April 1 is observed in many countries as a day for fooling people with practical jokes and harmless fabrications. This aspect of popular culture can be traced back to the times of ancient Greece.
There is now a new twist to this tradition. Every day is beginning to feel like April Fools’ Day in the age of Internet pranks, clever satire and fake news!
Sadly, many among us who apply some measure of skepticism on April 1 are not as vigilant for the rest of the year.
Ah, how I miss the time when intentional misleading was largely confined to just one day. I’m old enough to remember how some Lankan newspapers used to carry elaborate – and seemingly plausible – stories on their front pages on April Fools’ day. The now defunct Sun and Weekend excelled in that delightful art of the tall tale. Of course, they owned up the following day, poking fun at readers who were fooled.
During the past two decades, our media landscape has become a great deal more diverse. Today we have 24/7 SMS news services, all-news TV channels, numerous websites and, of course, millions using social media to spread information (or misinformation) instantaneously.
But does more necessarily mean better? That is a highly debatable question. We seem to have too much media, but not enough journalism! At least journalism of the classical kind where facts are sacred and comment is free (yet informed).
That kind of journalism still exists, but along with so much else. Today’s global cacophony has democratized the media (which is to be celebrated). At the same time, it spawned veritable cottage industries of fake news, conspiracy theories and gossip peddlers.
What is to be done? The long term solution is to raise media literacy skills in everyone, so that people consume media and social media with due diligence.
That takes time and effort. Since misinformation is polluting the public mind and even undermining democratic processes, we must also look for other, faster solutions.
One such coping strategy is fact checking. It literally means verifying information – before or after publication – in the media.
In a growing number of countries, mainstream media outlets practise fact checking as an integral part of their commitment to professionalism. They seek to balance accuracy with speed, which has been made more challenging by the never-ending news cycle.
In other cases, independent researchers or civil society groups are keeping track of news media content after publication. In the United States, where the practice is well developed, several groups are devoted to such post-hoc fact checking. These include FactCheck, PolitiFact, and NewsTrust’s Truth Squad. They fact check the media as well as statements by politicians and other public figures.
In 2015, fact checking organisations formed a world network and this year, they observed the inaugural International Fact Checking Day.
The initiative is a collaboration by fact checkers and journalism organisations from around the world, “with a goal to enlist the public in the fight against misinformation in all its forms.”
“International Fact Checking Day is not a single event but a rallying cry for more facts — and fact checking — in politics, journalism and everyday life,” says Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in the US.
One visual icon for the Fact-Checking Day is Pinocchio, the fictional puppet character whose nose grew long each time he uttered a lie.
We in Sri Lanka urgently need a professional, non-partisan fact checking service to save us from the alarming proliferation of Pinocchios in public life. Not just our politicians, but also many academics and activists who peddle outdated statistics, outlandish claims or outright conspiracy theories.
Take, for example, the recent claim by a retired professor of political science that 94 Members of Parliament had not even passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam. Apparently no one asked for his source at the press conference (maybe because it fed a preconceived notion). Later, when a (rare?) skeptical journalist checked with him, he said he’d “read it in a newspaper some time ago” — and couldn’t name the publication.
A simple Google search shows that an MP (Buddhika Pathirana) had cited this exact number in September 2014 – about the last Parliament!
Given the state of our media, which often takes down dictation rather than asks hard questions, fact checking is best done by a research group outside the media industry.
A useful model could be South Asia Check, an independent, non-partisan initiative by Panos South Asia anchored in Kathmandu. It “aims to promote accuracy and accountability in public debate” by examining statements and claims made by public figures in Nepal and occasionally, across South Asia (http://southasiacheck.org).
Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, August 2015 issue
Media Reforms: The Unfinished Agenda
By Nalaka Gunawardene
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Sri Lanka’s media landscape was very different. We had only one radio station (state-owned SLBC) and three newspaper houses (Lake House, Times of Ceylon and Independent Newspapers). There was no TV, and the web wasn’t even invented.
At that time, most discussions on media freedom and reforms centred around how to contain the overbearing state – which was a key publisher, as well as the sole broadcaster, dominant advertiser and media regulator, all rolled into one.
