Keynote speech delivered by science writer and digital media analyst Nalaka Gunawardene at the Sri Lanka National IT Conference held in Colombo from 2 to 4 October 2018.
Here is a summary of what I covered (PPT embedded below):
With around a third of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people using at least one type of social media, the phenomenon is no longer limited to cities or English speakers. But as social media users increase and diversify, so do various excesses and abuses on these platforms: hate speech, fake news, identity theft, cyber bullying/harassment, and privacy violations among them.
Public discourse in Sri Lanka has been focused heavily on social media abuses by a relatively small number of users. In a balanced stock taking of the overall phenomenon, the multitude of substantial benefits should also be counted. Social media has allowed ordinary Lankans to share information, collaborate around common goals, pursue entrepreneurship and mobilise communities in times of elections or disasters. In a country where the mainstream media has been captured by political and business interests, social media remains the ‘last frontier’ for citizens to discuss issues of public interest. The economic, educational, cultural benefits of social media for the Lankan society have not been scientifically quantified as yet but they are significant – and keep growing by the year.
Whether or not Sri Lanka needs to regulate social media, and if so in what manner, requires the widest possible public debate involving all stakeholders. The executive branch of government and the defence establishment should NOT be deciding unilaterally on this – as was done in March 2018, when Facebook and Instagram were blocked for 8 days and WhatsApp and Viber were restricted (to text only) owing to concerns that a few individuals had used these services to instigate violence against Muslims in the Eastern and Central Provinces.
In this talk, I caution that social media regulation in the name of curbing excesses could easily be extended to crack down on political criticism and minority views that do not conform to majority orthodoxy. An increasingly insular and unpopular government – now in its last 18 months of its 5-year term – probably fears citizen expressions on social media.
Yet the current Lankan government’s democratic claims and credentials will be tested in how they respond to social media challenges: will that be done in ways that are entirely consistent with the country’s obligations under international human rights laws that have safeguards for the right to Freedom of Expression (FOE)? This is the crucial question.
Already, calls for social media regulation (in unspecified ways) are being made by certain religious groups as well as the military. At a recent closed-door symposium convened by the Lankan defence ministry’s think tank, the military was reported to have said “Misinformation directed at the military is a national security concern” and urged: “Regulation is needed on misinformation in the public domain.”
How will the usually opaque and unpredictable public policy making process in Sri Lanka respond to such partisan and strident advocacy? Might the democratic, societal and economic benefits of social media be sacrificed for political expediency and claims of national security?
To keep overbearing state regulation at bay, social media users and global platforms can step up arrangements for self-regulation, i.e. where the community of users and the platform administrators work together to monitor, determine and remove content that violates pre-agreed norms or standards. However, the presentation acknowledges that this approach is fraught with practical difficulties given the hundreds of languages involved and the tens of millions of new content items being published every day.
What is to be done to balance the competing interests within a democratic framework?
I quote the views of David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression from his June 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council about online content regulation. He cautioned against the criminalising of online criticism of governments, religion or other public institutions. He also expressed concerns about some recent national laws making global social media companies responsible, at the risk of steep financial penalties, to assess what is illegal online, without the kind of public accountability that such decisions require (e.g. judicial oversight).
Kaye recommends that States ensure an enabling environment for online freedom of expression and that companies apply human rights standards at all stages of their operations. Human rights law gives companies the tools to articulate their positions in ways that respect democratic norms and
counter authoritarian demands. At a minimum, he says, global SM companies and States should pursue radically improved transparency, from rule-making to enforcement of the rules, to ensure user autonomy as individuals increasingly exercise fundamental rights online.
We can shape the new cyber frontier to be safer and more inclusive. But a safer web experience would lose its meaning if the heavy hand of government tries to make it a sanitized, lame or sycophantic environment. Sri Lanka has suffered for decades from having a nanny state, and in the twenty first century it does not need to evolve into a cyber nanny state.
