the first South
Asian participating country. Open Government Declaration encourages
governments to make commitments to promote transparency, empower
citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen
governments by learning from each other’s experiences and by working with
civil society within the country. Having strong RTI laws encourages people’s
participation in government and promotes cooperation, transparency and
trust between people and those elected by the people.
UNESCO Delhi Office Director Eric Falt:
We need to dwell on the 1998 Colombo Declaration that recognised gender
issues, noting that the media must refrain from sexism in the reporting of
news and in commentary. The 1998 Declaration says that media must be
inclusive, pluralistic and represent diversity, remaining sensitive to the
aspiration of women and other groups. Strangely the 2008 Declaration did not
include this element and I would really like to urge you to consider it for the
revised declaration in case it has not been considered yet.
UNESCO firmly believes that mainstreaming gender in media is critical both
in terms of strengthening the representation of women at media organisations
and improving the portrayal of women in media content. UNESCO is
currently managing a major initiative on gender and media in Sri Lanka and
is looking to help build a gender transformative media environment in the
Politicians, journalists and media activists took part in panel discussion on
Thursday, Friday and yesterday. Here are some of the views.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya:
The Press Institute Chairman mentioned about the history of the Right to
Information Act. That is a long history. It did not come from the sky; we had
to struggle for that. I remember in 2001 the Ranil Wickremesinghe
Government started working on that rapidly. In 2003 and 2004, we were able
to table it in parliament but unfortunately with the premature dissolution of
Parliament the whole effort was disrupted.
The agitation for good governance and freedom of information had been there
for quite some time. It started in the 1990s when we had the infamous election
to the North Western Provincial Council. That election was not free or fair.
There was a hue and cry in the country with religious leaders, civil society,
and political leaders taking up the cause. They were looking for some sort of
guidelines to get information freely, and also for good governance. The result
was the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Through this we set up
independent commissions.
We also felt the executive presidency had excessive powers. We ourselves
proposed that the executive presidency should be abolished and since then, all
the elections were fought on the basis of the abolition of the executive
presidency. But after elections, the government leaders sidestepped it.
Therefore the executive presidency is still there.
I am happy that Sri Lanka now has a Right to Information (RTI) law. But I
need to mention that in other countries such as India the agitation for right to
information came from the grassroots. It was the people who started the
agitation. But in Sri Lankan, the RTI agitation came mainly from the
educated people and the socialist party.
Today I am happy about the interest the people show in the RTI Act. It comes
from all levels — from the humble hut in the village to the highest level.

Media regulation -via media. Pix by Amila Gamage, M.D.Nissanka and
Priyantha Wickremaarachchi
It’s been almost eighteen months since the operation of this Act and I have
seen the tremendous enthusiasm shown by the people. We are fortunate we
have an RTI information commission which has a capable chairman and
members who are giving decisions which are practical and bold.
The Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka President, Manik de Silva:
The Editor’s Guild played a major role in organising the 1998 Symposium
which led to the Colombo Declaration. The combined efforts of the collective
forced the government to repeal the Criminal Defamation Law in 2002. The
Guild set up the Independent Press Complaints Commission, modelled on the
British Press Complaints Commission with the assistance of the
Commonwealth Press Union. The SLPCC and the College of Journalism
function under the SLPI as an umbrella organisation.
Free Media Movement (FMM) convener C. Dodawatta:
Compared to the collectiveness 25 year ago, I do not see it reflected in the
media community today. The Colombo Declaration was a victory which will
act as a stepping stone to reach further in the future. There is a need for the
Colombo Declaration to be updated, taking into account the growth of the
electronic and online media streams. The constituents echoed the need to have
a dialogue with the electronic and online media counterparts and incorporate
them into a common framework such as the Colombo Declaration. We need to
move forward with greater unity to address the ongoing and future
Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) President Duminda
It is through the Colombo Declaration that the Right to Information (RTI)
Act became a reality. It is a cause of concern that hard won victories such as
the RTI are not being used adequately by media practitioners. If we can
gather all the media stakeholders on one common platform, we can resolve
common concerns and self-regulate ourselves. It is frustrating that crimes that
occurred against journalists are yet to be addressed or solved. If these crimes
go unsolved and justice not delivered, the future of journalism in the country
may be at risk again as the culprits of such crimes remain at large.
