COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Rights groups are criticizing a code of media ethics proposed by Sri Lanka's government, saying Wednesday that the code could have a chilling effect on free speech in the Indian Ocean island nation.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the code is "unnecessary" and infringes on the right to free expression, while Sri Lanka's Free Media Movement said it would "drastically affect the media freedom and the country's democratic set up."
The proposed code of ethics for print and electronic media and websites in Sri Lanka is now before a parliamentary advisory council for discussion. The code touches on everything from what news should not be published to how to issue corrections to advertising.
Sri Lanka's Mass Media and Information minister Keheliya Rambukwella denied the proposed code would affect media freedom, saying it is "purely voluntary."
Rambukwella said the code was introduced "with the aim of promoting decency in the media," and that it won't become a law. Rights groups worry that it might.
They say the code's guidelines are vague and they stress that if Sri Lanka's media is to have such a code, it should be put forward by journalists, not the government.
"Sri Lankan journalists are already under enormous pressure not to be critical of the government, and the vagueness of this code will likely lead to greater self-censorship to avoid government retaliation," said Brad Adams, the Human Rights Watch's asia director.
The group said the code contains 13 types of substantive speech that shouldn't be published, including content that "offends against expectations of the public, morality of the country, or tend to lower the standards of public taste and morality."
It also asks media not to publish content that "contains material against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary, and Legislative," which Human Rights Watch said could be interpreted as "barring criticism of the government."
Free Media Movement, a local media rights group, also described the code as a move by the government to control the media.
Group leader Sunil Jayasekara said if there is to be a code it should be drafted by journalists.
"The government could offer assistance to draft such a code, but it should not draft a code of ethics for media," he said.
He said no clear definitions have been given to many clauses in the code, "raising suspicion and also giving room for that the government to use whatever definition they want."
The proposed code comes as attacks on media offices and workers have become increasingly common in Sri Lanka following the end of the country's civil war four years ago.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says Sri Lanka was the fourth most dangerous country for journalists in 2010. More than a dozen journalists have fled the country over the last four years.