Sri Lanka’s first ever social media blocking lasted from 7 to 15 March 2018. During that time, Facebook and Instagram were completely blocked while chat apps WhatsApp and Viber were restricted (no images, audio or video, but text allowed).
On 7 March 2018, the country’s telecom regulator, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRCSL), ordered all telecom operators to impose this blocking across the country for three days, Reuters reported. This was “to prevent the spread of communal violence”, the news agency quoted an unnamed government official as saying. In the end, the blocking lasted 8 days.
Both actions are unprecedented. In the 23 years Sri Lanka has had commercial Internet services, it has never imposed complete network shutdowns (although during the last phase of the civil war between 2005 and 2009, the government periodically shut down telephone services in the Northern and Eastern Provinces). Nor has any social media or messaging platforms been blocked before.
I protested this course of action from the very outset. Restricting public communications networks is ill-advised at any time — and especially bad during an emergency when people are frantically seeking reliable situation updates and/or sharing information about the safety of loved ones.
Blocking selected websites or platforms is a self-defeating exercise in any case, since those who are more digitally savvy – many hate peddlers among them –can and will use proxy servers to get around. It is the average web user who will be deprived of news, views and updates.
While the blocking was on, I gave many media interviews to local and international media. I urged the government “to Police the streets, not the web!”.
At the same time, I acknowledged and explained how a few political and religious extremist groups have systematically ‘weaponised’ social media in Sri Lanka during recent years. These groups have been peddling racially charged hate speech online and offline. A law to deal with hate speech has been in the country’s law books for over a decade. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No 56 of 2007 prohibits the advocacy of ‘religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’. This law, fully compliant with international human rights standards, has not been enforced.
On 14 March 2018, I took part in the ‘Aluth Parlimenthuwa’ TV talk show of TV Derana on this topic, where I articulated the above and related views. The other panelists were Deputy Minister Karu Paranawithana, presidential advisor Shiral Lakthilaka, Bar Association of Sri Lanka chairman U R de Silva, and media commentator Mohan Samaranayake.
I have written about disaster early warnings on many occasions during the past decade (see 2014 example). I have likened it to running a relay race. In a relay, several runners have to carry the baton and the last runner needs to complete the course. Likewise, in disaster early warnings, several entities – ranging from scientific to administrative ones – need to be involved and the message needs to be identified, clarified and disseminated fast.
Good communications form the life blood of this kind of ‘relay’. Warnings require rapid evaluation of disaster situation, quick decision making upon assessing the risks involved, followed by rapid dissemination of the decision made. Disaster warning is both a science and an art: those involved have to work with imperfect information, many variables and yet use their best judgement. Mistakes can and do happen at times, leading to occasional false alarms.
In the aftermath of the heavy monsoonal rains in late May 2017, southern Sri Lanka experienced the worst floods in 14 years. The floods and landslides affected 15 districts (out of 25), killed at least 208 and left a further 78 people missing. As of 3 June 2017, some 698,289 people were affected, 2,093 houses completely destroyed, and 11,056 houses were partially damaged.
Did the Department of Meteorology and Disaster Management Centre (DMC) fail to give adequate warnings of the impending hydro-meteorological hazard? There has been much public discussion about this. Lankadeepa daily newspaper asked me for a comment, which they published in their issue of 7 June 2017.
I was asked to focus on the use of ICTs in delivering disaster early warnings.
The report, for which I served as overall editor, is the outcome of a 14-month-long consultative process that involved media professionals, owners, managers, academics and relevant government officials. It offers a timely analysis, accompanied by policy directions and practical recommendations.
Reginald Cooray, Governor of the Northern Province, in a message said: “I am sure that the elected leaders and the policy makers of this government of Good governance will seize the opportunity to make a professionally ethical media environment in Sri Lanka which will strengthen the democracy and good governance.”
He added: “The research work should be studied, appreciated and utilised by the leaders and the policy makers. Everyone who was involved in the work should be greatly thanked for their research presentation with clarity.”