Javid Yusuf, a member of the Dispute Resolution Council of the PCCSL:
The media need to work with factual information and use credible sources in
reporting current affairs, so as not to spread misinformation and panic among
the communities. The gathering should reflect on the manner in which the
media responds to current issues and cautioned those present that media
should be not project individuals, accused with grave crimes and or
corruption and shape them in to heroes.
Liv Ekeberg, representing the Norwegian Union of Journalists:
Norway’s self-regulatory framework is known as the Norwegian Press
Complaints Commission (PCC) which prides itself on being ‘Free, Fast and
fair”. Self-regulation framework which covers print, electronic and online
streams was not in any way linked to the legal system of the country and
functioned with the aim to supervise and promote professional journalism.
A Code of ethics and an editor’s code saw penalties given by a group of peers.
The Code made up of four chapters covers freedom and independence of the
press,the importance of credible sources and the safety of journalists. A core
requirement of the code was that the ‘right to reply’ must be given and
published/broadcast in the same place as the original copy. Anyone can make
a complaint regarding a media organisation or a journalist via an online e-
form. Several PCC members of the board are distinguished citizens of
Dieter Loraine, Managing Director of Albany Associates, the United
I assisted in setting up an independent code of donduct for editors and
journalists in the aftermath of the Bosnian civil war. The complexity of the
ground realities and the challenges in finding a ‘middle ground’ in a volatile
space plagued with ethnic divisions offered a stark reminder of the need for
professional journalism during times of war and its aftermath. The
Government always seeks to gain oversight over the press. This emphasises
the difficulties in maintaining independence and self-regulation while relying
on the government for funding.
Lukas Luwarso, Board Director at the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute (LPDS),
Both types regulatory institution could work together under Ideal
circumstances. In the Indonesian model, there is substantial self-regulation.
The sudden rise of ‘Fake Journalist’ and subsequent spread of fake news
items has caused them to have strong controls to authenticate press outlets,
editors and journalists. The phenomenon ‘Social Media” will continue to grow
but is nearly impossible for the space to be effectively regulated.
Ceylon Today Director Editorial Arjuna Ranawana:
Opinionated journalism has crept its way all over the world and eventually
into broadcasting and hence it is seen as a more opinion driven platform that
drives ratings.
Although it is believed that private broadcasting produces trash, there is also
a lot of good stuff that is showcased. The role of the public broadcaster is to
take the side of the public and the needs of ordinary people in every discourse.
Broadcast ownership is an issue in Sri Lanka. Most private broadcasting
stations are owned by businessmen, as a result of which they are run as a
business. At times this can influence the editorial decision making and
subsequently impact on the thoughts of the people. This is a peculiar part of
the Sri Lankan media, particularly the broadcasting media. It is also
prevalent in the print media but because of the great influence electronic
media has on the people it plays a bigger role in influencing the thought
pattern of the people. There is one question we need to ask ourselves: “Do our
listeners or viewers trust us?” If we are not trusted by the people, that means
we have failed as the media. It is our task to make them believe in us again.
Waruna Karunathilaka, former Chairman of the Board of Directors of the
Sri Lanka College of Journalism:
We have only state media groups and private media groups, not public media
groups. Sri Lanka does not have a public broadcasting media and neither do
most South Asian countries possess this platform of broadcasting. The only
country which has taken steps to at least initiate and experiment on the area is
India where they have taken the state owned broadcasting away from
Government control. Public broadcasting means it is not owned by the state
and nor are the appointments made by the government. The funding comes
from parliament and not from a ministry.
