Samabima monthly magazine, published by Rights Now human rights advocacy group in Sri Lanka, has carried an interview with me in its December 2015 issue.
In this, I discuss the societal implications of a Right to Information law, which is to be adopted by Sri Lanka’s Parliament in early 2016. I reiterate that we need to see the new law as only the beginning of a long journey. Proper implementation will require adequate political will, administrative support and sufficient public funds. We would also need sustained monitoring by civil society groups and media to guard against the whole process becoming mired in too much red tape.
I also touch on serious inadequacies in our mainstream media that often fail to serve the public interest because of incompetence, arrogance or indifference. In this interview, I coin a phrase ‘Mass Media Brutality’ meted out to victims of crime or discrimination in Sri Lanka — when the media pack descends on an individual or family and unethical, sensational coverage follows.
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.
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.
According to its publishers, Sage Publications in India and the UK, the book is an ‘authoritative guide to the state of the news media in Sri Lanka, and the effects of insurgency and civil war on the media’s role in a developing country’.
This is the first book to look comprehensively at the evolution of news media in post-colonial Sri Lanka, with a focus on media policy, law and education. The book reviews the role of new media platforms in widening the scope for public debate.
Further, it provides a detailed analysis of the existing media laws and policies and of campaigns to reform them. It also focuses on the role of institutions in media education by providing a comprehensive analysis of existing media curricula and underlining the importance of improved media literacy and introduction of Right to Information Act for a healthy democracy.
The book is dedicated to the memory of the late Tilak Jayaratne (1943-2013), who ‘ably represented a generation of honourable and committed broadcasters’. Having contributed significantly to the book, he did not live to see its publication.
In their preface to the book, the co-editors write: “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.
“In 2009, with the end of the war in the north, all this seemed about to change, increasing the relevance of our enquiries and raising hopes of media reform and greater freedom of expression. But progress towards a different sort of normality has been slow. The war and its aftermath have continued to cast a long shadow, which has limited the scope of our research…
“Over the past few years, universities have been closed for long periods. University teachers have been engaged in disputes with the government, which has affected their teaching and their research. The NGO sector has been heavily criticised by the government for pursuing foreign-funded agendas and finds itself under fire and on the defensive. Many media proprietors and journalists have maintained their long-established habit of self-censorship, for fear of inviting reprisals of one sort or another. Though not on the same scale as previously, there have been killings and disappearances of journalists since 2009 and the memory of past abuses still affects people’s thinking. All this has made the study more challenging.”
The book also contains a glossary of media related terms; a bibliography and an index.