A Media Council to raise media professionalism | Daily News

A Media Council to raise media professionalism

While examining a defamation case, the Indian Supreme Court recently stated that freedom of press was supreme but it could not be one-way traffic. The Court expressed concern over the “rise of yellow journalism” which it said was damaging institutions and maligning people and added that the issue needed to be examined. A bench of Justices Arun Mishra, M. R. Shah and B.R. Gavai passed the remarks while hearing an appeal filed by news portal ‘The Wire’ and its journalists who are facing a defamation suit filed by Jay Shah, son of Home Minister Amit Shah.

Similar incidents in Sri Lankan media with regard to the issue of disinformation and slanderous attacks in the media, especially the uncontrolled social media was discussed at length at the meeting held by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday (September 29) to review the work of the State Ministry of of Postal Services and Professional Development of Journalists.

While the President emphasized the imperative need for early steps to enhance training of media personnel to advance professionalism and ethical journalism, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella outlined the plans afoot in that direction. The Ministry plans to establish a training institute in collaboration of the Sri Lanka Foundation to improve professional skills of the journalists.

The President also stressed the need for an authentic rating system for television programmes. The experts pointed out that some of the television ratings were being influenced by individuals, institutes and businesses and some television stations receive underserved top ratings. Head of the Mass Media Department of Kelaniya University, Aruna Lokuliyana offered to assist in research studies for creating a professional rating system.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella.

Despite the growing number of instances of social media misuse, the media experts are of the view that the answer is not to ban social media just because a small minority of users abuses this powerful medium of communication. What is necessary to set comprehensive rules and regulations to curtail dissemination, false news and slander and improve the practice of ethical professional journalism.

As the Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) Chairman Mahinda Pathirana pointed out there is an immediate requirement of amending the Press Council Act of 1973, as it has provisions only to deal with the newspapers. The Press Council was established to protect the press freedom of Sri Lanka and to popularize press freedom as a cultural element for national development.

There is a need for a new Act to set up a new Media Council to include the other media outlets including radio, television and social media. Dr Madhubashini Galagedara of Open University lamented that no proper regulation mechanism to check slander, false news and disinformation by a section of social media.

Last week the Presidential Media was compelled to reveal about a fake news campaign that alleged unprecedented environmental destruction was taking place since the present government came into power.

These false reports stated that forest reserves were burnt down and trees in natural forests were cut down. People, who create such fabricated news, attempted to convince the public that an environmental destruction of this scale has never happened before and that the government was indifferent to these kind of illegal activities. It has been observed that such reports contain both absolute untruth and distorted information.

Fake news about environmental destruction is being disseminated especially on social media platforms and in some print, television and radio media. Once the news published in this manner proved to be untrue, they are removed from social media. While withdrawing the said news item, the social media create and publish new items for the same objective. The interested parties with agendas give wide publicity for such fake news. Fabricated news is being exaggerated during their meetings, news briefings and interviews.

The report included in its news bulletin telecast by a private TV channel on September 15 alleging that massive deforestation was taking place during the reconstruction of the Ihalathalawa tank in Anuradhapura of the Mahaweli H Zone, is a good example for “operation fake news” now underway. In addition to deforestation, there were allegations of serious corrupt activities.

On September 17, Mr.UbhayaKalyana Kumara, Resident Project Manager – Mahaweli H Zone, Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka, informed the Director General of the Mahaweli Authority, with clear evidence, that the said news report aired by the private television channel was complete fiction. According to him, the Ihalathalawa tank bund was on the brink of collapsing due to heavy rains in 2016. With the assistance of the Army and the residents, sandbags were placed to temporarily protect the bund. If the bund breaches, the Thalawa Town and the ancient villages will be completely submerged. The Colombo-Jaffna railway line and the Anuradhapura-Padeniya highway will also be severely damaged.

Subsequently, for the purpose of restoring the tank under the Climate Resilience Improvement Project (CRIP) of the Ministry of Agriculture, the World Bank donated a sum of Rs 38.9 million. Restoration works commenced under the in July 2019 and its progress is constantly monitored by the World Bank.

Under the project, it was decided to remove 80 trees grown in the tank and on the bund and most of them are Mara trees. The approval of the Geological Survey & Mines Bureau as well as the Certificate of Environmental Impact Assessment had been granted for the project. The approval letters were signed by the Director-General of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau and Director of the Climate Resilience Improvement Project (CRIP). Trees which had been cut down at the tank site are being cleared away by the State Timber Corporation.

Media heads at the discussion.

The private news network which made allegations of massive forest-destruction has failed to look at these verifiable facts. The government has decided to take stern legal action against the parties or individuals who intentionally feed misinformation and mislead the public abusing various forms of media.

Dr Madhubashini Galagedara of Open University pointed out that immense damage caused to the individuals, institutions as well as the government fabricated news by social media outlets.

President Rajapaksa and Minister Rambukwella clarified that the long-term solution to such false information and slander was to enhance professionalism in the field of media so that the media heads themselves could hve a self-regulatory system to prevent such media abuses. They said that training programmes must be increased for practicing media personnel to increase their professionalism.

Referring to the false information trial, the Indian Supreme Court said, “This is a serious issue and it has to be examined. This is nothing but yellow journalism.”

The legal luminary Ramesh Pai summarized, “At one time, there was a distinct line between the yellow journalism and regular honest journalism. NOW, with the fake news, it is getting to be very difficult to contain yellow journalism!”