The media accountability systems in place in Sri Lanka have arisen in large part from the response of the media community and various other stakeholders to the country’s long-running civil war.
The Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka was established in 1991 just after a crackdown on an insurgency in the south of the country. FMM sought in subsequent years to be a platform for diverse viewpoints on the rights and responsibilities of the media community.
Extended cooperation between the local press community and international colleagues led to the establishment of the Sri Lankan Press Institute (SLPI), which in turn, hosts a Press Complaints Commission (PCCSL) and a college of journalism to improve professional standards. The origins of the SLPI go back to 1998 when the FMM, the Editors’ Guild and the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka signed what came to be called the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom. The Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) did not sign the declaration then, but joined the charter in 2007. The SLPI and the PCCSL were registered in 2003 and won significant financial support from Norwegian and other Scandinavian donors.
In 2005, FMM and Sri Lanka’ s major representative organisations of the media community came together in adopting the Tholangamuwa Declaration or a “Charter for a Democratic and Pluralist Media Culture and Social and Professional Rights for Media and Journalism in Sri Lanka”. This was another major landmark in strengthening the processes of self-regulation and social responsibility within the media community.
There is an older law, the Sri Lanka Press Council Act that was enacted in 1973. This legislation had lapsed, though the law itself was not repealed. In 1994, the country’s media community and the government agreed to hold its punitive provisions in abeyance; It contains fairly stringent provisions, including the power to prosecute for contempt and sentence journalists to extended periods in prison and to prohibit the publication of certain kinds of content by the media, including: Internal communications of the government and the decisions of the Cabinet; Matters relating to the armed services that may be deemed prejudicial to national security; and Matters of economic policy that could lead to artificial shortages and speculative price rises.
In June 2009, the SL government notified its intent to revive the legislation and appoint a new Press Council. A chairman and a government nominee were appointed and two members representing the public. The move has been stalled because the media industry and the journalists’ bodies have refused to name their nominees.
The country’s principal media organizations – all stakeholders in the SLPI – have, however differed on the norms that should govern its functioning. It is interesting that when faced with the threat of a revived Press Council, the newspaper industry in a sense, renewed its commitment to the PCCSL. Newspapers that had not signed up as members of the PCCSL process, did so when faced with the threat of a coercive takeover over the accountability function by the government.
Article 10 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees freedom of thought and conscience and article 14 guarantees the “freedom of speech and expression including publication”.
Article 15 of the Constitution includes eight clauses which spell out the grounds on which the fundamental rights can be restricted. These include “national security”, “racial and religious harmony”, “parliamentary privilege”, “contempt of court”, “defamation or incitement to an offence”.
- Emergency Regulations
With this law, promulgated in 1994 and broadened in scope in 2000, the Government of Sri Lanka and its security agencies have been vested with wide-ranging powers of preventive detention, censorship and prohibiting public gatherings and assemblies.
- Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act
Under Section 2(1)(h): whoever “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise”, promotes or attempts to promote enmity between communities on grounds of language, ethnicity, religion (and other such) would be liable to prosecution.
Code of Ethics
The website of the SLPI provides essential details of the functioning of the institute and its subsidiary bodies, including the PCCSL and the advocacy and media freedom units.
SLPI observances of the tenth anniversary of the Colombo declaration and the presentations made on the occasion, are available here.
The Tholangamuwa Declaration is attached.Back to top