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Sri Lankan government urged to reconsider move to introduce ethics code for media

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins partners and affiliates in Sri Lanka in calling on the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to reconsider its move to introduce a code of ethics for the country's media.

Early in June 2013, the Ministry of Mass Media and Information in the GoSL introduced a three-thousand word document titled "Code of Media Ethics" in Parliament. There is as yet no official explanation on the exact status of this code. Media commentary in Sri Lanka though sees this initiative by the GoSL as the prelude to enforcing an intrusive set of norms that could considerably worsen the environment for free journalistic practice.

The Sri Lanka Press Councils Act of 1973 has a provision which enables the government to notify a code of ethics for the media. A code was in fact introduced in 1981 though never enforced since the Press Council itself lapsed into a phase of inactivity. The newly introduced code is seen by media observers in Sri Lanka as a refurbished version of the 1981 version, though this has not been acknowledged by the GoSL.

The introduction of this code comes in the wake of the revival of the Press Councils Act in 2010, despite serious concerns among Sri Lanka's journalists about its many harsh provisions, including the power to prosecute under criminal law for any perceived violation of the laws in force.

Despite active government efforts to reconstitute the Press Council as a functioning body, it remained inactive for long, since few journalists were willing to accept the invitation to join. This changed in 2012 and in October, the Press Council issued a directive that was promptly acceded to by the Sunday Leader, to publish an apology for a story it had done on the Defence Secretary in the GoSL.

This newly introduced code covers the print and electronic media, news websites and advertisements published in all forms of media. It incorporates strong language requiring that it should be "honoured in letter and spirit" and introduces thirteen specific grounds on which media content could be prohibited. Well over half of the code deals with explicit prohibitions on advertisement content. Many of its clauses are vaguely phrased and would allow for broad interpretations.

The IFJ observes that the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) which is in its tenth year of fairly successful operation, has been promoting self regulation and a Code of Professional Practice written up by the Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka. This code is reviewed every two years and is adopted by the independent print media and online newspapers.

"We fail to see how the GoSL effort to introduce a media code to supersede the existing practices in the profession will contribute to the public interest", said the IFJ Asia-Pacific.

"From our partners and affiliates in Sri Lanka, we gather in fact, that the immediate priority lies elsewhere: in reforming the government-owned media so that it functions truly as a public service".

"Much of the deterioration of the media environment in Sri Lanka today could be attributed to the government's tendency to use the platforms it controls for launching partisan political attacks against opponents and the independent media. This has created a climate in which the news websites have felt themselves free of any obligation to play by a fair set of rules".

"We urge the GoSL to withdraw the proposed code of ethics and instead lend its support to the professional code drawn up by the Editors' Guild and endorsed by IFJ partners and affiliates".

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