Digital media— self regulation a wiser choice | Print Version


The issue of media regulation is always a controversial topic with all the attendant issues of media freedom and its limits coming to the fore. When the proposal emanates from a Government it is often viewed with suspicion as an attempt to protect the Government from public scrutiny rather than strengthening the Constitutional right of freedom of expression.

Despite the existence of the Sri Lanka Press Council set up by the Government in 1973, the print media in the country has in recent times organized itself to adopt a mechanism for self regulation.

A body called the Press Complaints Commission, described as a voluntary self-regulatory mechanism, was inaugurated on October 15, 2003 by the media industry following an international conference whose outcome was the Colombo Declaration on Press Freedom and Social Responsibility of 1998. Over the years the Commission’s Dispute Resolution Council has investigated hundreds of press complaints and conducted workshops on ethics and self-regulation for journalists and has helped to influence the print media culture positively.

However, the electronic media has so far not been the subject of any form of state regulation to date (except in a limited sense during election times by the Election Commission) nor has the electronic media embarked on any form of self regulation.

It is in this context that the Government announced last week its intention to set up an Authority to regulate the electronic media.

Media reports revealed last week that the Cabinet had approved a proposal by the Minister of Mass Media Dr. Bandula Gunawardene to appoint a ministerial sub-committee to submit recommendations for the setting up of an Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Act in Sri Lanka.

According to these reports The Government says that currently there are no fundamental laws to regulate the content on television, radio and new media in Sri Lanka, adding that sometimes various parties confront a variety of problems in issuing licenses to such media and while broadcasting audio- visual content by such media.

Recently, various problems have arisen in the country due to the unethical way certain media are promoting hateful ideas among the people, the Government said further in its statement.

Accordingly, a proposal was put forward with the intention of introducing a new broadcasting law to create a media culture that is accountable to the public and to introduce a code of conduct for the electronic media, while protecting the utmost freedom of speech and expression and taking into account the ongoing changes in technology as well as legal fields.

The Cabinet of Ministers, taking into account the proposal made by the minister, decided to appoint a Cabinet sub-committee chaired by the Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms to submit appropriate recommendations for this.

The electronic media as well as the social media are indeed powerful methods of communication and can be used to promote laudable as well as not so laudable objectives. Thus looked at from a social good perspective the powerful nature of this branch of the media requires social responsibility and accountability.

However, the overall cause of democracy and freedom of expression has to be zealously guarded when any attempts are made to regulate the electronic media. Balancing the right to freedom of expression and the protection of social good is never an easy task and must be delicately handled.

The phraseology used by the Government in announcing its proposal to regulate the electronic media suggests that its proposal is connected with the recent protests and aragalaya that took place in the past few months. The words “promoting hateful ideas” contained in the sentence, “Recently, various problems have arisen in the country due to the unethical way certain media are promoting hateful ideas among the people”, clearly does not refer to hate speech against religious and ethnic groups .

While not discounting the fact that there are social media posts which offend the private rights of individuals and cross boundaries, remedial or preventive action must not have the effect of stifling the freedom of expression which is at the heart of democratic government.

Towards this end it would be salutary if electronic media and social media activists band themselves together to set in motion the process of setting up a mechanism for self regulation which can in fact strengthen media rights while ensuring social accountability. Towards this, best practices used elsewhere can be studied and adapted to good effect as has been done successfully by the Press Complaints Commission..

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