Four decades on, the state still looms large on our media landscape, but there are many more players. The number of media companies, organisations and products has steadily increased, especially after private sector participation in broadcasting was allowed in 1992.
More does not necessarily mean better, however. Media researchers and advocacy groups lament that broadcast diversification has not led to a corresponding rise in media pluralism – not just in terms of media ownership and content, but also in how the media reflects diversity of public opinion, particularly of those living on the margins of society.
As the late Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha, two experienced broadcasters, noted in a recent book, “There exists a huge imbalance in both media coverage and media education as regards minorities and the marginalised. This does not come as a surprise, as it is known that media in Sri Lanka, both print and broadcast, cater mainly to the elite, irrespective of racial differences.”
In their preface, co-editors William Crawley, David Page and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena say: “Media liberalisation from the 1990s onwards had extended the range of choice for viewers and listeners and created a more diverse media landscape. But the war in the north and insurrections in the south had taken their toll of media freedoms. The island had lived under a permanent state of emergency for nearly three decades. The balance of power between government, judiciary, the media and the public had been put under immense strain.”
The book, to which I have contributed a chapter on new media, traces the evolution mass media in post-colonial Sri Lanka, with focus on the relevant policies and laws, and on journalism education. It discusses how the civil war continues to cast “a long shadow” on our media. Breaking free from that legacy is one of many challenges confronting the media industry today.
Some progress has been made since the Presidential election. The new government has taken steps to end threats against media organisations and journalists, and started or resumed criminal investigations on some past atrocities. Political websites that were arbitrarily blocked from are once again accessible. Journalists who went into exile to save their lives have started returning.
On the law-making front, meanwhile, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution recognized the right to information as a fundamental right. But the long-awaited Right to Information Bill could not be adopted before Parliament’s dissolution.
Thus much more remains to be done. For this, a clear set of priorities has been identified through recent consultative processes that involved media owners, practitioners, researchers, advocacy groups and trainers. These discussions culminated with the National Summit on Media Reforms organised by the Ministry of Media, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) and International Media Support (IMS), and held in Colombo on 13 and 14 May.
We can only hope that the next Parliament, to be elected at the August 17 general election, would take up the policy and law related aspects of the media reform agenda (while the media industry and profession tackles issues like capacity building and greater professionalism, and the education system works to enhance media literacy of everyone).
Pursuing these reforms needs both political commitment and persistent advocacy efforts.
Right to Information: The new Parliament should pass, on a priority basis, the Right to Information Bill that was finalised in May 2015 with inputs from media and civil society groups.
Media Self-Regulation: The Press Council Act 5 of 1973, which created a quasi-judicial entity called the Press Council with draconian powers to punish journalists, should be abolished. Instead, the self-regulatory body established in 2003, known as the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL), should be strengthened. Ideally its scope should expand to cover the broadcast media as well.
Law Review and Revision: Some civil and criminal laws pose various restrictions to media freedom. These include the Official Secrets Act and sedition laws (both relics of the colonial era) and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act that has outlived the civil war. There are also needlessly rigid laws covering contempt of court and Parliamentary privileges, which don’t suit a mature democracy. All these need review and revision to bring them into line with international standards regarding freedom of expression.
Broadcast regulation: Our radio and TV industries have expanded many times during the past quarter century within an ad hoc legal framework. This has led to various anomalies and the gross mismanagement of the electromagnetic spectrum, a finite public property. Sri Lanka urgently needs a comprehensive law on broadcasting. Among other things, it should provide for an independent body to regulate broadcasting in the public interest, more equitable and efficient allocation of frequencies, and a three-tier system of broadcasting which recognises public, commercial and community broadcasters. All broadcasters – riding on the public owned airwaves — should have a legal obligation be balanced and impartial in coverage of politics and other matters of public concern.
Restructuring State Broadcasters: The three state broadcasters – the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and the Independent Television Network (ITN) – should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters. There should be legal provisions to ensure their editorial independence, and a clear mandate to serve the public (and not the political parties in office). To make them less dependent on the market, they should be given some public funding but in ways that don’t make them beholden to politicians or officials.
