- The Public’s right to know is a concept that would help to strengthen democracy. Discuss.
No one said that democracy is easy. Balancing the individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know is a delicate operation. It may not be convenient; it may make tough decisions tougher, but meeting doors to public agencies must stay open as the public is best served when its government is open and gives the appearance that it eliminates all improprieties. Too often governments treat official information as their property, rather than something which they hold and maintain on behalf of the people.
“The public’s right to know”, which has been a popular cry of journalist all over the world as they campaigned to expand their access to news about government, business and other areas of society that have found ways to hide from public scrutiny. Although many journalists now see the press as a public utility in the sense that it has responsibilities to the public it serves, the slogan has in recent years been used rarely by media people.
Access to information is a vital feature of democracy. If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society. The public has the right to know about information collected, disseminated and maintained by the government in order to increase public accountability and awareness. But information is not just a necessity for people – it is an essential part of good government. Bad government needs secrecy to survive. It allows inefficiency, wastefulness and corruption to thrive. As Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist has observed, there has never been a substantial famine in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press. Information allows people to scrutinize the actions of a government and is the basis for proper, informed debate of those actions. Therefore, public bodies have an obligation to disclose information, and every member of the public has a corresponding right to receive information. Everyone present in the territory of the country should benefit from this right. The exercise of this right should not require individuals to demonstrate a specific interest in the information.
On the other hand, the general public should not act as if it’s their natural and constitutional right to be told what they want to be told. We observe that journalists too have tried to turn the doctrine to their own ends, using it at times as justification for questionable conduct – stealing or lying to get a story is often explained away by claiming that the public’s right to know had to be served. The journalists in turn could do well to identify what the public need and deserves to know and leave out personal or irrelevant details of politicians and other well-known personalities from the public.
If we ever visit a newsroom at the end of a working day, you will see even at a casual glance, how much news is left over unused, which apparently is not material the public has a right to know. This is because journalists, limited by news space and time, have to decide every day as to what the public, whom they serve, should know.
Of course, governments can always find reasons for maintaining secrecy in the interests of national security, public order and the wider public interest being few examples. Any withholding of information should be justified, such as for security reasons, that the disclosure could cause substantial harm and that the harm that could be caused is greater than the public interest in having the information, etc.
Indeed, democracy would guarantee that no proper news is hidden from the public and that what they have to know will be accessible to them. This kind of reassurance to the public would earn the respect and the cooperation of the public and therefore would strengthen a democracy.
- Media ethics should be enforced through initiatives of practitioners themselves. Discuss.
Journalists themselves the world over, disagree on a wide variety of issues. However, nearly all of them agree that accuracy and fairness are the most important aspects of their profession. They need to appreciate that these standards on ethics also need to be operational.
Though news media have for long been regarded as “a watch dog of government”, there are many who believe that the watch dog need to be most disciplined in their conduct. As a result it is argued that there should be a watch dog for the watch dogs themselves to scrutinize their activities as not only governments and politicians, but even ordinary citizens realize that the media, particularly the newspapers, have assumed great powers, and journalists tend to step over the limits also on the instructions on the media organization heads they work for. Therefore it should be noted that lack of editorial discipline can definitely cheapen the press and reduce it to the level of tabloid scandal sheets.
Many free and democratic societies have also come to look at the media more critically and as a result, media organizations themselves realize the necessity for self-regulation. Almost everybody seems to agree that journalism is too important to the public to be left entirely to themselves
One thing we have to note is that the canons, like all other codes of ethics and standards adopted by other state and national organizations of journalists, are mostly statements of ideals and aspirations. The biggest common element in all such codes of national and state organizations in this field is their lack of teeth. None of them prescribe any procedures for punishing violators of their high-sounding structures. To counter this, Independent monitoring bodies formed by media organizations themselves are best suited to preserve the integrity of the profession of journalism.
Sometimes journalists are careless about their “facts” and readers have to sift through different versions of the news in order to come to comprehend the truth. Reporters often use “leaks” from official sources, without checking out their validity. A number of columnists seemed involved in a contest for the title of “meanest and most insulting” to establish a leading reputation for feisty or fearless criticism. To the intelligent public, the use of offensive terms would be needless, and that one could make the same points without resorting to such excess.
Indeed, in seeking greater parameters for an independent press and in promoting greater access, the press should lead in examining how journalists deal with greater access and with greater freedom. Journalists should be mindful about their credibility and be concerned about the level of public trust they enjoy.
- The Law relating to Contempt of Court seeks to balance two competing interests. Discuss with reference to the position of the judiciary in United Kingdom, India and Sri Lanka.
The two competing interests the Law relating to Contempt of Court seeks to balance are, Freedom of Speech and the Fair Administration of Justice. These areas have undergone a notable change in most liberal democracies recognizing the importance of justification and importance of public debate and constructive criticisms of judicial decisions.
In UK, the Phillimore Committee Report had noted in 1974 that a change of attitude has taken place with regard to offence of scandalizing court and that a more liberal attitude to such contempt was in evidence. The Committee noted that criticism has become more forthright by that time. For example it quoted a case where a judge was accused of advising one party to a court case as to the next step they could take. Though this was untrue and a gross contempt, no action was taken as it is known that this type of accusations come from disappointed litigants and partners. Also in UK by that time the authorities were more scrutinized and courts have learnt to leave adverse public opinions alone and articles in newspapers ridiculing judges have been ruled as not amounting to contempt which was a major change for the better.
