Curbs on the media

Published : Dec 05, 2008 00:00 IST

THE Mahinda Rajapaksa government, under fire from several quarters for its attempts to control the media, opened another front on October 10 by notifying a new set of norms to regulate all aspects of private television broadcasting, including classification of stations and services; issue, revocation, and duration of licences; fee structure; territorial coverage; ownership; duties and responsibilities of private television broadcasters; content of broadcasts; and extended powers of the Ministry.

The notification issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, titled Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations, was made under powers conferred by the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Act, No.6 of 1982.

Reactions from the media industry was sharp and swift. Four separate organisations approached the Supreme Court challenging the regulations on the grounds that they posed a serious threat to the freedom of expression. As the opposition to the regulations gathered momentum, Mass Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa announced on November 8 that enforcement of the regulations would be postponed by a month. In a knee-jerk reaction, he also requested the heads of media institutions to submit their views on the proposed regulations. Counter-proposals could be forwarded to the Secretary to the Ministry within the next two weeks, he said.

The anxiety of the government to have some control over the content of broadcast/telecast by the electronic media would have been considered normal as the island nation is at war with the LTTE and there have been stray incidents of a section of the media indulging in irresponsible reporting. However, the track record of the government in its management of media affairs is so poor that no one is prepared to allow the government to be the prosecutor and the judge. The approach of the government is one of, either you are with us or you are with them. This has antogonised the media community within and without.

The International Press Freedom Mission to Sri Lanka was on a visit to the country from October 25 to 29. It found deterioration in the press freedom situation since its previous visit, in June 2007; it said the situation was marked by a continuation in murders, attacks, abductions, intimidation and harassment of the media. In the recent World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), Sri Lanka finds itself with the lowest press freedom rating for any democratic country.

The Mission said: The International Mission is alarmed at the use of an anti-terrorism law for the first time in the democratic world to punish journalists purely for what they have written. J.S. Tissainayagam, B. Jasiharan and V. Vallarmathy have been detained since March 2008 and later charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The Mission is worried about the dangerous precedent this sets for all media nationally and internationally. In recent months journalists and media institutions seeking to report independently on the ongoing conflict have been attacked and intimidated in a seeming effort to limit public knowledge about the conduct of the war and to reveal their sources.

The mission further noted that media in the North and the East of the country continued to suffer the worst forms of insecurity. He said media access to war-affected areas was heavily restricted with journalists forced to reproduce information disseminated by the conflicting parties. It found that the media were constantly threatened by all parties to the conflict in an effort to curtail independent and critical reporting. The International Mission condemned the murder of P. Devakumar in Jaffna in May 2008 and over a dozen others, documented since 2005. It maintained that in the LTTE-controlled areas, the freedom of expression and the freedom of movement continued to be heavily restricted, preventing diverse opinions and access to plural sources of information.

The mission said that the new media rules provided for a number of contingencies under which broadcasting licences could be cancelled, including seven different grounds relating to broadcast content. A popular broadcast channel has been asked to submit transcripts of news broadcasts to be carried every week.

The television stations Telshan Network Limited (TNL), Swarnavahini and Dialog Television (Private) Limited, along with the Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Centre for Policy Alternatives in their applications to the Supreme Court, pleaded with it to declare that the regulation would infringe upon the channels fundamental right to the freedom of expression, the publics right to receive information, and the right to freedom of thought.

The petitioners argued that the impugned regulations were not made under any law and were not capable of being made under any law, but they were in effect meant to be substantive law, which was both illegal and misconceived. In fact, the non-Cabinet Minister of Mass Media and Information, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, at a Cabinet press briefing held on October 30, referred to the regulations as the Act that has been passed.

The petitioners claimed that the Minister was not empowered to make the regulations and, in any event, the provisions relating to the suspension or revocation of a licence was ex facie inter alia contrary to the Interpretation Ordinance.

Further, they argued that the said regulations entitled the Minister to cancel a TV licence on various grounds, including change of ownership of the licensee, change in the name of licensee without prior approval, and the broadcasting of certain programmes. The regulations give the Minister the right to suspend the permission to broadcast for a specified period in the interests of the public and in the interests of national security in order to prevent misuse of such channel. However, the period of suspension was not specified in the regulations, and was entirely based on the discretion of the Minister, the petitioners claimed.

The grounds for suspension and cancellation or revocation of licences set out in the regulations lack precision and clarity and are as such dangerously capable of being abused, the petitioners said. They are highly subjective and are a threat to the very existence of private television broadcasting stations, which will be completely at the mercy of the Minister and his agents who collectively act for and on behalf of the government of the day, according to the petition. The petitioners alleged that private television broadcasting stations had been singled out for discriminatory treatment.

The Free Media Movement (FMM), an NGO engaged in the protection of the interests of the media community, maintained in a statement that the new regulations were cause for serious alarm on a number of points, and listed its preliminary concerns. It argued that the regulations provided that an application to the Minister for a licence to operate a private television station may only be made by a Sri Lankan citizen, a partnership in which all the partners were Sri Lankan citizens, a company in which the majority shareholding was held by Sri Lankan citizens, or a statutory body. It said that in the modern context of globalised economies and transnational technology, this became an unusual requirement.

On the ineligibility of political parties to obtain a private television broadcasting licence, the FMM said that while in itself that may seem a legitimate restriction, in the Sri Lankan context, in which state-owned media institutions operated in practice, not as public service broadcasters but as mouthpieces of the political party in power, the restriction on private broadcasting licensing would serve only to aggravate that anomaly. Moreover, the Minister is empowered to suspend the operation of a station if, in his opinion, such a suspension is required in the interest of the public interest or national security. Such broad powers are invariably prone to abuse, it said.

Confirming the worst fears of the media on the real motives of the government, on November 4 the government ordered the state-controlled channel Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation to stop a live programme relating to the freedom of expression in the island. The FMM noted:

The SLRC had invited FMM convener Uvindu Kurululasuriya to participate in the discussion to represent media organisations. The other two panellists were Chritha Harath, adviser to the Media Minister, and Damma Disanayaka, a university lecturer. After 45 minutes, the discussion was stopped suddenly, a commercial break was announced and the stations started to play songs continuously, discontinuing the live discussion.

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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