Saturday, March 12, 2016

To Register Or Not To Register

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya
The government’s decision to call for the registration of news websites has caused a stir in the industry. The government claims that they were responding to requests for registration by news website owners themselves. The government recently published advertisements in newspapers informing the public and relevant stakeholders of this decision. Media organisations, media freedom activists and others have expressed concern that the government’s decision is an attempt to limit media freedom. Others, while agreeing with the principle of registration, have expressed other concerns.
Following are some of their views:

Registration fee should be reduced
Freddy Gamage, Convener, Professional Web Journalists Association
Even when the former government was in power, we said we were not against registering websites. We are only asking that we are entitled to all relevant privileges and rights. Our main request has been that the registration fee be reduced but it has not happened yet. If we are to receive the privileges that other journalists enjoy, we should get registered first. Our association is now preparing a code of ethics for web journalists. Only those who agree with it can obtain membership. With that procedure we will forward a system to have self-discipline in our reporting.
If we want to take web journalism to a professional level, we have to agree with the new proposal. The Deputy Minister clearly stated that they brought in the registration in order to provide official status for news websites. Today most of the news websites do not receive official news. They do not receive invitations to government press briefings. They do not get concessions that other journalists receive such as media ID cards, subsidies for motorbikes and so on. By registering, we should be entitled to receive these privileges and media journalistic rights.

A policy must be fair by all
C. Dodawatta, Free Media Movement
News websites show some inherited characteristics. These are more often different from mainstream media institutions. They are independent and mostly carry citizen-oriented reporting. When compared to other main media channels, news portals more often provide the public a strident voice.
We have to think of how to protect these inherent characteristics of news websites. On the other hand, many websites publish hate news and stories. There are many websites that propagate anti-social activities as well.  So we have to think of the extent that registration will impact on the independence that they have been enjoying so far.
Those who prefer registering can register their websites. Those who do not can remain so. So there is no fairness. When a policy is introduced by a government or an organisation it must be fair by all concerned. Commenting on the ads published in newspapers, the Deputy Minister has stated that the wording is wrong. His statement suggests that the decision has not been unanimous.
These types of decision may not help improve media freedom. Such decisions must be taken via discussions and agreements with all stakeholders. Government alone must not take such decision.

Registering should not be an attempt to control
Tudor Weerasinghe, Senior Lecturer, Mass Media, Sri Palee Campus, University of Colombo
Websites in question come under the news media category. When compared to conventional media channels such as TV, Radio, Newspapers etc., news websites have different characteristics. In this sense, they cannot be put into the Mass Media category.
The Mass Media can be monitored in many ways; via regulations, codes of ethics or self-discipline procedures. News websites cannot be monitored in these ways because they interact between two persons or many at the same time. They post important news for the public as well as engage in conventional reporting. So what they report should have official and common acceptance. The most suitable way to give valid acceptance to what they publish is to bring them under a legal system. By registration, they get that official acceptance. Then what they publish has some valid status.
The public do not accept the news that websites publish since they have no legal status. Therefore, registering such websites is essential. But with new technology, we can find out who is who and what they are doing even though they are not registered with the government. However, registering websites must not be taken as an attempt to limit media freedom.

A covert threat?
Lasantha Ruhunage, President, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association
The decision to register websites was first brought by the former Rajapaksa government. Their attempt was like a covert threat that said only those who get their websites registered can be in the field and others cannot. The same threat is present with the ads that this government published in newspapers. Therefore, we have to ask this government the same question that we asked the former government; whether they are trying to restrict media freedom by bringing in new proposals.
We cannot accept the government’s decision on registering websites. The government must realise the meaning of the term ‘Website’. Our stand is not that any of the media channels should not be monitored. But we must discuss the method that we must take in this regard. Only if it is necessary to monitor them, that we should implement a proper system to carry out such monitoring. It seems the government has done this without any discussion between relevant parties.
Specifically, the new registration system talks about only news websites. But there are other websites as well. It seems they have not understood the nature of such websites.
According to the statement that the Media Minister made, the government has done this because of a request that the websites themselves made to the government.
We do not know which media movements made this request. They may have a big issue. They may need to undergo governmental monitoring.
But today, media channels are not such entities that governments should monitor. Society monitors them and they monitor themselves as well.
The Ministry and its officials must have a vision, and they must not activate it just because someone brings them a proposal. We went against the former government because of their anti-media activities. Now we have the same problems with the new government.
Rather than doing what others suggest, the Minister and his officials must have an understanding whether what they bring in is justifiable from the aspect of media freedom.
The way the government treats the media is pathetic. They think that giving privileges and subsidies to journalists will protect media freedom. This assumption is totally wrong. The previous government did the same thing, but they lost.

