Codes won’t improve journalism

Instead, promote sila dimension of Noble Eightfold Path

| by Shelton Gunaratne

( July 22, 2013, Moorhead - MN , Sri Lanka Guardian) The draft of a code of media ethics drawn by the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, Sri Lanka, early June 2013 has generated a lot of heat in the so-called international community, which in this case mainly refers to the West-centric NGOs like Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontières, and International Press Institute.

These NGOs, in general, adhere to the philosophy that any kind of government intrusion into the individual’s right to communicate (particularly the rights guaranteed in the U.S. First Amendment) is bad for democracy defined by Abraham Lincoln as government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

This hullabaloo is a good example of the ongoing clash between the forces of globalization (a euphemism for Westernization) and of cultural preservation. The events unfolding in the Islamic world (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt) are also facets of the same clash. As Americans, we should be able to place events within this context.

The West (represented by NGOs) believe in the Enlightenment notion that the press/ media constitute the unofficial Fourth Estate, which has the responsibility to be the watchdog of the three branches of government, viz., the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. In such a context, it is impertinent for the government (of Sri Lanka) to dictate a code of media ethics that impinges on the right of the individuals constituting the Fourth Estate to expose the shenanigans of the individuals constituting the three official estates. This approach questions the very creation of a Ministry of Mass Media and Information and its audacity to draft a code of media ethics.

In the United States, codes of media ethics existed several decades before the Hutchins Commission issued its landmark report on a free and responsible press in 1947. These were all private sector efforts to clean up the excesses of the media. Unlike in Sri Lanka, the U.S. government cannot play an official role in poking its fingers into the Fourth Estate. Moreover, evidence shows that top-down codes won’t improve journalism.

Sri Lanka’s draft code lists 13 areas of concern, five of which contain three to 13 divisions. Advertising takes up three pages of the code while the rest takes up two.

The first area outlines 13 matters that no medium should publish. These include “criticism affecting foreign relations,” “materials against the integrity of the executive, judiciary and legislative” (sic), “anything amounting to contempt of court,” “information that could mislead the public,” and “derogatory remarks on religious groups or communities.”

The other areas dwell on accuracy, corrections and apologies, opportunity to reply, differentiating fact and opinion, confidential sources, dignity, women and children, obtaining information, and reporting events. The code uses generalities to explain each area with no substantive examples. It confuses the practitioner with phrases such as “incorrect information and or facts” because a fact by its definition cannot be incorrect.

If the media were to implement these “ethical” guidelines, it would be impossible for the press to play its role as the Fourth Estate. Since the take-over of the Lake House group of newspapers in1973, the government has been trying to tame the private press by establishing a press council and a press complaints commission. The revival of these two bodies and the revised code of ethics, as well as the decision to keep the Prevention of Terrorism Act despite the termination of the 30-year state of emergency, clearly indicate the government’s reluctance to face investigation.

The Sri Lankan ruling elite could argue that the Fourth Estate is a Western concept of democracy that does not mesh with the cultures of non-Western countries that focus on collective rights and responsibilities in comparison to the Western focus on individual rights without paying much attention to the reciprocal responsibilities.

Chinese philosophy sees all universal phenomena as an ongoing process of the clash between the yang (say, complete media freedom) and the yin (say, controlled media) because everything in the universe is a composite of its opposites/ complements. One cannot exist without the other. The ineluctable Dao (say, the Universe) represents both unity and diversity. 

Neither the NGOs nor Sri Lanka could end the clash of the protagonists and antagonists for complete media freedom. From the Buddhist point of view, the dynamics of the clash of the two extremes would invariably pull or push us toward the Middle Path. Sri Lanka would benefit by letting the journalists determine media ethics by practicing the three morality (sila) guidelines in the Noble Eightfold Path—Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood—rather than by imposing restrictive codes.

Right Speech (Samma Vaca) requires the journalist to abstain from lying, divisive speech (e.g., divisive opinion writing), abusive speech (e.g., defamatory writing), and idle chatter (gossip writing).

Right Action (Samma Kammantha) requires the journalist to abstain from intentionally practicing or promoting killing (e.g., animal slaughter), stealing (including robbery, fraud, dishonesty, and deceit), and sexual misconduct. 

Right Livelihood (Samma Ajiva) requires the journalist to improve the image of his profession by personally avoiding and discouraging others from activities that may harm others (e.g., trade in deadly weapons, trade in animals for slaughter, trade in slavery, and trade in intoxicants and poisons).

Let the media professionals themselves interpret their work in terms of these three sila guidelines. Voluntary adherence works better than compulsory submission.

( The writer is the author of The Dao of the Press: A Humanocentric Theory (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005)