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Friday, March 1, 2024

The height of hypocrisy – the Code of Media Ethics

I had the doubtful ‘pleasure’ of reading the document entitled “The Code of Media Ethics” circulated among various media institutions by the Ministry of Mass Media and Information which left me with two choices – to laugh or to cry. As it happened, I did neither.

So furious was I that this Government in which I once had so much faith could resort to this kind of tomfoolery and actually believe that the people were such absolute imbeciles that they would fall for it that I, for once in my life, was left speechless.

I have always believed that only the ‘honourable’ had the right to confer `honours’ so that not one of our Executive Presidents was capable of and/or had the moral right to confer any `honours’ or purported `honours’ [be it even an appointment as a Justice of the Peace’ or a `President’s Counsel’] on any person.

The same applies with even greater force to ‘ethics’. While I have little doubt that most would agree with me on this matter, I also believe that most would also agree with me that nobody of sound mind would, for a moment, take seriously or obey, in the absence of Governmental coercion, this piece of garbage entitled “Code of Media Ethics” published by Keheliya Rambukwella’s Ministry.

I was momentarily relieved to come to know that this Code was only a `draft’ for discussion. However, though presented this week in the form of a `draft’ for discussion, no such document could possibly emanate from the Ministry of Keheliya Rambukwella except with the `blessings’ of the Government.

Rambukwella, it must be remembered was one who, in his previous political incarnation as a member of the UNP, supported his then leader Ranil Wickremesinghe despite all his malodorous doings including abdicating all rights of governance of the Government over almost the entirety of the Northern Province and a substantial part of the Eastern Province to the LTTE, giving those unspeakable blackguards the right to commit whatever crimes, however heinous they may be, as and when they wished. While the Wickremesinghe government clearly followed the policy articulated by him repeatedly that “the Opposition will have its `SAY’, but the Government will have its `WAY’”, most regrettably, Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to be following that dictatorial `policy’ of Wickremesinghe which, of course, means that his `hangers on’ like Rambukwella will do likewise.

In this scenario can we have any doubt that what was published as being as `draft’ Code for discussion — replete with numerous pious and equally hypocritical platitudes — will ultimately be enforced as a law or a `mandatory’ Code of so called `ethics’?

One of the first matters that strikes one about this so called `draft’ Code is, who will be in charge of administering or enforcing it? No doubt the answer of Rambukwella’s Ministry to this question will be “an independent” person or group of persons. However, successive governments and the incumbent Government have successfully made clear the fact that under the administration of any of their parties, “independence” in any field of activity is a fatal disqualification that, in their perverted perceptions, renders any person who is possessed of that quality unfit for appointment to any post of responsibility. It is only those who are or will be “Divakaras” [ a term I learnt from President Mahinda Rajapaksa while he was Minister of Fisheries] meaning “lickers” or “contemptible sycophants” of the incumbent Government, who can ever hope to occupy any position of responsibility regardless of competence or suitability.

This notorious fact was confirmed first by the sordid events that surrounded the purported impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, and later by S.B. Dissanayake in his third incarnation as a minister [first under Kumaranatunge, then under Wickremesinghe and now under Rajapaksa]. Dissanayake is reported to have said that the present Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University was appointed because of his `loyalty’ to the `incumbent Government’ [and hence NOT on the ground of competence or suitability for the post or `loyalty’ to the Republic.]

We thus appear to be destined by the Government to have the abomination called the Code of Media Ethics administered or enforced by one or more wholesale Divakaras or stooges of the incumbent Government who must necessarily be a person/persons who is/are incurably allergic to any moral or ethical standards,
The fourth paragraph of this Code begins with the peremptory words “No publications (sic) should be published which…” and sets out, thereafter, a list of over 13 absolute prohibitions, the implementation of which prohibitions would indisputably spell the wanton murder of such freedom of the media as now exists. The obvious facts that the said prohibitions would infringe the fundamental right to the freedom of speech guaranteed by Article 14(1)(g) of the Constitution as well as the right to equality guaranteed by Article 12 thereof inasmuch as the said prohibitions are to be applicable only to media institutions, websites and journalists but not to any member of the public, are matters that appear to have been of no consequence or of insufficient consequence to merit the attention of Rambukwella’s Ministry or the minion thereof who sank so low as to draft this piece of balderdash.
The alleged `draft’ Code is far too long to analyse in detail. Accordingly, I, in this article, will deal with only some of the more significant and alarming of those `prohibitions’.

The 1st of these comical `prohibitions’ which according to Rambukwella’s Ministry, “should be HONOURED TO THE LETTER…..” prohibits the publication of any matter which “offends against:-
i) expectations of the public;
ii) morality of the country; or,
iii) tend to lower the standards of public taste and morality.
(sub paragraphs, numbering and some punctuation added)

There is no known yardstick by which the “expectations of the public”, “morality of the country” or “the standards of public taste and morality.” can be objectively identified or gauged. Thus, the nature and parameters of each will have to be assessed by such `Divakara’ as is placed in charge of administering/enforcing this Code according to his personal value judgments.”

