[Op-ed] Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust in Sri Lanka’s Media

Text of an op-ed essay published in the Sunday Observer on 10 July 2016:

Major Reforms Needed to Rebuild Public Trust

in Sri Lanka’s Media

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s government and its media industry need to embark on wide-ranging media sector reforms, says a major new study released recently.

Such reforms are needed at different levels – in government policies, laws and regulations, as well as within the media industry and profession. Media educators and trainers also have a key role to play in raising professional standards in our media, the study says.

Recent political changes have opened a window of opportunity which needs to be seized urgently by everyone who desires a better media in Sri Lanka, urges the study report, titled Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka.

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

Rebuilding Public Trust: An Assessment of the Media Industry and Profession in Sri Lanka (May 2016)

The report was released on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) at a Colombo meeting attended by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Minister of Mass Media.

The report is the outcome of a 14-month-long research and consultative process. Facilitated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, it engaged over 500 media professionals, owners, managers, academics, relevant government officials and members of various media associations and trade unions. It offers a timely analysis, accompanied by policy directions and practical recommendations. I served as is overall editor.

“The country stands at a crossroads where political change has paved the way for strengthening safeguards for freedom of expression (FOE) and media freedom while enhancing the media’s own professionalism and accountability,” the report notes.

Politicians present at the launch could only agree.

“The government is willing to do its part for media freedom and media reforms. But are you going to do yours?” he asked the dozens of editors, journalists and media managers present. There were no immediate answers.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of 'Rebuilding Public Trust' report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at the launch of ‘Rebuilding Public Trust’ report in Colombo, 3 May 2016 (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Whither Media Professionalism?

The report acknowledges how, since January 2015, the new government has taken several positive steps. These include: reopening investigations into some past attacks on journalists; ending the arbitrary and illegal blocking of political websites done by the previous regime; and recognising access to information as a fundamental right in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (after the report was released, the Right to Information Act has been passed by Parliament, which enables citizens to exercise this right).

These and other measures have helped improve Sri Lanka’s global ranking by 24 points in the World Press Freedom Index (https://rsf.org/en/ranking). It went up from a dismal 165 in 2015 index (which reflected conditions that prevailed in 2014) to a slightly better 141 in the latest index.

Compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media rights advocacy group, the Index reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens (citizens using the web) enjoy in a country, and the efforts made by its government to respect and nurture this freedom.

Sri Lanka, with a score of 44.96, has now become 141st out of 180 countries assessed. While we have moved a bit further away from the bottom, we are still in the company of Burma (143), Bangladesh (144) and South Sudan (140) – not exactly models of media freedom.

Clearly, much more needs be done to improve FOE and media freedom in Sri Lanka – and not just by the government. Media owners and managers also bear a major responsibility to create better working conditions for journalists and other media workers. For example, by paying better wages to journalists, and allowing trade union rights (currently denied in many private media groups, though enjoyed in all state media institutions).

Rebuilding Public Trust acknowledges these complexities and nuances: freedom from state interference is necessary, but not sufficient, for a better and pluralistic media.

It also points out that gradual improvement in media freedom must now to be matched by an overall upping of media’s standards and ethical conduct.

By saying so, the report turns the spotlight on the media itself — an uncommon practice in our media. It says that only a concerted effort by the entire media industry and all its personnel can raise professional standards and ethical conduct of Sri Lanka’s media.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, an experienced journalist turned media trainer who was part of the report’s editorial team (and has since become the Director General of the Department of Information). “Sri Lanka’s media freedom has gone up since January 2015, but can we honestly say there has been much (or any) improvement in our media’s level of professionalism?” he asks.

Media in Crisis

Tackling the dismally low professionalism on a priority basis is decisive for the survival of our media which points fingers at all other sections of society but rarely engages in self reflection.

Rebuilding Public Trust comes out at a time when Sri Lanka’s media industry and profession face many crises stemming from an overbearing state, unpredictable market forces and rapid technological advancements. Balancing the public interest and commercial viability is one of the media sector’s biggest challenges today.

