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Govt has no clear Understanding of what Constitutes a Website

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By Roel Raymond

At last week’s (5 July) media briefing on Cabinet decisions, Mass Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella made known a government decision to include news websites under the Press Council Law. This announcement came in the wake of a raid on the offices of two news websites – lankamirror and lankaxnews – and the arrest of a number of its employees.

The minister said several websites, not excluding the aforementioned two, were still engaged in reporting news bordering on the scurrilous whilst hiding behind a cloak of anonymity and said the move to bring all news websites under the purview of the Press Council Law was only to ensure more ethical media practice online.

Over and over again the minister impressed upon media personnel present at the meeting, the necessity for the Ministry of Mass Media and Information to have access to the owners of news websites, saying it was the responsibility of the government (and specifically the ministry) to act on complaints of slanderous, unsubstantiated news reports using vile language amounting to character assassination.

When asked if the ministry had received complaints against lankamirror and lankaxnews prompting the surprise raid of its offices and the arrest of its employees, the minister confirmed confidently, ‘yes’. However, when asked if the complaints had come from the public or from the government he replied tersely ‘it doesn’t matter’.

Registration compulsory

At this week’s (12 July) media briefing on Cabinet decisions, the same minister made known a government decision to amend the Press Council Law No. 5 of 1973 to make the registration of news websites compulsory. Accordingly, he announced, the government would charge a sum of

Rs 100,000 for registration and a sum or Rs 50,000 a year for renewal of registration.

The minister was asked by the attending journalists if the decision to impose a registration fee on a resource not owned by the State was justifiable, but the implications of the question completely escaped the minister who stoically stood by the government decision. He did, however, magnanimously agree that, perhaps,
Rs 100, 000 was too steep a sum, and promised to ‘look into the matter’.

When asked to explain what was meant by the blanket term ‘news websites’ the minister replied blithely, ‘anything that disseminates news.’ It was clear that neither the minister nor the government had given much thought to the amendment of the Press Council Law and its possible repercussions, beyond attempting to gain some control over the flourishing, free, online media world.

The minister confirmed this suspicion, by saying the decision by the government to amend the Press Council Law to push news websites to register with the government or face legal action, was just a ‘first step’ in a series of future steps to keep tabs on online activity, ostensibly to ensure ‘content on websites do not cause harm to defenceless individuals.’

“‘New trends are developing, new technologies are coming in, and new methodologies are being used in the field of media. The government thought it fit to make necessary amendments to the existing law in order to ensure there is a regular pattern, that a certain amount of dignity and decorum is maintained in this sphere, for the benefit of all,” the minister said, and he is correct in that assertion.

Regulation of content

There is a need for some form of governance and regulation of content published on websites professing to offer inside scoops and latest news. There is also a need for transparency; news websites should, ideally, publish ownership details and contact numbers on their sites, in order to prove credibility of their reportage.

However, there are gaps between what the government says and what the government is doing, that stand in the way of believing it truly means no harm to the media. For one, the Press Council Law is being amended to encourage transparency – the same transparency the government dismisses as unnecessary, as evident in the absence of the Right to Information Bill (despite agitation from the Opposition and other interested parties) and in minister Rambukwella’s inability or disinclination to prove the existence of complaints it claims it received against the two news websites lankamirror and lankaxnews.

It is also worrying to note that the government whose professed sole intent in amending the Law is to ‘ensure the contents of websites do not cause harm to defenceless individuals’ choice to handle such complaints by conducting an armed surprise raid on the office of a number of defenceless individuals, and raises concern that future complaints may be handled in a similar manner.

More seriously, reaching out to amend a law without a clear understanding of what constitutes a news website leaves a host of other websites vulnerable to legal action, effectively curtailing the freedom of expression online for fear of violent reprisal courtesy: Ceylon Today

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