Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement (FMM) is media freedom watchdog organization of Journalists. Started in 1992, it completes 25 years in 2017. FMM has been active in all areas relating to media freedom, defending the rights of journalists and other media workres. It also has called for reform of legislation, agitating against censorship and intimidation of media personnel and standing for broad principles of democracy and human rights.
I was invited to speak at the 25th anniversary commemoration held in Colombo on 21 November 2017. Here is a synopsis of my remarks, which were delivered in Sinhala (see below):
Sri Lanka’s media went through its worst period in history during the decade 2005-2014, when journalists and media houses became regular targets of goon squads who acted with impunity. Prominent journalists were killed, made to disappear, or captured and tortured. The government of the day promised ‘prompt investigations’ but nothing happened. For some time, Sri Lanka was one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. FMM and other media rights groups did whatever they could, non-violently, to defend media freedom and the public’s right to know.
That state of siege has ended with the change of government in January 2015. Critics of the government and independent journalists no longer face violent reprisals. But no one can be certain whether this marks a temporary ‘ceasefire’ or a permanent ‘peace’ in the long drawn conflict between the Lankan state and Lankan journalists.
So let us take advantage of the current ‘lull’ — for however long it lasts — to advocate some legal and institutional reforms that will strengthen the safety of journalists and ensure the Constitutional guarantees of free expression work in reality. For the media community to have societal support for these reforms, the media’s ethical conduct and professionalism must be improved, urgently. Otherwise, why should the public support the rights of an irresponsible, unethical and compromised media?
On a brief visit to Berlin, Germany, to speak at a media research and academic symposium, I was invited by Germany’s Reporters without Borders (RSF, or Reporter ohne Grenzen) to address a side event at their office that looked at media freedom status and media development needs of Sri Lanka.
It was a small gathering that involved some media rights activists, researchers and journalists in Germany who take an interest in media freedom and media development issues in Asia. I engaged in a conversation first with Anne Renzenbrink of RSF Germany (who covers Asia) and then with my audience.
I said the media freedoms have significantly improved since the change of government in Jan 2015 – journalists and activists are no longer living in fear of white vans and government goon squads when they criticise political leaders.
But the pre-2015 benchmarks were abysmally low and we should never be complacent with progress so far, as much more needs to be done. We need to institutionalise media freedoms AND media responsibilities. So our media reforms agenda is both wide ranging and urgent, I said (and provided some details).
I used my favourite metaphor: the media freedom glass in Sri Lanka is less than half full today, and we need to gradually fill it up. But never forget: there was no water, and not even a glass, before Jan 2015!
Sri Lanka has risen 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index that RSF compiles every year: 2016, we jumped up from 165th rank (in 2015, which reflected the previous year’s conditions) to 141st rank out of 180 countries assessed. The new ranking remained the same between 2016 and 2017. Sri Lanka is still marked as red on the world map of the Index, indicating ‘Difficult situation’. We still have a long way to go…
When asked how European partners can help, I said: please keep monitoring media freedom in Sri Lanka, provide international solidarity when needed, and support the journalists’ organisations and trade unions to advocate for both media rights and media professionalism.
I was also asked about slow progress in investigating past atrocities against journalists and media organisations; recent resumption of web censorship after a lull of two years; how journalists are benefitting from Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information law; the particular challenges faced by journalists in the North and East of Sri Lanka (former war areas); and the status of media regulation by state and self-regulation by the media industry.
I also touched on how the mainstream media’s monopoly over news gathering and analysis has been ended by social media becoming a place where individuals are sharing news, updates – as well as misinformation, thereby raising new challenges.
I gave candid and measured answers, all of which are on the record but too detailed to be captured here. My answers were consistent with what I have been saying in public forums (within and outside Sri Lanka), and publicly on Twitter and Facebook.
And, of course, I was speaking my personal views and not the views of any entity that I am working with.
A popular TV programme genre in Sri Lanka that is being mass produced on the cheap is tele-dramas or television serials. Therein lies a problem: the local tele-drama industry is trapped in a vicious circle of low budgets and low production values. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Lankans who earn their living from this industry – as actors, script writers, directors and technical crew – are desperately searching for ways to break free.
So far, many have opted for the protectionist path. The Tele Makers Guild (TeleMG, http://telenisasl.org), an industry alliance, has been lobbying for the taxing of imported tele-dramas. They claim these are flooding the local market and undercutting their business.
In this week’s Ravaya column (appearing in the print issue of 24 April 2016), I discuss problems and challenges facing the tele-drama production industry of Sri Lanka.
As a viewer, I am opposed to cultural protectionism because it reduces my choice. So when TeleMG invited me as keynote speaker at their annual meeting held in early April, I urged them pursue the path of professionalism instead. Their big challenge, I said, is to make better shows with the existing budgets. That requires lots of creativity and resourcefulness.