Shan Wijetunga, Head of Sri Lanka College of Journalism:
There are no yardsticks for standards in the electronic media and nor have
there been attempts to come up with such ideas which could uplift the
standards. The introduction of the private broadcasters brought about a huge
difference in radio broadcasting. The best example is, the Sri Lanka
Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), it was away from the public for a long
time but with the introduction of private media broadcasters, people were
able to maintain a close relationship with the broadcasting arena. With the
advancement of technology, Sri Lankan broadcasting has developed further,
but its potential has been reduced.
Television broadcasting is monotonous these days and most of the time a lot of
media platforms do nott try to make their own content. It is mostly a copy
whether it be a reality programme or a drama serial. Even Sri Lanka’s news
presentation has become monotonous, but some news channels, to further
their self interest of political agendas, present the reports in a biased way.
Hourly news broadcasting has posed a problem to many news stations in
finding news. As a result of this, some stations sensationalise the stories and
the quality of news has seen a downfall over the years.
Ravi Jayawardana, Founding Chairman of the Broadcasters’ Guild:
Twenty two TV channels and 53 radio stations can cause a lot of complication
in a country and hinder standards. Every media group has a responsibility
towards society and standards come with responsibilities. These are inter
connected. Electronic media have made a huge impact more than the social
media, mainly in the rural areas where most people still do not have access to
social media. When news is business oriented and bathed in political
propaganda, it could impact the decision-making powers of the people. Unlike
the print media the electronic media do not have a code of ethic. Therefore,
most television stations show anything and everything without paying heed to
sensitivities. It has a huge impact on society especially when it comes to
showing cases of suicide and victims of tragedies and disasters.
M.J.R. David, Director Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation:
If there is a decline in standards, there must be a benchmark but in Sri Lanka
there has never been a benchmark for public service broadcasting. The
electronic media do not possess a benchmark because they had been in the
hands of the state for a long time. But subsequently when the private media
came and mushroomed, there was no proper licensing policy and the country
still doesn’t have one. During such instances each media institution makes its
own declaration and theories and comments on the declining standards. But
this time, this comment comes from the Editors Guild who are the gate
keepers. Then there must be obviously a decline. But the issue still lies in the
absence of a benchmark. There is no independent regulation to govern the
electronic media. As a result, most of them have received licences on different
conditions. The biggest challenge lies in having common conditions for all
electronic media.
Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam:
As the education minister I celebrate artificial intelligence which is the order
of the day.
To promote access to information, we are distributing tabs to school children
and have a countrywide access to Wi-Fi which will help them in their subject
studies. The concept of the nearest school being the best school will take us
forward in our endeavors.
Telecommunication Minister Harin Fernando
The theme ‘The Asian Digital Revolution: Transforming the Digital Divide
into a dividend through Universal Access’ is highly appropriate to our
region’s rapid advancement in digitisation.
The exponential developments of digital technologies and related applications
have revolutionised the way we think, speak, act and transact. Investing in
digitalisation will close gaps between and among individuals, social groups
and geographic blocks. For this to happen, norms, disciplines, policies,
regulations as well as laws are needed at various levels to optimise benefits.
My ministry’s policy adaptation is multi-faceted when facilitating these
Dr. Indrajith Banerjee, UNESCO, Knowledge Societies Division:
My question is whether access to information is good, bad or ugly. There are
dangers that hate speech and cybercrime can lead to stress. This should be the
concerns of Asian governments, including Sri Lanka and India. We must deal
with it before it is too late.
Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, Commissioner, RTI Commission Sri Lanka
Many governments I think around the world are nervous by the thought of
enacting an RTI law because it is seen as striking the heart of their power .We
saw this in Sri Lanka for 10 years from 2004 to 2015 when the President of the
day said that we did not need an RTI Act and that he himself was the fountain
of all information and that anybody wanting information could come to him.
Conferences like this focus on the importance of RTI and more on the silent
transformation we see in villages in Sri Lanka. For example, where people
start asking questions about the way they are governed, that to my mind is the
real power of RTI and we have seen the practical effect and impact since the
Right to information law was enacted in 2016.