What is the “value” that anyone could ascribe to the “value judgments” of any `Divakara’ who, to my mind is a contemptible piece of trash not fit to even associate with human beings. Thus from the first `prohibition’, the intentions of the Government to wholly control the media through the device of a Code of so called “ethics” becomes patently apparent.

There is one other aspect of the first prohibition which cries out for comment before getting on to the next `prohibition’. The first prohibition begins with a prohibition on the publication of any matter which “offends against expectations of the public”. Even assuming without conceding that such “expectations” are capable of being objectively ascertained, it would follow from this imbecilic prohibition that the media are to be compelled to “swim with the tide” and never against it. In short that the media should play no part in shaping or fashioning public opinion but should, always echo which, AT THAT MOMENT, constitutes `public opinion’. Thus, if, for example, there was, at any time, an obviously anti-national “public expectation” that we should cease to be a sovereign, independent State and become a federated State of the Union of India, it would appear to be the expectation of Rambukwella’s ministry that all media institutions, websites and journalists should `toe’ such putrid `line’ and that if anyone had the patriotism to criticise or oppose such measure, he would be acting wholly unethically!
The next prohibition is a `blanket’ prohibition on the publication of any material which “contains criticism affecting foreign relations”. The justifiability of such criticism or the knowledge or expertise of the source of such criticism of the subject are, to the fawning bureaucrats of this contemptible Ministry, matters of total irrelevance.
The long suffering people are thus expected to place unquestioning trust in the `judgment’ of the Government and/or of GL Peiris in all matters affecting foreign relations — so much so that any criticism of the Government for not taking adequate steps to safeguard the livelihood of the Tamil and Muslim fishermen of the North and East against the `imperial’ claims of India, and in particular of the superannuated Tamilnadu actress Jayalalitha, to an imagined right of Indian fishermen to catch our fish in our territorial waters would, in the eyes of this Ministry constitute unethical conduct.

The media are also prohibited from publishing any material “which may promote anti-national attitudes.” There being no objective standard by reference to which one may determine whether a person or thing is `beautiful’ that fact leads naturally to the oft-repeated saying that `beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. By the same token, there is no objective standard by which one may gauge what `attitudes’ are `anti-national’ and what are not. The determination of that question will, therefore, rest with the Divakara who is placed by the Government in charge of administration and/or the enforcement this Code of so called ‘ethics’. Thus, it would be open to such functionary to even declare that any news pertaining to a strike launched by the work force of any establishment to gain for themselves a living wage as being “anti-national” and therefore preclude the public from being informed of the progress of that strike. It is unquestionable that such vast powers vested in the hands of some yet unknown “Divakara” could be likened unto presenting a monkey with a razor blade.

“The Code proceeds to prohibit “the publication of any matter which contains materials against the integrity of the executive, judiciary and legislative. (sic)”

While there is, presumably nobody on this planet who would deny that the executive, the judiciary and the
legislature should be possessed of and display absolute integrity in all their activities and actions, it is also a pertinent fact that the lack of integrity in any one or more of those organs and/or one of more of the members thereof would be something that is totally detrimental to the national interest and a matter of which the public must necessarily be informed and a matter that must be open for public discussion.

According to this purported Code of ‘Ethics’, however, it would be ‘unethical’ to discuss or draw public attention to the conduct of any minister, judge or member of parliament being corrupt and/or to urge that action be taken against such person to purify the relevant organ of Government. It would also follow from this far reaching prohibition that if implemented “to the letter” as is threatened in the so-called ‘draft Code’, any media institution which, reports a judicial officer being trapped by the Bribery Department and/or produced in Court on a charge of bribery and/or the conduct of judges of any Court engaging in a brawl or a loud altercation in an international airport of a foreign country and/or one judge assaulting another with a plastic water bottle in such airport as happened recently would constitute a breach of ethics!

To my mind, these are matters of such grave public importance that any media institution which fails to highlight them or any of them and/or to invite public discussion in respect thereof would be guilty of acting in dereliction of its duty.

To conclude, despite the sugary words in which it is couched and the high sounding pious and hypocritical words in the preamble this so-called ‘Code of media ethics’ is nothing but another step taken to control the media. There is, admittedly, no evidence to prove that any of the attacks on journalists of which we had so many in the recent past, was executed and/or abetted by the Government.

However, the fact that there was such a large number of attacks on journalists and practically all the victims happened to be those who were critical of the Government in some matter or another, does give rise to the gravest of suspicion of the Government’s complicity in such dastardly acts. The ‘abomination’ euphemistically called the “Code of media ethics” published by Rambukwella’s ministry proves beyond doubt that the intention of the Government is to destroy what is left of the ‘free media’ and to have a controlled media as well as a controlled judiciary, executive and legislature. In short it is one more pointer to the Government heading, perhaps merrily or more likely blindly, down the path of no return that leads to dictatorship and anarchy.

Mr, Gunasekara is a senior lawyer, former editor and MP.



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