The report says: “As the existing business models no longer generate sufficient income, some media have turned to peddling gossip and excessive sensationalism in the place of quality journalism. At another level, most journalists and other media workers are paid low wages which leaves them open to coercion and manipulation by persons of authority or power with an interest in swaying media coverage.”

Notwithstanding these negative trends, the report notes that there still are editors and journalists who produce professional content in the public interest while also abiding by media ethics.

Unfortunately, their good work is eclipsed by media content that is politically partisan and/or ethnically divisive.

For example, much of what passes for political commentary in national newspapers is nothing more than gossip. Indeed, some newspapers now openly brand content as such!

Similarly, research for this study found how most Sinhala and Tamil language newspapers cater to the nationalism of their respective readerships instead of promoting national integrity.

Such drum beating and peddling of cheap thrills might temporarily boost market share, but these practices ultimately erode public trust in the media as a whole. Surveys show fewer media consumers actually believing that they read, hear or watch.

One result: younger Lankans are increasingly turning to entirely web-based media products and social media platforms for obtaining their information as well as for speaking their minds. Newspaper circulations are known to be in decline, even though there are no independently audited figures.

If the mainstream media is to reverse these trends and salvage itself, a major overhaul of media’s professional standards and ethics is needed, and fast. Newspaper, radio and TV companies also need clarity and a sense of purpose on how to integrate digital platforms into their operations (and not as mere add-ons).

L to R - Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

L to R – Lars Bestle of IMS, R Sampanthan, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Paranawithana, Gayantha Karunathilake with copies of new study report on media reforms – Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Recommendations for Reforms

The report offers a total of 101 specific recommendations, which are sorted under five categories. While many are meant for the government, a number of important recommendations are directed at media companies, journalists’ and publishers’ associations, universities, media training institutions, and development funding agencies.

“We need the full engagement of all stakeholders in building a truly free, independent and public interest minded pluralistic media system as a guarantor of a vibrant democracy in Sri Lanka,” says Wijayananda Jayaweera, a former director of UNESCO’s Communication Development Division, who served as overall advisor for our research and editorial process.

In fact, this assessment has used an internationally accepted framework developed by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Known as the Media Development Indicators (MDIs), this helps identify strengths and weaknesses, and propose evidence-based recommendations on how to enhance media freedom and media pluralism in a country. Already, two dozen countries have used this methodology.

The Sri Lanka study was coordinated by the Secretariat for Media Reforms, a multistakeholder alliance comprising the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media; Department of Mass Media at University of Colombo; Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI); Strategic Alliance for Research and Development (SARD); and International Media Support (IMS) of Denmark.

We carried out a consultative process that began in March 2015. Activities included a rapid assessment discussed at the National Summit for Media Reforms in May 2015 (attended by over 200), interviews with over 40 key media stakeholders, a large sample survey, brainstorming sessions, and a peer review process that involved over 250 national stakeholders and several international experts.

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 - (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Nalaka Gunawardene, Editor of Rebuilding Public Trust in Media Report, presents key findings at launch event in Colombo, 3 May 2016 – (Photo courtesy SLPI)

Here is the summary of key recommendations:

  • Law review and revision: The government should review all existing laws which impose restrictions on freedom of expression with a view to amending them as necessary to ensure that they are fully consistent with international human rights laws and norms.
  • Right to Information (RTI): The RTI law should be implemented effectively, leading to greater transparency and openness in the public sector and reorienting how government works.
  • Media ownership: Adopt new regulations making it mandatory for media ownership details to be open, transparent and regularly disclosed to the public.
  • Media regulation: Repeal the Press Council Act 5 of 1973, and abolish the state’s Press Council. Instead, effective self-regulatory arrangements should be made ideally by the industry and covering both print and broadcast media.
  • Broadcast regulation: New laws are needed to ensure transparent broadcast licensing; more rational allocation of frequencies; a three-tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasters; and obligations on all broadcasters to be balanced and impartial in covering politics and elections. An independent Broadcasting Authority should be set up.
  • Digital broadcasting: The government should develop a clear plan and timeline for transitioning from analogue to digital broadcasting in television as soon as possible.
  • Restructuring state media: The three state broadcasters should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters with guaranteed editorial independence. State-owned Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House) should be operated independently with editorial freedom.
  • Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on any media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for legality after publication. Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended.
  • Blocking of websites: The state should not limit online content or social media activities in ways that contravene freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions.
  • Privacy and surveillance: Privacy of all citizens and others should be respected by the state and the media. There should be strict limits to the state surveillance of private individuals and entities’ phone and other electronic communications.
  • Media education and literacy: Journalism and mass media education courses at tertiary level should be reviewed and updated to meet current industry needs and consumption patterns. A national policy is needed for improving media literacy and cyber literacy.