Speaking at the event, Sinnadurai Thavarajah, Leader of the Opposition of the Northern Provincial Council, urged journalists to separate facts from their opinions. “Media freedom is important, but so is unbiased and balanced reporting,” he said.
Lars Bestle, Head of Department for Asia and Latin America at International Media Support (IMS), which co-published the report, said: “Creating a healthy environment for the media that is inclusive of the whole country is an essential part of ensuring democratic transition.”
He added: “This assessment points the way forward. It is now up to the local actors – government, civil society, media, businesses and academia – with support from international community, to implement its recommendations.”
I introduced the report’s key findings and recommendations. In doing so, I noted how the government has welcomed those recommendations applicable to state policies, laws and regulations and already embarked on law review and regulatory reforms. In sharp contrast, there has been no reaction whatsoever from the media owners and media gatekeepers (editors).
Dr S Raguram, Head of Media Studies at the University of Jaffna (who edited the Tamil version) and Jaffna Press Club president Ratnam Thayaparan also spoke.
The report comes out at a time when the country’s media industry and profession face multiple crises stemming from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces and rapid technological advancements.
Balancing the public interest and commercial viability is one of the media sector’s biggest challenges today. The report says: “As the existing business models no longer generate sufficient income, some media have turned to peddling gossip and excessive sensationalism in the place of quality journalism. At another level, most journalists and other media workers are paid low wages which leaves them open to coercion and manipulation by persons of authority or power with an interest in swaying media coverage.”
Notwithstanding these negative trends, the report notes that there still are editors and journalists who produce professional content in the public interest while also abiding by media ethics. Unfortunately, their work is eclipsed by media content that is politically partisan and/or ethnically divisive.
The result: public trust in media has been eroded, and younger Lankans are increasingly turning to entirely web-based media products and social media platforms for information and self-expression. A major overhaul of media’s professional standards and ethics is needed to reverse these trends.
The Tamil report is available for free download at:
I posed this question some weeks ago at Sri Lanka Innovation Summit 2013 organised by Echelon and News 1st. We were talking about how to harness the web’s potential for spurring innovation.
We cannot innovate much as a society when our broadband is stymied by narrow minds. How many among the (at least) 3.5 million Lankans who regularly access the web have the right mindset for making the best use of the medium, I asked.
We didn’t get to discuss it much there, but this bothers me. Sri Lanka has now had 19 years of commercial Internet connectivity (the first ISP, Lanka Internet Services, started in April 1995). That’s a long time online: we have gone past toddler years and childhood (remember dial-up, anyone?) and been through turbulent ‘teen years’ as well.
Technology and regulation have moved on, imperfect though the latter maybe. But psychologically, as a nation we have yet to find our comfort level with the not-so-new medium.
There are various indicators for this. Consider, for example, the widespread societal apprehensions about social media, frequent web-bashing by editorialists in the mainstream media, and the apparent lack of public trust in e-commerce services. These and other trends are worth further study by social scientists and anthropologists.
Another barometer of cyber maturity is how we engage each other online, i.e. the tone of comments and interactions. This phenomenon is increasingly common on news and commentary websites; it forms the very basis of social media.
Agree to disagree?
‘Facts are sacred, comment is free’ is a cherished tenet in journalism and public debates. But expressing unfashionable opinions or questioning the status quo in Lankan cyber discussions can attract unpleasant reactions. Agreeing to disagree rarely seems an option.
Over the years, I have had my share of online engagement – some rewarding, others neutral and a few decidedly depressing. These have come mostly at the multi-author opinion platforms where I contribute, but sometimes also through my own blogs and twitterfeed.
One trend seems clear. In many discussions, the ‘singer’ is probed more than the ‘song’. I have been called unkind names, my credentials and patriotism questioned, my publishers’ bona fides doubted, and my (usually moderate) positions attributed to personality disorders or genetic defects! There have been a few threats too (“You just wait – we’ll deal with traitors soon!”).
I know those who comment on mainstream political issues receive far more invective. Most of this is done under the cover of anonymity or pseudonymity. These useful web facilities – which protect those criticising the state or other powerful interests – are widely abused in Lankan cyberspace to malign individuals expressing uncommon views.
