Media Ethics

Weligama UC Chairman Stands Up for His Constituents

Kshama Ranawana

The Chairman of the Weligama Urban Council, Rehaan D W Jayawickreme has invoked his right as the first citizen of that Township to ban the unauthorised entry of any media personnel into private properties of anyone suspected to be infected by the Corona virus.

The chairman has conveyed his decision in writing to the Heads of two private TV stations, Hiru and Derana on May 8, 2020.

He has stated in the letters that he is implementing these measures through the powers vested in him by the Urban Council Act of 1987 (255) section 4, which grants him the right of regulating, control and administration of all matters relating to the public health, public utility services and public thoroughfares and generally with the promotion and protection of the comfort, convenience and welfare of the people and the amenities of the town.’

Failure to comply with the ban will result not only legal action by him, ‘ but I will also instruct the Public Health Inspectors (PHI’s) working under me, to file separate charges in regards to the obstruction of their duties,’ he warns.

The police will also be instructed to enforce the ban Mr. Jayawickreme told Counterpoint.

The decision follows the death of a 54 year old woman who had multiple medical issues.  On visiting her doctor for a routine check-up a few days ago, she had been directed to the Co-operative Hospital in Matara, where the doctor who examined her had advised her to get herself admitted to hospital, as the doctor believed she had been infected by the Corona virus.   However, fearful of the stigma connected to the virus and to her community, the woman had decided to go home, where she had passed away, Mr. Jayawickreme told Counterpoint.

Mr. Jayawikreme stated that Public Health Inspectors attached to his Township, generally keep him updated, though, possibly owing to an overload of work, he had not been informed of this case.  However, he said a PHI had visited the residence and had determined it was not COVID-19 related and arranged for a post-mortem and burial thereafter.

He had also learnt about the situation from another politician from Batticaloa who had apprised him of the facts.

Meanwhile, local junior politicians from the ruling party had informed the Police, who had visited the home of the victim.   Reporters attached to two private TV channels, Hiru and Derana, had also visited the home of the diseased, Mr. Jayawickreme told Counterpoint.  Residents of Weligama too had panicked, on hearing that a possible COVID-19 patient had died in their area.  Weligama, he said, is made up of a mixed population of Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils.

The Chairman had intervened and ensured an autopsy was conducted, which had proved the death was not COVID-19 related, allowing for burial of the body according to beliefs of the diseased.

Writing to the two channels, Mr. Jayawickreme states that he had learnt of the unlawful entry into private premises of reporters attached to the said TV channels,  who had ‘captured still and video footage of a suspected COVID-19 patient,’   which had caused much  distress to the surviving members of the diseased family.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is being fought around the world, Mr. Jayawickreme says in the letter, ‘it is only in Sri Lanka that I have seen patients being treated as criminals.’   He believes this situation has arisen owing to the blatant violation of the rights of patients, by the media who visit their homes and even in some instances obtain voice cuts, which are not meant to go public.  “Even though I had to turn a blind eye and watch in disgust when this was happening all over the country, I will not, as Head of the Weligama Urban Council tolerate such violations in our own town limit,” the letter adds.

He also draws the attention of the TV stations to the media guidelines issued by the Government Information Department for coverage of matters related to COVID-19 which requests media to avoid highlighting individual cases.

The letter also reminds TV stations that broadcast frequencies are “public property regulated by the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka,  “therefore, media must be more mindful when reporting issues of a sensitive nature.

Mr. Jayawickreme told Counterpoint that the country’s laws too do not permit the invasion of privacy, and it is necessary that these laws are applied so there is no unnecessary interference with the private lives of the people.

He is also hopeful that his counterparts in other local government bodies will join him in ensuring media does not invade the privacy of their constituents.

Counterpoint checked the on-line versions of the news bulletins of the two TV stations of May 7.  While the late night news show of Hiru did not carry the story, Derana TV reported it, but did not show footage of the family.

However, coverage of COVID-19 patients by both print and electronic media has been controversial with scant respect shown for the privacy of patients and their families, since the first Sri Lankan patient was reported in early March, despite guidelines issued by the Health Ministry and the Government Information Department as reported by Counterpoint on May 2, 2020. Read the full report here: http://counterpoint.lk/content-creators-leave-ethics-at-the-door/

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