Colombo, Media and Communications

The pretense of professionalism – the flipside of media freedom in Sri Lanka

In calling the media “feral beasts” caught in a vicious cycle of unravelling standards Tony Blair, in his last days of office, may have captured the approach to journalism by some of the media institutions in Sri Lanka. While a recent article to Groundviews points to the abject degeneracy of State media in Sri Lanka today, it’s also private media that shares the blame for shoddy reporting. Through a case that flags a clear example of the degeneracy of professional journalism, we question whether the strident calls for media freedom in Sri Lanka neglect with the same vigour to hold media institutions accountable to local and international standards and ethics of professional journalism. Importantly, this case also calls to question the efficacy of the Press Complaints Commission. The PCC is an institutional mechanism that few in Sri Lanka know about and if this case is anything to go by displays a depressingly somnambulant approach to the protection of the rights of the readers.

A question to the Government and the LTTE by Nishan de Mel was published on Groundviews on 13th June 2007. The following is from an email Nishan sent Groundviews yesterday:

“I sent an opinion article to be published to The Island newspaper on the June 13th 2007. It was published 3 days later on June 16th. However, much of my text had been deleted and whole sentences and paragraphs that I did not write had been added by the editor, thus drastically changing the content and tone of what I wrote. Approximately 70% of my original text had been deleted and replaced.

The Editor’s action has resulted in attributing to me falsely things that I did not write. I wrote to the editor on June 16th and asked for an explanation and remedy, but so far, two weeks since, I have not received any response. If the editor wanted to express his opinion then he should use the editorial NOT re-write my article and publish his views under my name.”

Time line of events:
June 13: My article was sent by email to and to The Island Newspaper.
June 13: Groundviews publishes my article in the original form.
June 16: The Island publishes my article in a form that is drastically changed from the original.
June 16: I write by email complaining to the Editor of the Island and ask for remedy.
June 19: I write by email to the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka and ask if they can entertain this sort of complaint.
June 30: No reply yet from the editor of the Island, nor the Press Complaints Commission.

Since the Island’s website requires a subscription to access, we’ve attached the Nishan’s article as it appeared in the newspaper on 16th June 2007. The original article is available here. An analysis of the changes made by the Editor of the Island (also sent in by Nishan to Groundviews) demonstrates the incredible degree to which the published letter differs from the original.

Nishan also sent in the following:
1. Email with article submission of original article to Editor of the Island on 13th June 2007.pdf (that makes it clear that Nishan only gives permission for the title of the original article to be changed.)
2. Email to Editor of Island complaining about changes to article sent on 16th June 2007. Nishan wrote this immediately after reading the article as published in The Island. To date, Nishan has not received any reply to this email.
3. Email to Press Complaints Commission on sent on 19th June 2007.pdf. Nishan has not received a reply from the PCCSL to date.

This case raises several interesting points. Clearly, Nishan’s diligence is documenting the facts of this case points clearly to an outrageous dereliction of media responsibility and professional ethics by a leading English daily in Sri Lanka. It is also a telling indication of the inherent hypocrisy of ascribing to a set of professional ethics and values as enumerated in the Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) of The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka yet in spirit and practice, tossing it aside with total impunity.

On the other hand, while the PCC’s regulations are available on the web along with details on how a complaint should be made, one would expect and indeed demand a far more proactive and energetic approach by an institutional mechanism that was set up to protect the rights of readers. The case statistics of the PCC speak volumes of its effectiveness – a mere 267 cases over two years (2003 – 2004) and a 112 cases in 2005. The website does not record statistics for 2006 or 2007, and we are not surprised.

Nishan’s case is a sombre study on the flip side of media freedom in Sri Lanka. While attention is concentrated on the growing challenges to free media – and rightly so given the growing repression and censorship – less attention is paid to the unprofessional conduct of media that in their careless abandon of the rights of readers and contributors exacerbates significant problems facing the development of professional media in Sri Lanka. Not all readers and citizens are as technology literate and diligent in documenting their grievance as Nishan. Many readers and citizens would simply give up far earlier, especially when the response of institutions and mechanisms set up to protect their rights seem to be as lackadaisical as the media institutions themselves. The point is simply that until media fully ascribes to, in spirit and practice, established codes of professional conduct, they are in no position to agitate for greater media freedom.