Sri Lankans Media Complaint Backfires
Summary: A "shameful" ruling finds that the gay leader who complained
about an anti-lesbian article is himself guilty of "promoting sadism."
When Sri Lankas The Island newspaper in August published a letter calling on
police "to let loose convicted rapists" among lesbians at a planned conference,
the executive director of the national gay and lesbian civil rights group Companions on a
Journey naturally filed a complaint that the publication of the letter encouraged violence
against women. But on June 2, the Press Council, composed of five journalists and lawyers,
decided not only that the paper was right to publish the letter, but that it was
complainant Sherman de Rose himself who was out to "promote sadism and salacity"
and fined him 2,100 rupees (US$28). The Council maintains that lesbianism, which was added
to the criminal code in 1995 as an offense punishable by up to 12 years
imprisonment, is itself an act of sadism. The Council also maintains that de Rose as a
male has no standing to complain.
De Rose called the ruling "very shameful" and views it as a clear
demonstration of anti-gay discrimination in Sri Lanka; he intends to file a legal
challenge to the Press Councils decision.
The published letter was signed by "P. Alles" and was in response to The
Islands August report of Companions on a Journeys plans for an international
lesbian gathering in Columbo. Alles called on police "to let loose convicted rapists
among the jubilant but jaded jezebels when their assembly is in full swing so that those
who are misguided may get a taste of the real thing." The Council did not see this as
advocacy for rape or even the expression of a grudge.
The full text of the Press Councils decision, as published in The Island June 2,
"Mr. Sherman De Rose, Executive Director of Companions on a Journey,
by his complaint dated 24th August 1999, states that his organization provides
organizational support for the womens group who announced their intention of holding
a lesbian conference in Colombo and it further supports to maintain rights and dignity of
gay and lesbian people in Sri Lanka. He states that he was concerned about an article
published in The Island newspaper in its issue dated August 20, 1999 under the heading
Lesbian Conference in Colombo? in breach of media ethics and it advocates
criminal offence of rape. Therefore, he complains the Council to take legal action against
the responsible persons who published the article in dispute.
"The respondents appeared before the Council on receipt of notice issued by us and
denied the allegations leveled against them. At the inquiry, both parties agreed to
dispose of the inquiry on written submissions without leading any evidence. Accordingly,
written submissions were tendered.
"The learned counsel for the complainant submitted that he does concede the rights
of the public to publish their opinion, but the last paragraph of the article is not a
mere expression of an opinion as it advocates and promotes the crime of rape and it is
improper for publication in any newspaper in terms of Section 9 of the Sri Lanka Press
Council law. He further submitted that it violates Rule No. 8 of the Code of Ethics for
journalists, which reads as follows: A journalist shall not present any matter in a
manner designed to promote sadism, violence or salacity.
"Rape is a violent and sadistic act and it is an offence under the Penal Code.
Hence the learned counsel submitted that the said article promotes atrocity and illegal
rape of lesbians in violation of the Penal Code.
"On the other hand, the respondents argued that they published an article about a
Lesbian Conference to be held in Colombo and thereafter received a letter to the Editor
written by one P. Alles for publication. Since it was a matter of public interest, they
published it in their paper as it contained the opinion of their readers. The learned
counsel for respondents has submitted that the homosexualism and lesbianism, both are
offences under the law and lesbianism falls within the meaning of acts of gross indecency
between persons and unnatural and grave sexual abuse within the meaning of Section 365 A
of the Penal Code as amended by Act No. 22 of l995.
"But the learned counsel for the complainant contended that as to whether the
lesbianism is illegal, is immaterial for this case and to be considered upon impropriety
of the article.
"Respondents argued that the Constitution has recognized the family as the basic
unit of the society and the government is bound to protect family unit in terms of Article
No. 27(12) of the Constitution. Family unit basically consists of a man and a woman. Two
men or two women cannot make a family unit. Therefore, they argued that lesbianism is
illegal, immoral and obscene in our law.
