Talking of ethics and spouting rubbish

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As though our native land is not smothered enough with half-baked draft laws and even less baked government arguments in defence of these blatant attempts which many see as moves to throttle democratic dissent, a hard-pressed population is now being prepared to carry a new cross.

If one chooses a religious symbol to describe the ongoing activities of a government that constricts the freedom of its people with new laws and more still to come, it is not to disparage religion.

Rather it is to point directly at those who should in reality be dressed in sackcloth and ashes. Instead, today they cover themselves virtuously in religiosity and high-minded morality as though they represent righteousness while those who question them are portrayed as infused with satanic intent.

The latest addition to this unholy dump of badly drafted legislation is the Broadcast Regulatory Authority Bill (BRAB). Whoever put this sorry mess together lacks a basic understanding of the functioning of media in modern times.

I would bet my last few sinking rupees (the ecstatic encores by government politicians and their public service acolytes at the first flush of success are now suddenly muted) that among these masterminds who put their heads together to produce this monstrosity had no experienced media persons among them unless they came from some straitjacket government institution whose only undertaking was to churn out government propaganda.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, who appears to have chaired the bunch that put together this rubbish, without any recourse to a 1997 Supreme Court judgement on a similar attempt by the then government to tame the broadcast media, might take some responsibility for this horrendous draft which he now attempts to fob off as only an initial piece of work.

One wonders then whether it was ignorance, a complete disregard for what the Supreme Court had determined then but is surely valid even today, or a belief that they could continue to mislead the people, that prompted the present outcome.

Surely the Legal Draftsman’s Department comes under the purview of the Justice Minister. That department is tasked with drafting laws on behalf of the government. The more knowledgeable persons read this BRAB, the more they would wonder whether it is the handiwork of legal draftsmen or daft men.

Fellow columnist Kishali Pinto-Jayawardene in her writings in the last two weeks has highlighted major fault lines in this draft and has also quoted several vital sections from the judgement which showed how intelligently and lucidly the learned bench headed by the then Chief Justice GPS de Silva dismissed the State’s attempts to stifle freedom of speech and other democratic rights and freedoms.

This latest attempt at trying to achieve what the State failed to do nearly three decades ago is more than puerile. It is vicious and surely done with political intent even to the extent of having the power and authority to shut down broadcast media which, in the government’s perception, are anti-government or critical of its actions.

In its 1997 judgement on the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Authority Bill, the Supreme Court not only rejected it as unconstitutional but also made an important observation that exposed the political intention behind the legislation.

The Supreme Court held that the regulatory body which would be set up under the intended law was little more than “an arm of the government.”

Surely the BRAB now being torn to pieces by media organisations and concerned civil rights bodies and others will not just be an arm of the government as the Supreme Court contended with regard to the 1997 bill but the arms, legs and everything above the neck of a government that is increasingly losing public confidence and faith and is likely to continue to do so as more of the IMF diktats begin to bite in the coming months.

Whatever propaganda spiel the government’s spin doctors churn out with Goebbelsian persistence–but without his intelligence–about a bright light at the end of the economic tunnel, what is happening on the ground in terms of living costs and declining standards of living and the thousands of qualified people and professionals leaving the country, tell a different story.

Would professionals from doctors to engineers to IT specialists and still others be leaving in such large numbers, in some instances leaving behind provincial hospitals without specialists or short of medical staff and some specialist departments in Colombo hospitals short of patients without medicines or ordered to purchase their own, if the bright lights were beginning to shine like the Northern Star?

It is this story and similar narratives like the abuse of the rule of law that the government does not wish the media to report.

Admittedly not all media check, double and treble their stories and information before airing them. That in a sense is the fault of untrained persons being recruited by media channels and the expansion of the media industry with modern technology that does not require huge investment to establish broadcast sites and blogs.

If such broadcast channels do exist–and they do surely–that is the failure of particular broadcasters big and small–and not of the media industry as a whole and should be dealt with separately.

But what is intended by the government is much wider and deeper than dealing with the guilty or recalcitrant. It is to ensure that the State is armed with the authority to act expeditiously or whenever it feels with media proving to be a hindrance–exposing the administration’s economic policies and failures, corruption and bribery and discrimination in the application of the law or its abuse.

The other day, I read an advisor on parliamentary affairs to the President called Ashu Marasinghe decrying critics of the BRAB, talking of media ethics and blaming the media if the axe falls on them.

I have no idea who this person is, except that I first came across his name when he hit the news some months back over some contentious and unsavoury narrative. Thereby hangs another tale but of no relevance to the present issue.

One can understand Marasinghe, said to be a UNP member, defending this obnoxious draft, though he is batting way down at number eleven, so to say, which speaks for itself.

Instead of speaking of “media ethics” of which he does not display much knowledge, it would be far more beneficial to the UNP which virtually disappeared from its birthplace after the August 2020 parliamentary election, if he first read the implications of the BRAB with some understanding and taught himself a few lessons in parliamentary ethics and the MPs code of conduct, before preaching to the world.

The news item states that Marasinghe also blamed the mainstream media for reporting rubbish. If those like Marasinghe spoke less there would be less rubbish appearing in the media. Now that stand-up comedians are being forced into silence perhaps the same should apply to those in that House by the Oya.

That would vastly reduce the rubbish in the media beginning to resemble the dumps at Muthurajawela. That should make Marasinghe happy but then what would he do as a parliamentary advisor?

Had space been available one could have said more about Marasinghe and his ethical concerns. But then he does not like rubbish in the media, does he?

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London)

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