“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”
So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.
Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”
Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.
Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:
Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).
Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.
These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.
I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.
At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 18 Sep 2016), I discuss new forms of media repression being practised by governments in South Asia.
The inspiration comes from my participation in the Asia Media Conference organized by the Hawaii-based East-West Center in New Delhi, India, from September 8 to 11, 2016. Themed “South Asia Looking East”, it drew over 350 participants from across Asia and the United States.
Speeches and discussions showed how governments are more concerned about international media rights watch groups tracking the imprisonment and physical harassment of media and journalists. So their tactics of repression have changed to unleash bureaucratic and legal harassment on untamed and unbowed journalists. And also to pressurising advertisers to withdraw.
Basically this is governments trying to break the spirit and commercial viability of free media instead of breaking the bones of outspoken journalists. And it does have a chilling effect…
In this column, I focus on two glaring examples that were widely discussed at the Delhi conference.
In recent months, leading Bangladeshi editor Mahfuz Anam has been sued simultaneously across the country in 68 cases of defamation and 18 cases of sedition – all by supporters of the ruling party. Anam was one of six exceptional journalists honoured during the Delhi conference “for their personal courage in the face of threats, violence and harassment”.
In August, an announcement was made on the impending suspension of regional publication of Himal Southasian, a pioneering magazine promoting ‘cross-border journalism’ in the South Asian region. The reason was given as “due to non-cooperation by regulatory state agencies in Nepal that has made it impossible to continue operations after 29 years of publication”.
Bureaucracy is pervasive across South Asia, and when they implement commands of their political masters, they become formidable threats to media freedom and freedom of expression. Media rights watch groups, please note.