There are some practical reasons, too, why our readers may misunderstand what we write, or take offence needlessly.
Poor English comprehension must account for a good share of web arguments. Many fail to grasp (or appreciate) subtlety, intentional rhetoric and certain metaphors. Increasingly, readers react to a few key words or phrases in longer piece — without absorbing its totality.
A recent example is my reflective essay ‘Who Really Killed Mel Gunasekera?’. I wrote it in early February shortly after a highly respected journalist friend was murdered in her suburban home by a burglar.
I argued that we were all responsible, collectively, for this and other rising incidents of violence. I saw it as the residual product of Lankan society’s brutalisation during war years, made worse by economic marginalisation. Rather than barricading ourselves and living in constant fear, we should tackle the root causes of this decay, I urged.
The plea resonated well beyond Mel’s many friends and admirers. But some readers were more than miffed. They (wrongly) reduced my 1,100 words to a mere comparison of crime statistics among nations.
I aim to write clearly, and also probe beyond headlines and statistics. But is such nuance a lost art when many online readers merely scan or speed-read what we labour on? In today’s fast-tracked world, can reflective writing draw discerning readers and thoughtful engagement any longer? I wonder.
Then there is the humour factor – or the lack of it. Many among us don’t get textual satire, as Groundviews.org discovered with its sub-brand called Banyan News Reporters (BNR). Their mock news items and spoofs were frequently taken literally – and roundly condemned.
The web is a noisy place, but some stand out in that cacophony because of their one-tracked minds. They are those who perceive and react to everything through a pet topic or peeve. That ‘lens’ may be girls vs boys, or lions vs tigers, or capitalism vs socialism or something else. No matter what the topic, such people will always sing same old tune!
Tribal divisions are among the most entrenched positions, and questioning matters of faith assures a backlash. It seems impossible to discuss secularism in Sri Lanka without seemingly offending all competing brands of salvation! (The last time I tried, they were bickering among themselves long after I quietly left the platform…)
Oh sure, everybody is entitled to a bee or two in her bonnet. But what to do with those harbouring an entire bee colony — which they unleash at the slightest provocation?
I just let them be (well, most of the time). I used to get affected by online abuse from cloaked detractors but have learnt to take it with equanimity. This is what economist and public intellectual W A Wijewardena also recommends.
“You must treat commentators as your own teachers; some make even the most stupid comment in the eyes of an intelligent person, but that comment teaches us more than anything else,” he wrote in a recent Facebook discussion.
He added: “Individual wisdom and opinions are varied and one cannot expect the same type of intervention by all. I always respect even the most damaging comment made by some on what I have written!”
Moderating extreme comments is a thankless and challenging job for those operating opinion platforms. If they are too strict or cautious, they risk diluting worthwhile public debates for which space is shrinking in the mainstream media. At the same time, hate speech peddlers cannot be allowed free license in the name of free speech.
Where to draw the line? Each publisher must evolve own guidelines.
Groundviews.org, whose vision is to “enable civil, progressive and inclusive discussions on democracy, rights, governance and peace in Sri Lanka” encourages “a collegial, non-insulting tone” in all contributors. It also reminds readers that “comments containing hate speech, obscenity and personal attacks will not be approved.”
Colombo Telegraph, another popular opinion and reporting website, “offers a right to reply for any individual or organisation who feels they have been misreported”. Sadly, this courtesy is not available in many online news and commentary websites carrying Lankan content.
In the end, even the most discerning publishers and editors can do only so much. As more Lankans get online and cyber chatter increases, we have to evolve more tolerant and pluralistic ways of engagement.
As Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, described in a New York Times op-ed on 20 July 2016: “In the confusing hours after the coup attempt began, the country had heard from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and even learned that he was alive — when he called a television station via FaceTime, an easy-to-use video chat app. As the camera focused on the iPhone in the anchor’s hand, the president called on the people of Turkey to take to the streets and guard the airports. But this couldn’t happen by itself. People would need WhatsApp, Twitter and other tools on their phones to mobilize. The president also tweeted out the call to his more than eight million followers to resist the coup.”