We have seen the ordinary people challenging the leviathan state as it were
talking directly to public officials who have ignored them and looked away
from them for decades. They come to the Commission with copies of the
Sinhala or Tamil Acts in their hands. Sri Lanka’s RTI movement is not really
a grassroots people’s movement like India. It was largely led by a group of
activists lawyers, other activists, editors and journalists; it was in that sense a
selective process.
To find that since its inception the people most using it are ordinary people ,
according to my mind, is quite extraordinary. Sri Lanka should be proud of
this. I would like to recall an incident that occurred the very day that the RTI
Act came into operation on February 3, 2016. In Batticaloa, around 15 to 20
mothers of the Disappeared took the Tamil copies of the Act, went to police
stations, brandished the Act in the face of policemen and officers afterwards
and asked what had happened to their sons and daughters during the conflict.
At the time in the north and east, though less now, most of the police station
staff were Sinhala-speaking. These police officers were completely unprepared
for this situation and they said they could not understand Tamil and they
asked the mother s to explain the Act to them. The mothers explaining the
content of the RTI Act to the Sinhala policemen. There was a dialogue
between them.
In that I find what is most powerful in RTI — empowerment of people. The
fact that citizens may go to a police station and ask questions is quite common
in normal course of events. For the Sri Lankan it’s not ordinary in the north
and east, or in the south. At both instances we find the risk of people who go
to ask questions getting harassed or not given an opportunity to really get the
grievances addressed.
So we ave Sri Lanka’s Right to Information law encompassing all including
from the highest office of the Presidency to the lowest municipality, local
council to private and corporate bodies which engage in public function and
service, to non-government organisations which are funded by public or
international funds and engaging the public. In that we thought it is important
in projecting the RTI Act as not targeting the government alone.
Toby Mendel, Director, Center for Law and Democracy, Canada:
There has been a massive surge in the use of RTI globally. RTI laws began in
1990 in 14 (mostly European) countries, Now 128 countries have such laws.
The growth of RTI is the perhaps the most significant and widespread human
rights development over time. Proactive disclosure is important and is part of
the Canadian RTI laws which began in 1982.
The ‘Open Government, Open data’ movement has been effective. We are
moving forward in making available information in different formats and we
are making it free. We no longer need to pay to obtain information from the
government of Canada. The Open data movement was a layer which added to
and complimented the existing RTI laws. Over the years, RTI has been
recognised internationally as a Human Right.
At present there is a trend on “RTI by design” where documents and
information brief are compiled at the onset for public access by government
agencies and other organisations. As such documents and reports are now
written with tags or key phrases prior to being uploaded online. This enables
the reader to find related material.
One of the challenges Sri Lanka faces in implementing RTI is, proactive
disclosure and when using technology to drive disclosure, require front end
inputs, Sri Lanka has to hire the right individuals and install the right
equipment to get the system running. Stakeholders will benefit in the long run
once the systems are put in place.
Truth and Trust: Fake News and Media Credibility
Participants at this session drew attention to the dissemination of “fake news”
in both the mainstream and social media, and also the role the two can play in
countering fake stories. The session was moderated by Magdoom Mohamed,
Managing Director of WAN-IFRA South Asia.
Dhanya Rajendran – Editor of “The News Minute” website in India:
In India’s context, agenda driven news has become more of a problem than
fake news. Certain media organisations have become more nationalistic and
jingoistic, even going to the extent of branding various names on those who
criticise the Central Government or State Governments.
Fake news often gets published when one thinks of speed as the most
important element in journalism. The other main challenge facing journalists
is the tremendous pressure from social media, with scores of people wanting
to dictate what the media should report. I feel a lot of the Indian media
succumb to this pressure…social media cannot be allowed to dictate our
Lakshman Gunasekara – President of the Sri Lanka Chapter of the South
Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA):
The competition between various news organisations makes them give priority
to speed when disseminating news. Mass media today has collapsed in the
traditional sense into a vast array of different areas in the face of the digital
revolution. Social media needs management. There will definitely be a debate
on this but I would say there needs to be a management.
