Codes won’t improve journalism. Instead, promote sila dimension of Noble Eightfold Path
Posted on July 21st, 2013

By Shelton Gunaratne, author of The Dao of the Press: A Humanocentric Theory (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005)

 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 FrontiƒÆ’†’¨res, 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.

3 Responses to “Codes won’t improve journalism. Instead, promote sila dimension of Noble Eightfold Path”

  1. Vimutti Says:

    Certainly there needs to be a broader discussion of RIGHT SPEECH Buddhist principles among Western journalists and their embassies in Buddhist countries. I think there is a tendency to assume without any factual basis that Western – especially American – notions of “free speech” are superior to the Buddhist spiritual value of Right Speech. This causes the USA, for example, to defend anti-Muslim videos or high-profile depictions of Buddhist monks as violent as protected free speech, even if they are made with the specific intent to cause riots, bloodshed, and conflict around the world.

    This is indeed an extreme view as this article rightly point out, and the middle way would be some control on public speech that is calculated to incite violence and hatred between groups. I know this may hamper efforts by certain Western countries to cause divisions in divide-and-conquer colonialism-like schemes within nations that are not sufficiently under Western control, but sowhat? Why should ANY nation be interested in promoting the divisive efforts of outsiders who want to pit one local group against another so the country as a whole can’t focus on its own economic development or stopping economic exploitation by the West?

    What should be clear is that Western secularism is targeting ALL religiously-oriented countries and trying to portray sincere religious practice as ‘extreme’. But upon closer examination, it is the lack of a moral compass possessed by the secularists that is ‘extreme’ as it inevitably leads to more greed, more hate, and more delusion. In their greed, hate, and deluded world, more money, more material things, and more sense and ego gratification is the goal in life, even though the Buddha tells us clearly – and we know from our own experience – that these things are insatiable and not permanently satisfying. If the secularists want to live in such a greed, hate, and delusion filled environment that is OK, but they have no right at all to FORCE this kind of environment on other nations with their divide-and-conquer schemes that start with divisive “free speech”.

  2. AnuD Says:

    Very good article and very good approach.

  3. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    After world war one and during the Versailles treaty the concept of “Self determination” came into vogue. It was the basis for new nations and the revolutions that created it but it also can be construed that nations have their own future based on their own culture and history. To date most developing nations that were part of some European Empire be it the British Empire, French Empire, Portuguese Empire or Dutch Empire, these nations’ future has been determined by the Western ideologies.
    Some have waken to this fact as in the Muslim nations, many of whom have been colonies of these Empire but now have reached into their own cultures to determine their future and though the number of Muslim nations is around 50 it is dwarfed by other post Colonial nations who slavishly follow the Western style of governance even when it is detrimental to the nation.
    India’s Democracy is an example of a failed method of governance while China’s embrace of the Western concept of Communism has brought untold misery and death to her people in the Great leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Western style Democracy in Sri Lanka has only led the Tamil Minority to use this system for their self determination of forming Eelam. Even to this day those who oppose the current government simply echo the Western concepts of governance.
    Sri Lanka is an ancient land that has governed itself successfully without any need of Westernized concepts of governance which by the way are now failing in those very nations. If Sri Lanka reaches to her past of a Buddhist nation with Buddhist values in her Constitution no opposing party will have any moral ground to criticize this system. Take refuge in the Buddha, take refuge in the Sanga and take refuge in the Dharma and Sri Lanka will not only prosper but will vanquish any divisive forces.

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