Last edited: July 16, 2004

Sri Lankan’s Media Complaint Backfires

PlanetOut, June 5, 2000

Summary: A "shameful" ruling finds that the gay leader who complained about an anti-lesbian article is himself guilty of "promoting sadism."

When Sri Lanka’s 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 Council’s decision.

The published letter was signed by "P. Alles" and was in response to The Island’s August report of Companions on a Journey’s 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 Council’s decision, as published in The Island June 2, follows.

"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 women’s 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 one’s 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 one’s 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 issue.

"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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