In May 2016, the major new study on the media sector I edited titled Rebuilding Public Trust:An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka, noted:
“The new government faces the daunting task of healing the wounds of a civil war which lasted over a quarter of a century and left a deep rift in the Lankan media that is now highly polarised along ethnic, religious and political lines. At the same time, the country’s media industry and profession face their own internal crises arising from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces, rapid technological advancements and a gradual erosion of public trust.”
The report quoted Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, who worked in the print media (Sinhala and English) and later served as Director General of Sri Lanka Press Institute, as saying:
“The ethnically non-diverse newsrooms of both sides have further fuelled the polarisation of society on ethnic lines, and this phenomenon has led the media in serving its own clientele with ‘what it wants to know’ than ‘what it needs to know’.”
This is precisely what the One Sri Lanka Journalism Fellowship Program (OSLJF) has addressed, in its own small way. An initiative of InterNews, an international media development organisation, OSLJF was a platform which has brought together Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim working journalists from across the country to conceptualize and produce stories that explored issues affecting all ordinary Lankans.
From December 2015 to September 2016, some 30 full-time or freelance journalists reporting for the country’s mainstream media were supported to engage in field-based, multi-sourced stories on social, economic and political topics of public interest. They worked in multi-ethnic teams, mentored by senior Lankan journalists drawn from the media industry who gave training sessions to strengthen the skills and broaden the horizons of this group of early and mid-career journalists.
As the project ends, the participating journalists, mentors and administrators came together at an event in Colombo on 20 September 2016 to share experiences and impressions. This was more than a mere award ceremony – it also sought to explore how the learnings can be institutionalized within the country’s mainstream and new media outlets.
I was asked to host the event, and also to moderate a panel of key media stakeholders. As a former journalist who remains a columnist, blogger and media researcher, I was happy to accept this as I am committed to building a BETTER MEDIA in Sri Lanka.
Here are my opening remarks for the panel:
“If you don’t like the news … go out and make some of your own!” So said Wes (‘Scoop’) Nisker, the US author, radio commentator and comedian who used that line as the title of a 1994 book.
Instead of just grumbling about imperfections in the media, more and more people are using digital technologies and the web to become their own reporters, commentators and publishers.
Rise of citizen journalism and digital media start-ups are evidence of this.
BUT we cannot ignore mainstream media (MSM) in our part of the world. MSM – especially and radio broadcasters — still have vast reach and they influence public perceptions and opinions. It is VITAL to improve their professionalism and ethical conduct.
In discussing the Future of Journalism in the Digital Age today, we want to look at BOTH the mainstream media AND new media initiatives using web/digital technologies.
BOTTOMLINE: How to uphold timeless values in journalism: Accuracy, Balance, Credibility and promotion of PUBLIC INTEREST?
I posed five broad questions to get our panelists thinking:
What can be done to revitalize declining quality and outreach of mainstream media?
Why do we have so little innovation in our media? What are the limiting factors?
What is the ideal mix and balance of mainstream and new media for Lanka?
Can media with accuracy, balance and ethics survive in our limited market? If so, how?
What can government, professionals and civil society to do to nurture a better media?
On September 11, I took part in a breakout session that discussed media innovation in Asia and the United States. While my fellow panelists spoke mainly about digital media innovation of their media outlet or media sector, I opted to survey the bigger picture: what does innovation really mean when media is under siege, and how can the media sector switch from such ‘innovation under duress’ to regular market or product innovation?
Here are my remarks, cleaned up and somewhat expanded:
Innovation has been going on in media from the beginning. Faced with major challenges from advancing technologies and changing demography, innovation is now an imperative for market survival.
We can discuss this at different levels: product innovation, process innovation and systemic innovation. I like to add another kind for our discussion: innovation for physical survival.
With forces social and market Darwinism constantly at work, you might ask, shouldn’t the most adaptable and nimble players survive – while others perish?
Yes and No. Sometimes the odds against independent and progressive media organisations are disproportionately high – they should not be left to fend for themselves. This is where media consumers and public spirited groups need to step in.
Let me explain with a couple of examples from South Asia.
They say necessity is the mother of invention or innovation. I would argue that tyranny – from the state and/or extremist groups – provides another strong impetus for innovation in the media.
In Nepal, all media came under strict control when King Gyanendra assumed total control in February 2005. Among other draconian measures, he suspended press freedom, imposing a blanket ban on private or community broadcasters carrying news, thus making it a monopoly of state broadcasters.
