The government’s decision to re-activate the Press Council (PC) has, understandably, spread a pall of gloom over this country’s newspaper industry and triggered well-founded apprehensions in the minds of the vast majority of independent-spirited journalists, in consideration of the institution’s daunting implications for press freedom and the public’s untrammeled access to the truth.
Needless to say, institutions such as the PC are an incongruous anachronism and an absolute superfluity in a country which boasts of a flourishing democracy. Freedom of expression is the essence of democracy and it is difficult to conceive how a body which would be playing a veritable ‘Big Brother’ role over the country’s press could be sold to the newspaper industry and the public as a beneficial body, as the state is indeed attempting to do. How could those newspapers, whose guiding principle it is to cater to the public’s right to know, in a spirit of independence coupled with a deep sense of responsibility, carry out their legitimate functions, when a government watch dog body nervously and testily keeps an eye over them, waiting to pounce on them at every perceived indiscretion?
The state’s point of view on its decision to reactivate the Press Council, which had succumbed to a state of paralysis since 2003 and was virtually consigned to the limbo of forgotten things, was outlined in Parliament on July 22, by the non-Cabinet Minister of Mass Media and Information Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene. Besides making some hazy platitudinous comments on how the PC could foster journalistic excellence and like capabilities, the Minister went on to allege that the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, which went on to replace the PC in 2003, by due process of law, on a consensual decision of the newspaper industry in this country, had not only proved incapable of catering to public needs but had been characterized by financial frauds and irregularities. Accordingly, so the logic goes, the Press Complaints Commission needs to be replaced by the much -dreaded and Orwellian PC.
We need not labour the point that these are serious allegations against a respected public body, which must be proved beyond all reasonable doubt by the minister, if his comments are not to be dismissed as groundless observations of a malicious nature, mouthed under the cloak of Parliamentary privilege. In view of the grave damage these comments could do to the standing and status of the Press Complaints Commission, we call on Minister Abeywardene to substantiate his comments or withdraw them forthwith.
However, the flimsy, groundless nature of the minister’s allegations could be gauged from the fact that no financial irregularities have been found in the annual audited accounts of the Press Complaints Commission, which are customarily published in the newspapers and are therefore open to public scrutiny. There has, clearly, been no compromise on the transparency and rectitude of the Commission’s financial dealings.
In view of the foregoing, no apology is due from the Commission on account of its status as an institution which operates on private funds, because it has not only consistently met the standards of financial integrity and transparency but has also not been a drain on the public purse.
Clearly, on the issue of public accountability, it is the PC which has got a lot of explaining to do and consequently, the government. Although the PC fell into disuse in 2003 and was of no functional significance, its office at Nawala was manned continuously over the years by a clutch of seat-warming, jobless Mandarins who continued to draw substantial salaries at the expense of the taxpayer. On the admission of the minister, the salaries bill of these Lotus-eaters to date has been a little over rupees 20 million. The office rent incurred has been around rupees three million. What has the government got to say about wanton waste and misuse of public funds of these proportions? We take this opportunity to call on the state to put its house in order before pointing an accusing finger at organizations which are not only financially well disciplined but are in no way a burden on the public, although proving a huge boon to the people.
The PC, apparently, enjoys iconic status among government sector ‘white elephants’ which yield absolutely no returns on invested public funds. It takes its place among the multifarious public bodies which provide seat-warming opportunities for political henchmen and hangers-on and should in no way be ‘reactivated’, because besides being a blight on the free press, it would be yet another ravenous public money-gobbler.
On the issue of the alleged uselessness of the Press Complaints Commission, the public only needs to peruse the annual reports of the Commission, which have been brought out since 2003, to detect the absolutely baseless nature of the minister’s charges. The Commission, has, for instance, successfully dealt with and disposed of over 700 complaints against the press in all three media to date.
It is clear, therefore, that the state is intending to clamp-down heavily on the free press by ‘reactivating’ the Press Council, since all its attempts at damning the hitherto effective Press Complaints Commission simply hold no water. It must be remembered that the Press Council law, among other things, provides for the imprisonment of journalists, who in its opinion, have done wrong. We wonder, at this rate, whether the dreaded anti-defamation law too would be brought out of history’s dust bin and used against journalists holding politicians and power-wielders to account?
We call on the government to ponder long and deep on this question of ‘reactivating’ the Press Council. If the government is intending to be seen as continuing on a course of repression, it would persist in resurrecting the PC, because freedom of expression is the sworn enemy of those who prefer to see democracy in shackles. If the government, on the contrary, is desirous of liberalizing our polity and rejuvenating democracy, as it were, it would ensure that the PC remains paralyzed.
The government has, obviously, done well to rid this country of the LTTE menace. Today, the ordinary people of this country are enjoying freedom of movement unheard of in the last 30 years and are looking forward to enjoying the full gamut of their freedoms. By undermining the freedom of expression, the state would be only blighting the common man’s hopes of a better tomorrow. May the Press Council remain paralyzed.