Web journalists can enjoy privileges
N. M. Ameen, President , Muslim Media Forum
Without carrying out registering, monitoring websites can be done. Sometimes, registering can be a problem for those web journalists who carry out their media practice in an honest manner. Many are airing views on the increase of registration fees as well. But it must be noted that via registering, web journalists too may get privileges and concessions. But if the objective of registration is to control websites, we cannot accept that.
We discussed this issue with the Prime Minister as well when we met him recently. We pointed out the necessity to bring down the registration fee. He promised to look into the matter. Today web media enjoys a strong position in society. For those who run websites without the goal of earning a profit, this increase brings in an unnecessary impact. Of course there must be a nominal fee. Only a very few website owners earn money. Due to websites, democracy prevails. Via them, anyone can make public his/her views.
We have to accept that by using web freedom, some propagate racist and fundamental religious views and personal mud-slinging. Registering websites helps isolate those people. We have to think of that aspect as well. The former regime took the first step to register websites. This government too does the same thing. But the Minister has to reconsider the increased registration fee. It must benefit those who earn a good profit via websites as well as those who do not, equally.
Taking steps to register websites is not bad. But it must not restrict those who do not register with the government, from functioning. It is anti-democratic. We have to consider what happened in the recent past before bringing in such laws.

Step-motherly treatment for web journalists
Kelum Shivantha Rodrigo, Chief Editor, Sri Lanka Mirror
We, Sri Lanka Mirror, have been for registering websites since the beginning. It is not a parliamentary Act. Initially it came as a Cabinet draft. When it came initially in that way, we applied for registration. No sooner than we submitted our application, we received registration. Only 24 websites got registered the first time. We are the seventh on the list. At that time too, we did not go against the registration of websites.

But we have an issue with the registration fee now. In addition we have an issue over the request that asks websites to renew their registration annually. It costs a website about Rs. 10,000 for renewal. But every website does not register with the government.
The other aspect that must be noted is that during the Rajapaksa regime, registered websites did not publish false or mud-slinging reports. At present too, they do not engage in such inferior media practices. Those unregistered websites are the ones that publish such news items. So, I. as a website editor, see many privileges in registering with the government.
We are functioning as a registered websites with the Media Department. Therefore, we have opportunities to receive more government and other ads. Advertisers have no fear of publishing their ads on our website. In addition, journalists in registered websites get privileges that other media journalists enjoy. They get media ID cards. They become journalists and they are able to interact with government officials and other stakeholders in numerous fields. They can function in the field more freely as well.
However even though web journalists in registered websites received media IDs during the previous regime, they did not enjoy the same acceptance that other media journalists received from the Ministry of Mass Media and other departments. The step-motherly attitude towards web journalists is still prevalent. We requested the President and Prime Minister on two occasions that we must be given equal status. The Department of Media and Communication has been offering scholarships for media journalists for many years now. But website journalists who have been working with registered websites since 2012 have never received such scholarships. Only print media journalists receive such scholarships. We like to ask Department officials whether we can only receive registration. It is unfair and it is not logical either.
When we talk about the registration of websites, it is more important for us to point out to the government that it should be done under a proper system. Like the previous government did, this government need not necessarily do it through a Cabinet draft. They can do it even by passing an Act in parliament. In this way, both sides get protected. An Act will protect those who run websites. Now they receive only an invalid piece of paper for registration.  Therefore, registration of websites must be done only after bringing in a parliamentary Act. There were several attempts to bring in an Act to protect the right to information. But it also contains many issues. It must consist of several clauses to protect the rights of websites as well.
Therefore, if registration of websites is going to be functional before passing the Right To information Act, it must be done through a parliamentary Act.

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