Reforming Lake House: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited or Lake House was nationalised in 1973 to ‘broadbase’ its ownership. Instead, it has remained as a propaganda mill of successive ruling parties. Democratic governments committed to good governance should not be running newspaper houses. To redeem Lake House after more than four decades of state abuse, it needs to operate independently of government and regain editorial freedom. A public consultation should determine the most appropriate way forward and the best business model.
Preventing Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on the media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for their legality after publication (on an urgent basis). Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended. We must revisit the Public Performance Ordinance, which empowers a state body to pre-approve all feature films and drama productions.
Blocking of Websites: Ensuring internet freedoms is far more important than setting up free public WiFi services. There should be no attempts to limit online content and social media activities contravening fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions. Restrictions on any illegal content may be imposed only through the courts (and not via unwritten orders given by the telecom regulator). There should be a public list of all websites blocked through such judicial sanction.
Privacy and Surveillance: The state should protect the privacy of all citizens. There should be strict limits to the state’s surveillance of private individuals’ and private entities’ telephone conversations, emails and other electronic communications. In exceptional situations (e.g. crime investigations), such surveillance should only be permitted with judicial oversight and according to a clear set of guidelines.
Dealing with Past Demons
While all these are forward looking steps, the media industry as a whole also needs state assistance to exorcise demons of the recent past — when against journalists and ‘censorship by murder’ reached unprecedented levels. Not a single perpetrator has been punished by law todate.
This is why media rights groups advocate an independent Commission of Inquiry should be created with a mandate and adequate powers to investigate killings and disappearances of journalists and attacks on media organisations. Ideally, it should cover the entire duration of the war, as well as the post-war years.
Besides being a political leader and social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi was also a prolific writer, journalist and editor for much of his life. He was the editor of three English weeklies, namely Indian Opinion (in South Africa during 1903-1915), Young India (1919- 1931), and Harijan (1933-1942 and 1946-January 1948).
These journals, which he described as “viewspapers”, were means of political and social movements. But they were also printed, distributed and sold in the open market just like other journalistic products.
What can today’s journalists and publishers learn from Gandhi? I revisit this again in this week’s Ravaya column (published on 21 June 2015), continuing an exploration started last week.
“Journalism to be useful and serviceable to the country will take its definite place only when it becomes unselfish and when it devotes its best for the service of the country, and whatever happens to the editors or to the journal itself, editors would express the views of the country irrespective of consequences…”
Mahatma Gandhi said these words on 22 March 1925, when unveiling the portrait of S. Kasthuriranga Iyengar, the late Editor of The Hindu, at the newspaper’s Chennai office. These words summed up the basic tenets of true journalism that Gandhi believed in – and practised.
Besides being a political leader and social reformer, Gandhi was also a prolific writer, journalist and editor for much of his life. He was the editor of three English weeklies, namely Indian Opinion (in South Africa during 1903-1915), Young India (1919- 1931), and Harijan (1933-1942 and 1946-January 1948).
Indian Opinion was bi-lingual (English and Gujarati). For some time it had also Hindi and Tamil sections. Young India had a Gujarati edition – Navajivan. Harijan was printed in several Indian language editions. These journals, which he described as “viewspapers”, were means of political and social movements. But they were also printed, distributed and sold in the open market just like other journalistic products.
What can today’s journalists learn from Gandhi as a mass communicator and journalist/editor? I explore this in this week’s Ravaya column (published on 14 June 2015).
I’m a story teller at heart. I sometimes moonlight as a media researcher or commentator but have no pretensions of being academic. I always try to make my points as interesting as possible — using analogies, metaphors, examples, etc.
This is the approach I used when asked to talk to the working group on Sri Lanka Media Reforms, convened by the Media Ministry, Sri Lanka Press Institute, International Media Support (IMS) and the University of Colombo.
I used a well-loved Russian children’s story that was known in Sinhala translation as නොගැලපෙන රෝද — the story of one vehicle with different sized wheels, and how animal friends tried to make it move and when it proved impossible, how they put each wheel to a unique use…
Well, in the case of media reforms, we can’t go off in different directions. We must make the vehicle work, somehow.