"The respondents also contended that when people publish their opinion to support
immoral and obscene activities, the people who respect their social and cultural norms of
society also have right to express their own opinion in opposition to such indecent
activities and such right is guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution.
"Now, we proceed to consider the complaint of the complainant on the basis as to
whether the said article has violated Section 9 of the Sri Lanka Press Council Law and the
Code of Ethics for the Journalists. Homosexualism is an offence in our law. Lesbianism is
at least an act of gross indecency and unnatural. We are not going to decide as to whether
it is an offence under the Penal Code in these proceedings. If people of this country have
a right to publish that a conference of lesbians would be held in Colombo, the people have
a right to express their opinion either for or against.
"One of the readers of The Island namely, P. Alles states in his article to the
editor that he feels it appropriate that for the police to get the convicted rapist to
give zest and relish to misguided wretches to understand the reality of natural sexual
pleasure than the unnatural sexual activities. Probably the writer and publisher may have
considered that lesbianism is much more vulnerable and improper than publishing an article
condemning the proposed lesbians conference. It is not a letter addressed to the
police to do it or the police was not acting upon such views published in media. Similarly
a media may express ones view to say it is advisable for the police to kill
murderers or thieves on the spot without recoursing to law. It does not mean that the
media is advocating crimes. What it means is that it pronounces ones opinion.
"In considering the disputed article, we cannot concede as argued by the
complainant that there is an explicit advocacy of rape. Throughout the letter, it suggests
that lesbianism is improper and should not be advocated to promote such immoral and
unnatural sexual activities. Somehow, misguided and erratic women should be corrected and
allowed to understand the true sense and reality of life. Although the article appeared
that the writer was emotionally involved in the criticism and used harsh language, it does
not mean the writer or publisher were influenced by any malice or grudge towards any
particular individual except for their hate and unpleasantness about the spreading social
menace in society.
"On the other hand, the press has a right to criticize the conduct of anybody,
whose conduct is against the accepted social norms. They have a right to decide upon
religious, social or cultural background of a given society. We do not hesitate to state
that lesbianism is illegal in our law. We cannot find any reason to hold that the said
publication is improper.
"Any complainant, who seeks legal remedies from any court or quasi-judicial body,
must come before it in clean hands. Just because the complaint encourages and promotes
abnormal or immoral acts in society, he cannot argue that the media has no right to
criticize such activities.
"The complainant in any event, is not a female, who can participate, in lesbian
activities. He cannot be subject to any such rape as referred to in the article and
therefore, he cannot be a victim of such violence. He has not sought any relief on the
basis of public interest. He merely states that he complains as a supporter of gay and
lesbian people and specially to protect their human rights and dignity. Hence he has no
legal status (Locus Standi) to make or maintain this application.
"The counsel for the complainant pointed out Rule No. 8 of the Code of Ethics for
journalists in which it reads to say that the journalists shall not publish any matter
designed to promote sadism, violence and salacity. Lesbianism itself is an act of sadism
and salacious. Publication of any opinion against such activities is not amount to a
promotion of sadism or salacity, but any publication, which supports such conduct is an
obvious promotion of all such violence, sadism and salacity. Therefore, the complainant is
the one who is eager to promote sadism and salacity, not the respondents.
"On the other hand, if the complainant argues that he has a right to support
people who are involved in such abnormal and immoral activities, we have to concede that
the people, who respect their humanity, culture and other respected norms in human society
also have a right to support the people who live in the society in a cultured and
dignified manner with their accepted social norms. They have a right to publish their
criticism over abnormal, unnatural and inhumane conduct of the people through the press.
We are of the view that the respondents have discharged their duties as journalists by
publishing the opinion of general public to educate their readers on such a controversial
"In the above circumstances, we dismiss this complaint with costs fixed at Rs.
2,100 to be payable to the respondents by the complainant."
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