Lions and community radio: part of Sri Lanka’s mythical lore

Even well-meaning, usually balanced media organisations can occasionally slip, and fall for traps that damage their credibility.

I have always had the highest regard for Inter Press Service (IPS), the news agency of the majority world that presents the Southern voice and perspective. In the early days of my career, I shared an office with IPS bureau in Colombo, and still count many good friends who work or report for IPS from different parts of Asia.

Imagine my dismay and surprise, then, when this news story was carried by IPS earlier today:

Building Ethnic Harmony With Community Radio

KOTHMALE, Jun 4 (IPS) – In this tea-growing hill country, about 150 km from Colombo, a state-run community radio station is creating harmony among the country’s Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim ethnic groups by broadcasting from the villages and opening up the airwaves to people’s participation.

”People all over Sri Lanka are talking about peace, but this community radio has been doing it from the beginning,” P. Pavitheran, an announcer at the Kothmale Community Radio (KCR) told IPS.

“We don’t have any community divisions here,” added the Tamil broadcaster who also speaks fluent Sinhalese and switches smoothly between the two languages on air. “All my (assisting) staff are Sinhalese, but we’re all working together as a team.”

KCR on FM band was set up by the government-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) in 1989 with 3 hours of transmission three days a week. Today, it broadcasts 12.5 hours a day on weekdays and 8 hours on weekends in both Sinhalese and Tamil. It covers a modest 20-km radius that includes 60 villages and 3 rural towns and reaches a population of 200,000. Read the full story here


This is one of those feel-good stories that news agencies like to publish once in a while, so that it counter the mainly negative stories that they carry as mirrors of society.

But in this instance, IPS has – perhaps inadvertently – peddled a pervasive myth that has been fabricated and distributed by UNESCO for over two decades about there being community radio stations in Sri Lanka.

I have lived and worked in Sri Lanka all my life, and never once come across a community radio station. In fact, this is a rare instance where successive governments for the past 20 years stand united: all have stubbornly refused to license any community radio.

There has never been, and there isn’t, any community radio in Sri Lanka in the sense the rest of the world understands that term. The fully state-owned and government-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) has several rural transmissions which masquerade as community radio, hoodwinking gullible development donors and naive foreign journalists.

As I have written in many places over the years, local communities have no control over content or management of the station. And no political content is allowed in the programming — try criticising the government in office and the jackboot of the Big Bad Babus of SLBC will come down with thunderous effect!

Let me quote from one of my published articles:

“SLBC broadcasts from all corners of the country, including stations located in remote areas. The channel involves local people in programme production, and it maintains a strongly agrarian audience. But listeners have no say in running the stations – these are managed by a tight bureaucracy in the capital Colombo, whose rigid guidelines control content: strictly no politics, and nothing remotely against the government in office.

“But, although touted as such, SLBC is not community radio, which is supposed to promote access, public participation in production and decision-making and listener-financing – where each listener contributes a small amount towards the running of the radio station.”

Read full article in Panos Features: Radio in Sri Lanka suffers as Colombo bosses call the shots

See also: Sri Lankan government’s broadcast stranglehold in UCLA’s AsiaMedia

Despite all this, if someone still insists that there is community radio in Sri Lanka, I can argue that by the same token, lions roam free in Sri Lanka’s remaining jungles. After all, the Sinhalese have a folk lore suggesting they descend from a lion.

Both prospects are equally fantastic. At least there are a couple of lions in the zoo.

Individuals are free to believe in fabrications coming out of that Paris-based myth factory called UNESCO. But responsible news organisations like IPS need to fact-check their stories lest they legitimise these dubious claims that contribute to suppressing genuine media freedom and media pluralism in Sri Lanka.

Bill Moyers & Ammu Joseph: Journalists are beachcombers…

I had an ‘aha!’ moment last week during the session on ‘Reporting the world through a gender lens’ at Asia Media Summit 2007 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Ammu Joseph, the passionate and articulate Indian journalist and women’s rights activist, was speaking on gender sensitivity in disaster related coverage in South Asian media. She always speaks drawing on her rich and varied experiences, and offers refreshing perspectives on oft-discussed topics.

At one point, she quoted one of my journalism heroes, Bill Moyers, as saying:
“We journalists are simply beachcombers on the shores of other people’s knowledge, other people’s experience, and other people’s wisdom. We tell their stories.”

How very true!

Bill MoyersAmmu Joseph

I researched where Bill Moyers said this, and it turns out it was part of his speech accepting Harvard Medical School’s Global Environment Citizen Award in December 2004. Read the full speech, which is highly inspiring.

Reading further, I came across another Bill Moyers gem:
“One challenge we journalists face – how to tell such a story without coming across as Cassandras, without turning off the people we most want to understand what’s happening, who must act on what they read and hear.”

That is more relevant today than when he first said it: with climate change becoming the latest worldwide scare, it is indeed a huge challenge for us to report, analyse and explore issues without crying wolf.

But crying wolf is what characterised a good part of the session on reporting climate change during the Asia Media Summit. It had some good speakers, who knew what they were talking about, but was very poorly moderated by a man who had no idea what he was taking on.

That’s when I so wished we could clone a few more Bill Moyers — this planet is seriously in need of more like him!

And we need more like Ammu Joseph to tell us jouralism and broadcasting are not just industries or professions; that they involve and require more. Here’s her short profile:

Ammu Joseph is an independent journalist and author based in Bangalore, and writing primarily on issues relating to gender, human development and the media. Her publications include five books: Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues (Sage, 1994 and 2006 — revised edition, co-authored/edited with Kalpana Sharma), Women in Journalism: Making News (Konark, 2000 and Penguin India, 2005 — revised edition), Terror, Counter-Terror: Women Speak Out (Kali for Women, 2003, co-authored/edited with Kalpana Sharma), Storylines: Conversations with Women Writers, and Just Between Us: Women Speak about their Writing (Women’s World India/Asmita, 2003, co-authored/edited with Vasanth Kannabiran, Ritu Menon, Gouri Salvi and Volga).

Read Ammu Joseph detailed profile

Read some of Ammu Joseph’s recent writing on India Together