She added: “The journalist Erhan Celik later tweeted that the public’s response had deterred potential coup supporters, especially within the military, from taking a side…Meanwhile, the immediacy of the president’s on-air appeal via FaceTime was an impetus for people to take to the streets. The video link protected the government from charges that it was using fraud or doctoring — both common in the Turkish news media — to assure the public that the president was safe. A phone call would not have worked the same way.”
I discuss the irony of a leader like Erdogan, who has been cracking down on independent media practitioners and social media users, had to rely on these very outlets in his crucial hour of need.
I echo the views of Zeynep Tufekci for not just Turkey but other countries where autocratic rulers are trying to censor the web and control the media: “The role of internet and press freedoms in defeating the coup presents a significant opportunity. Rather than further polarization and painting of all dissent as illegitimate, the government should embrace real reforms and reverse its censorship policies.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 10 July 2016), I explore the role played by newspapers in the UK’s referendum on continuing membership in the European Union, held on 23 June 2016.
This column is based on first hand impressions – I spent 10 days in the UK just prior to the referendum, commonly known as the Brexit Vote, meeting journalists, academics and activists.
As the New York Timessaid in an op-ed article on 20 June 2016, “For decades, British newspapers have offered their readers an endless stream of biased, misleading and downright fallacious stories about Brussels.”
Written by Martin Fletcher, a former foreign and associate editor of The Times of London, the articke added: “British newspapers’ portrayal of the European Union in the lead-up to the referendum on June 23 has likewise been negative. The Financial Times and The Guardian have backed the Remain campaign, but they have relatively small circulations and preach largely to the converted. The Times has been evenhanded, though it finally declared on June 18 that it favored staying in the European Union. But the biggest broadsheet (The Telegraph), the biggest midmarket paper (The Daily Mail) and the biggest tabloid (The Sun) have thrown themselves shamelessly behind Brexit.
“They have peddled the myths that Britain pays 350 million pounds a week (about $500 million) to the European Union; that millions of Turks will invade Britain because Turkey is about to be offered European Union membership; that immigrants are destroying our social services; and that post-Brexit, Britain will enjoy continued access to Europe’s single market without automatically allowing in European Union workers.”
As Fletcher concluded: “It is often said that newspapers no longer matter. But they do matter when the contest is so close and shoppers see headlines like “BeLeave in Britain” emblazoned across the front pages of tabloids whenever they visit their supermarket. They matter if they have collectively and individually misled their readers for decades.”
Sri Lanka’s government and its media industry need to embark on wide-ranging media sector reforms, says a major new study released recently.
Such reforms are needed at different levels – in government policies, laws and regulations, as well as within the media industry and profession. Media educators and trainers also have a key role to play in raising professional standards in our media, the study says.
The report is the outcome of a 14-month-long research and consultative process. Facilitated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, it engaged over 500 media professionals, owners, managers, academics, relevant government officials and members of various media associations and trade unions. It offers a timely analysis, accompanied by policy directions and practical recommendations. I served as is overall editor.
“The country stands at a crossroads where political change has paved the way for strengthening safeguards for freedom of expression (FOE) and media freedom while enhancing the media’s own professionalism and accountability,” the report notes.
Politicians present at the launch could only agree.
“The government is willing to do its part for media freedom and media reforms. But are you going to do yours?” he asked the dozens of editors, journalists and media managers present. There were no immediate answers.
Whither Media Professionalism?
The report acknowledges how, since January 2015, the new government has taken several positive steps. These include: reopening investigations into some past attacks on journalists; ending the arbitrary and illegal blocking of political websites done by the previous regime; and recognising access to information as a fundamental right in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (after the report was released, the Right to Information Act has been passed by Parliament, which enables citizens to exercise this right).