The army told broadcasters that the stations were free to carry music, but not news or current affairs. Soldiers were sent to radio and TV stations to ensure compliance.
When the king’s siege of democracy continued for weeks and months, some media started defying censorship – they joined human rights activists and civil society groups in a mass movement for political reforms, including the restoration of parliamentary democracy.
Some of Nepal’s many community radio stations found creative ways of defying censorship. One station started singing the news – after all, there was no state control over music and entertainment! Another one in central Nepal went outside their studio, set up an impromptu news desk on the roadside, and read the news to passers-by every evening at 6 pm.
The unwavering resolve of these and other media groups and pro-democracy activists led to the restoration of parliamentary democracy in April 2006 and the subsequent abolition of the Nepali monarchy.
My second example is from Sri Lanka where I live and work.
In June 2012, Sri Lanka was one of 16 countries named by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for “attacks against journalists during coverage of street protests and demonstrations, such as arbitrary arrests and detention, verbal and physical attacks, confiscation or destruction of equipment, as well as killings.”
Threats of attacks and actual incidents of physical violence in recent years led to a climate of fear and widespread self-censorship among journalists in Sri Lanka. This is slowly changing now, but old habits die hard.
At the height of media repression by the former regime, we saw some of our media innovating simply for physical survival. One strategy was using satire and parody – which became important forms of political commentary, sometimes the only ones that were possible without evoking violent reprisals.
What I wrote then, while still in the thick of crackdown, is worth recalling:
“For sure, serious journalism can’t be fully outsourced to satirists and stand-up comics. But comedy and political satire can play a key role in critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose actions impact the public.
“There is another dimension to political satire and caricature that isn’t widely appreciated in liberal democracies where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed.
“In immature democracies and autocracies, critical journalists and their editors take many risks in the line of work. When direct criticism becomes highly hazardous, satire and parody become important — and sometimes the only – ways for journalists get around draconian laws, stifling media regulations or trigger-happy goon squads…
“Little wonder, then, that some of Sri Lanka’s sharpest commentary is found in satire columns and cartoons. Much of what passes for political analysis is actually gossip.”
For years, cartoonists and political satirists fulfilled a deeply felt need in Sri Lanka for the media to check the various concentrations of power — in political, military, corporate and religious domains.
They still continue to perform an important role, but there is more space today for journalists and editors to report things as they are, and to comment on the key stories of the day.
During the past decade, we have also seen the rise of citizen journalism and vibrant blogospheres in the local languages of Sinhala and Tamil. Their advantage during the dark years was that they were too numerous and scattered for the repressive state to go after each one (We do know, however, that electronic surveillance was attempted with Chinese technical assistance.)
Of course, Sri Lanka’s media still face formidable challenges that threaten their market survival.
A new assessment of Sri Lanka’s media, which I edited earlier this year, noted: “The economic sustainability of media houses and businesses remains a major challenge. The mainstream media as a whole is struggling to retain its consumer base. Several factors have contributed to this. Many media houses have been slow in integrating digital tools and web-based platforms. As a result, there is a growing gulf between media’s production models and their audiences’ consumption patterns.”
Innovation and imagination are essential for our media to break out of 20th century mindsets and evolve new ways of content generation and consumption. There are some promising new initiatives to watch, even as much of the mainstream continues business as usual – albeit with diminishing circulations and shrinking audience shares.
Innovate or perish still applies to our media. We are glad, however, that we no longer have to innovate just to stay safe from goon squads.
I looked at the larger news media industry in Sri Lanka to which provincial journalists supply ground level news, images and video materials. These are used on a discretionary basis by media companies mostly based in the capital Colombo (and some based in the northern provincial capital of Jaffna). Suppliers have no control over whether or how their material is processed. They work without employment benefits, are poorly paid, and also exposed to various pressures and coercion.
I drew an analogy with the nearly 150-year old Ceylon Tea industry, which in 2014 earned USD 1.67 billion through exports. For much of its history, Ceylon tea producers were supplying high quality tea leaves in bulk form to London based tea distributors and marketers like Lipton. Then, in the 1970s, a former tea taster called Merrill J Fernando established Dilmah brand – the first producer owned tea brand that did product innovation at source, and entered direct retail.
The media industry also started during British colonial times, and in fact dates back to 1832. But I questioned why, after 180+ years, our media industry broadly follows the same production model: material sourced is centrally processed and distributed, without much adaptation to new digital media realities.
In this week’s Ravaya column, (appearing in issue of 11 Oct 2015), I have adapted my talk into Sinhala.