Zehra Abid – Senior journalist and trainer in Pakistan:
Since the 2013 elections in Pakistan, there seems to be a systematic and
structured effort to discredit news media in the country. In this backdrop, the
lines between traditional news media and fake news media have become
blurred. In the past year or so, fake news had been used to silence any form of
R. K. Ramachandran, Associate Editor of Frontline Magazine in India
It is the responsibility of journalists to fact check every person in authority
because they always say things for a reason, and that reason may not
necessarily be for the good of the country or its people. Journalists must not
turn off their filters.
During the subsequent question and answer session, panelists stressed that
rather than pitting mainstream media against social media, it was best to
figure out a way where one can fact check the other.
Contempt of Court:
Upul Jayasuirya – President’s Counsel
Media personnel in Sri Lanka have been facing numerous constraints from
Law Enforcement authorities in two distinct ways — criminal defamation and
contempt of Court. Reference to media is not confined to print and electronic.
As a result of the reforms suggested in the Colombo Declaration 1998 with a
view to achieve a free and independent media, Sri Lanka was emancipated
from criminal defamation more than a decade ago in 2002.
In contrast, however, Contempt of Court has been accepted by courts in every
civil society internationally. Firstly, let’s see as to who can be charged with
Contempt of Court? Of course, print media, electronic media public
utterances and the web media.
Contempt of Court mainly falls in to two broad categories — Civil Contempt
and Criminal Contempt. Civil Contempt is disobedience to orders of Court.
Criminal Contempt is what rings alarm bells to the media. However, in both
instances repercussions could be similar and drastic. When a matter is
pending in court we call it sub-judice (subject of a judicial proceedings), as the
matter cannot be commented on issues that are under consideration by courts.
The underlying principle being, when matters are pending in court no person
is expected to express opinion coercing or pressuring with a likelihood of
impacting the court in its judgment. Such instances are likely to be regarded
as being Contempt of Court. However, once a matter is concluded no
judgement is free from criticism.
What then are the boundaries of and the avenues through which judicial
pronouncements can be commented and or dissented? Truth, fair comment
and justification are supposed to be the weapon of the media. There are no
boundaries defined in law except for a few decided cases giving a huge
discretion to the judiciary. Is it fair by the media?
Conduct of judges should be a concern for the judges themselves. The Judicial
Services Commission has the obligation and a duty by the people of this
country to be sensitive and take suitable decisive remedial steps to curb such
unprofessional and unethical conduct of the members of the judiciary. It is
well known that judges do not enjoy a privilege to be above the people. They
are created by the people, for the people, by legally elected representatives
through Parliament. They cannot claim to be on an ivory tower away from
public scrutiny only to pontificate with no compliance.
The media being the fourth estate is one of the four pillars of democracy.
Independence of the judiciary is another. It is paramount that both these
institutions understand each other and demarcate their boundaries. In doing
so, the media has been brought before court on a number of instances and
terrorised with charges of contempt. It is in such instance that the media
should have the courage to play the game within the boundaries. However,
there has to be self-imposed restrictions to conduct itself and carry out its
duties towards the public. In this endeavor, the media should not only
safeguard themselves from the judiciary, but also from the errant politicians.
Contempt of Court – Defining the Boundaries
The absence of a contempt of court law in Sri Lanka means that individual
judges are able to arbitrarily decide what amounts to “contempt,” it was
pointed out at the session. Participants stressed the need for renewed efforts to
pass comprehensive contempt of court legislation for Sri Lanka, with clear
boundaries defined regarding what amounts to contempt. The session was
moderated by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene, Commissioner of the Right to
Information Commission.
Justice Vikramjit Sen – Former Justice of the Supreme Court of India
Though India and Sri Lanka have a common law experience, unlike in Sri
Lanka, India has enacted a Contempt of Court Act which gives a maximum
term of six months imprisonment.