These and other measures have helped improve Sri Lanka’s global ranking by 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index (https://rsf.org/en/ranking). It went up from a dismal 165 in 2015 index (which reflected conditions that prevailed in 2014) to a slightly better 141 in the latest index.
Compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media rights advocacy group, the Index reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens (citizens using the web) enjoy in a country, and the efforts made by its government to respect and nurture this freedom.
Sri Lanka, with a score of 44.96, has now become 141st out of 180 countries assessed. While we have moved a bit further away from the bottom, we are still in the company of Burma (143), Bangladesh (144) and South Sudan (140) – not exactly models of media freedom.
Clearly, much more needs be done to improve FOE and media freedom in Sri Lanka – and not just by the government. Media owners and managers also bear a major responsibility to create better working conditions for journalists and other media workers. For example, by paying better wages to journalists, and allowing trade union rights (currently denied in many private media groups, though enjoyed in all state media institutions).
Rebuilding Public Trust acknowledges these complexities and nuances: freedom from state interference is necessary, but not sufficient, for a better and pluralistic media.
It also points out that gradual improvement in media freedom must now to be matched by an overall upping of media’s standards and ethical conduct.
By saying so, the report turns the spotlight on the media itself — an uncommon practice in our media. It says that only a concerted effort by the entire media industry and all its personnel can raise professional standards and ethical conduct of Sri Lanka’s media.
A similar sentiment is expressed by Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, an experienced journalist turned media trainer who was part of the report’s editorial team (and has since become the Director General of the Department of Information). “Sri Lanka’s media freedom has gone up since January 2015, but can we honestly say there has been much (or any) improvement in our media’s level of professionalism?” he asks.
Media in Crisis
Tackling the dismally low professionalism on a priority basis is decisive for the survival of our media which points fingers at all other sections of society but rarely engages in self reflection.
Rebuilding Public Trust comes out at a time when Sri Lanka’s media industry and profession face many crises stemming from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces and rapid technological advancements. Balancing the public interest and commercial viability is one of the media sector’s biggest challenges today.
The report says: “As the existing business models no longer generate sufficient income, some media have turned to peddling gossip and excessive sensationalism in the place of quality journalism. At another level, most journalists and other media workers are paid low wages which leaves them open to coercion and manipulation by persons of authority or power with an interest in swaying media coverage.”
Notwithstanding these negative trends, the report notes that there still are editors and journalists who produce professional content in the public interest while also abiding by media ethics.
Unfortunately, their good work is eclipsed by media content that is politically partisan and/or ethnically divisive.
For example, much of what passes for political commentary in national newspapers is nothing more than gossip. Indeed, some newspapers now openly brand content as such!
Similarly, research for this study found how most Sinhala and Tamil language newspapers cater to the nationalism of their respective readerships instead of promoting national integrity.
Such drum beating and peddling of cheap thrills might temporarily boost market share, but these practices ultimately erode public trust in the media as a whole. Surveys show fewer media consumers actually believing that they read, hear or watch.
One result: younger Lankans are increasingly turning to entirely web-based media products and social media platforms for obtaining their information as well as for speaking their minds. Newspaper circulations are known to be in decline, even though there are no independently audited figures.
If the mainstream media is to reverse these trends and salvage itself, a major overhaul of media’s professional standards and ethics is needed, and fast. Newspaper, radio and TV companies also need clarity and a sense of purpose on how to integrate digital platforms into their operations (and not as mere add-ons).
Recommendations for Reforms
The report offers a total of 101 specific recommendations, which are sorted under five categories. While many are meant for the government, a number of important recommendations are directed at media companies, journalists’ and publishers’ associations, universities, media training institutions, and development funding agencies.
“We need the full engagement of all stakeholders in building a truly free, independent and public interest minded pluralistic media system as a guarantor of a vibrant democracy in Sri Lanka,” says Wijayananda Jayaweera, a former director of UNESCO’s Communication Development Division, who served as overall advisor for our research and editorial process.