The Indian Judiciary has generally adopted a liberal attitude to contempt in court. In India the Contempt of Court Act 1971 provides expressly that fair criticism of on the merits of a case which has been concluded, does not amount to contempt. Several Indian decisions have even found extreme statements not amounting to contempt adopting the philosophical attitude that they carry within them their own condemnation, which is an admirable stance in a country which could have its own extreme ways. It is concluded that the main criterion of contempt is the substantial likelihood of interference with the administration of justice.
In Sri Lanka however the attitude towards contempt remain excessively conservative and has not changed significantly. In several instances the ruling had been in confirmation of contempt. Also a judge has even gone on to the extent of saying with pride that ‘In fact, even the case law from some of the dominions show that they have been as eager as we have been to preserve this branch of the law of contempt in its vigor, notwithstanding the doubts entertained on the matter in the U.K.’ This statement makes it very clear their determination to rule in favour of contempt which is disappointing to note.
Sri Lanka would do well to follow the examples of India and U.K. and change governing laws to deal with contempt of court recognizing that freedom of speech is fundamental right of a human being which is applicable even within the walls of a courtroom.
- Why should there be laws of copyright? Explain with reference to;
(a) copyright as a concept
(b) subject matter and related properties
(c) copyrights and limitations, and
(d) doctrine of fair use.
There should be laws of copyright as it is kind of an ownership to individual intellectual property. It is a kind of a right provided by law to the owners of a work granting them the right to their piece of work. This prevents others from claiming ownership or distorting the work or selling it for monitory purposes, etc.
The subject matter for copyright should be substantial enough to qualify as a “work’ and must be original, It need not have a standard of good and bad to qualify for a copyright but has to be original which means that piece of work has not been done by another before. The author of the work has to know that although copyright may have been granted, it will have to be for his life time and fifty years thereafter. Therefore the heirs can claim the work only for 50 years after the author’s death.
The doctrine of fair use permits a piece of work normally restricted by copyright without the authorization of the copyright owner. However, its application depends critically on the particular facts of the individual situation. This doctrine developed by Common Law is now embodied in Section 13 and states that although work may be protected, it shall be permissible to use such work without the author’s consent in the stated instances. Accordingly, reproduction for the user’s personal use, inclusion of quotation in another work (provided the author’s name is mentioned), and utilization for non-profit educational and research purposes are a few of the permitted uses. Section 13 also permits the reproduction of newspaper articles unless it is specifically prohibited, reproduction of library materials, reproduction in the press of political speeches, speeches delivered in court proceedings, and lectures delivered on current information.
The concept of copyright with the doctrine of fair use in place, will prevent people from claiming or using others work for commercial purposes and will allow the use of the work for education or research work, nevertheless. I think it is important to have the concept of copyright in place as it will prevent unnecessary or experimental duplication of work and the resultant haphazard excerpts that may reproduced and presented to us.
- While the Law of Defamation seeks to protect individual reputation it often comes into conflict with the competing interests of free speech and expression? Discuss.
The Law of Defamation seeks to protect individual reputation. But the goal and the objective of this area of law can compete with the right of free speech and expression of an individual as law deals with the protection of individual reputation as well as freedom of speech and expression equally.
At this juncture it is important to understand the general definition of ‘defamation’ in law. R.W.M. Dias offers defamation as “ A defamatory statement is one which injures the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule or which tends to lower him in the esteem of right-thinking member of society.” The Faulks Committee of UK in 1975 recommended the following definition: “Defamation shall consist of the publication to a third-party of matter which in all circumstances would be likely to affect a person adversely in the estimation of reasonable people generally.” A.R.B. Amarasinghe in his work in the Law of Defamation has defined it as “what was defamatory was extended to include statements which had the effect of making others shun or avoid the person concerning of whom the statement was made or make them reluctant to associate with the person concerned.” The risk is that the defendant need not have determined the likely effect of his words but however, if his words were understood by others in a defamatory sense. Therefore one has to be alert that free speech and expression will not be interpreted by others in a defamatory sense.
Interestingly the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has been sued in 1934 (Youssoupoff v Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) that a film falsely suggests that the plaintiff, a Russian Princess, had been raped or seduced by the notorious Rasputin. Though the filmmaker’s motive had been to make more money out of the movie and not to defame the Russian princess, it has been understood by certain others in a defamatory sense. This surely would have deterred other filmmakers not to add speculative details to movies based on real people.
One ought to be glad that the liberty of free speech and expression exist and also that one cannot use it in an irresponsible manner. The mere fact that a Law of Defamation was needed may have been that people tend to overstep their limits in anything given free. I feel that a person need not worry if one uses the right of free speech and expression not with the intention of harming or ridiculing or for monitory gain such as for a tabloid publication, but instead be determined to exercise the right of free speech and expression to cultivate good values for the humankind, for e.g. Stories of good and unselfish deeds which can be inspiring to others, then one need not worry as, the right intention never punishes.
Amarasinghe A.R.B.: Work in the Law of Defamation.
Dias, R.W.M.: Work in the Law of Defamation.
Indian Contempt of Court Act (1971)
Department of Sociology, Open University of Sri Lanka Publication on Socio Legal Perspectives
of Mass Communications.
Sen, Amartya, Economist.
The Faulks Committee of UK (1975).
Youssoupoff v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Court Case (1934).