How far does the press have the right to interfere or to affect judicial
proceedings? That’s an extremely important point…So long as criticism (of
the judiciary) by the press is temperate and there is no hidden agenda behind
it, I think it should be accepted.
So far as reporting any judicial proceedings is concerned, I would be very
surprised if there is any embargo or any restriction on the press doing that. I
think worldwide, that is a right which the press has. It is not just about the
right of the press, but about the right of the public to be informed.
Mizanur Rahman Khan – Joint Editor, The Prothom Alo, Bangladesh
South Asia is obsessed with contempt of court. The non-existence of a
contempt of court law must be seen as a threat to freedom of expression. Sri
Lanka needs to look at this issue afresh. The courts are overpowered and laws
are needed to protect freedom of speech. Many existing legislation seems to be
designed to muzzle criticism.
Though Sri Lanka has handed down seven year terms for contempt of court,
such a penalty is unheard of in other regional countries such as India,
Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the maximum punishment ranges from six
months to a year.
Today, there is a communication gap between the courts and the press. Even a
strong contempt of court law will not change anything unless we change our
Training – Preparing for the future
The panel, moderated by Shan Wijethunge raised the importance of
combining the skills of traditional journalistic values and digital savvy-
multitasking skills in order to ensure the survival of journalists in near future.
Pointing out that today’s journalists are expected to carry out many tasks
simultaneously in the changing industry, the panelists were of the view that
today’s journalism schools have to be prepare journalists with many skills
other than old school journalism such as data journalism, coding, analysis etc.
The question of whether we are training journalists or technology experts to
the media industry was also entertained by panelists with audience actively
taking part in the discussion.
However the panelists also pointed out that it is very easy to pick up modern
technologies but understanding the nuances of core values of journalism is a
much efforts taking task and digital savvy journalists should be trained in
both areas for survival.
The panel consist of Kamal Siddiqi, Director of Center for Excellence in
Journalism in Pakistan, Ravi Shankar, Associate Director of Manorama
School of Communication, India and Upendra Herath, Deputy Director, News
at Hiru TV.
The next session of “Tech Savvy means Media Savy” looked at the changing
landscape of social media and how it affects the traditional media
outlets. Jayantha Fernando, Director and Legal advisor at Information
Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) moderated the panel focusing on
how the traditional media outlets are trying to cope up with the changing
nature of online media and adopt new strategies to reach a larger audience.
Dr Zhao Ying, Associate Director, China- Sri Lanka Cooperation Studies
(CSLCSC) presented a detail PowerPoint presentation on “”Risks and
regulation of algorithmic news in the era of artificial intelligence” suggesting
that by 2025 robots will be generating news for the next generation with
accuracy and vetting of information.
David Storti, Programme Specialist with UNESCO attached to the Knowledge
Societies Division pointed out the challenges faced by traditional media outlets
in the wake of thriving digital media and how the UN agency is planning to
address them.
Addressing to a question posed from audience on possible censorship of news
through a vetting process by robots using artificial intelligence techniques, the
panel acknowledged that there has to be check and balances to be introduced
in this mechanism to ensure dissent and different opinions be allowed in a
healthy discussion.
Dr Ying also pointed out that there are apps currently in practice in China for
news processing and they are being used to vet violent contents and
pornographic materials for the digital audience. Questions pertaining whether
introducing such tool is ethical in the digital media were also raised.
The last session on “Power of Journalism: Myth or Fact” dealt with the news
media’s role in the current context and whether news media plays a major
role in government affairs, policy decisions or even regime change.
Moderated by Kumar Nadesan, Chairman, Board of Directors of the Sri
Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), the panel consist of Kamal Siddiq, Dr Gerad
van der Wejden,inventor, the Reading passport, Wan lfra discussed media’s
role in the changing time of news industry and the efficiency of media in
holding persons accountable.
The four day conference will come to an end tomorrow with the signing of the
“Colombo Declaration 2018 on Media freedom and Social Responsibility” at
SLPI from 11.30 a. m to 12.30 p.m.
Posted by Thavam