In fact, this assessment has used an internationally accepted framework developed by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Known as the Media Development Indicators (MDIs), this helps identify strengths and weaknesses, and propose evidence-based recommendations on how to enhance media freedom and media pluralism in a country. Already, two dozen countries have used this methodology.
The Sri Lanka study was coordinated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, a multistakeholder alliance comprising the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media; Department of Mass Media at University of Colombo; Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI); Strategic Alliance for Research and Development (SARD); and International Media Support (IMS) of Denmark.
We carried out a consultative process that began in March 2015. Activities included a rapid assessment discussed at the National Summit for Media Reforms in May 2015 (attended by over 200), interviews with over 40 key media stakeholders, a large sample survey, brainstorming sessions, and a peer review process that involved over 250 national stakeholders and several international experts.
Here is the summary of key recommendations:
Law review and revision: The government should review all existing laws which impose restrictions on freedom of expression with a view to amending them as necessary to ensure that they are fully consistent with international human rights laws and norms.
Right to Information (RTI): The RTI law should be implemented effectively, leading to greater transparency and openness in the public sector and reorienting how government works.
Media ownership: Adopt new regulations making it mandatory for media ownership details to be open, transparent and regularly disclosed to the public.
Media regulation: Repeal the Press Council Act 5 of 1973, and abolish the state’s Press Council. Instead, effective self-regulatory arrangements should be made ideally by the industry and covering both print and broadcast media.
Broadcast regulation: New laws are needed to ensure transparent broadcast licensing; more rational allocation of frequencies; a three-tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasters; and obligations on all broadcasters to be balanced and impartial in covering politics and elections. An independent Broadcasting Authority should be set up.
Digital broadcasting: The government should develop a clear plan and timeline for transitioning from analogue to digital broadcasting in television as soon as possible.
Restructuring state media: The three state broadcasters should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters with guaranteed editorial independence. State-owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House) should be operated independently with editorial freedom.
Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on any media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for legality after publication. Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended.
Blocking of websites: The state should not limit online content or social media activities in ways that contravene freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions.
Privacy and surveillance: Privacy of all citizens and others should be respected by the state and the media. There should be strict limits to the state surveillance of private individuals and entities’ phone and other electronic communications.
Media education and literacy: Journalism and mass media education courses at tertiary level should be reviewed and updated to meet current industry needs and consumption patterns. A national policy is needed for improving media literacy and cyber literacy.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 3 April 2016), I probe why the blogosphere and other social media platforms are vital for public discourse in the Lankan context.
Sri Lanka’s mainstream media does not serve as an adequate platform for wide-ranging public discussion and debate. Besides being divided along ethnic and political lines, the media is also burdened by self-imposed restrictions where most don’t critique certain social institutions. Among the top-ranked ‘sacred cows’ are the armed forces and clergy (especially Buddhist clergy).
I also refer to a landmark ruling in March 2015, where the Supreme Court of India struck down a “draconian” law that allowed police to arrest people for comments on social media networks and other websites.
The provision carried a punishment of up to three years in jail. Since its adoption in 2008, several people have been arrested for their comments on Facebook or Twitter. The law was challenged in a public interest litigation case by a law student after two young women were arrested in November 2012 in Mumbai for comments on Facebook following the death of a politician.
Can newspapers survive the challenge from digital and online media?
Plenty of printer’s ink has been spent reflecting on this question. I once again addressed it when moderating a panel at the D R Wijewardene commemorative event held on 26 February 2016 at Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, Colombo.
Wijewardene was Sri Lanka’s first Press Baron. About a century ago, he laid the foundation for his publishing house, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, which still remains a dominant player.
Many like me, of a certain age and above, seem to have a nostalgic attachment to newspapers. One key question for the print industry: beyond tapping such sentimental appeal (which diminishes over time), can newspapers stay relevant and viable? How can they adapt and evolve to keep serving the public interest?
Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is: where are the budding D R Wijewardenes of the 21st Century? What are their start-ups and how are their dreams unfolding? Are they trying to balance reasonable profits with public interest journalism?
I discuss these in my Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 13 March 2016).