Full report in English is available at: https://goo.gl/5DYm9i

Sinhala and Tamil versions are under preparation and will be released shortly.

Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene served as overall editor of the new study, and also headed one of the four working groups that guided the process. He tweets as: @NalakaG

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What would (Sri Lanka’s first press baron) D R Wijewardene do if he confronted today’s media realities?

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at D R Wijewardene memorial event on 26 February 2016 - Photo by Sam de Silva

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at D R Wijewardene memorial event on 26 February 2016 – Photo by Sam de Silva

This week, I was asked by Sri Lanka’s oldest newspaper publishing house — Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, or Lake House — to chair a panel discussion on ‘Survival and Evolution of Newspapers in the Digital Age’.

The event marked the 130th birth anniversary of Lake House founder and Sri Lanka’s first press baron, D R Wijewardene (1886 – 1950). It was held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute in Colombo.

My panel comprised: communications scholar and former telecom regulator Prof Rohan Samarajiva; senior journalist Hana Ibrahim; Sri Lanka Press Institute’s CEO Kumar Lopez, and political scientist Sumith Chaaminda of Verite Research.

We had a lively discussion exploring the challenges faced by print publishers everywhere, and what solutions are relevant, viable and affordable for a majority of small scale publishers without deep pockets.

Here is an excerpt from my opening remarks (full text to be published soon as an op-ed article):

In the absence of independently audited circulation figures, we cannot be certain how well – or poorly – our newspapers are selling today. But indications are not promising. I have been involved in a state of the media study for the past year (due to be released in May 2016), and there is evidence that market survival is a big struggle for many smaller publishers.

More and more Lankan newspapers are being kept alive not to make any profit, but for influence peddling and political purposes. And in at least one case, the co-operatively owned Ravaya, reader donations were actively solicited recently to keep the paper alive.

Worldwide, print journalism’s established business models are crumbling, with decades-old publications closing down or going entirely online (The Independent newspaper in the UK is the latest to do the latter). Advertisers usually follow where the eyeballs are moving.

So what would D R Wijewardene do if he confronted today’s realities of gradually declining print advertising share and readers migrating to online media consumption? How might he respond by going back to his founding goals of political action and social change through the 3 Ps – the Press, Parliament and Platform – as important instruments of political action?

My guess is that he would invest in radio and/or television, with a strong digital integration. He might even find a viable income stream from digital and online publishing without locking up public interest content behind pay-walls.

We can only speculate, of course. Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is: where are the budding D R Wijewardenes of the 21st Century? What are their start-ups and how are their dreams unfolding? Are they trying to balance reasonable profits with public interest journalism?

In my view, the biggest decider of success or failure – today, as it was a century ago – is not the medium, but the message. To put it more bluntly, it’s credibility, stupid!

Prof Rohan Samarajiva speaks at D R Wijewardene memorial event, 26 Feb 2016

Prof Rohan Samarajiva speaks at D R Wijewardene memorial event, 26 Feb 2016

Echelon March 2015 column: Beyond RTI – Towards Open Government

Text of my column written for Echelon monthly business magazine, Sri Lanka, March 2015 issue. Published online at: http://www.echelon.lk/home/beyond-rti-towards-open-government/

Beyond RTI: Towards Open Government

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

Illustration by Echelon magazine, http://www.echelon.lk/

Illustration by Echelon magazine, http://www.echelon.lk/

After many years of advocacy by civil society, Sri Lanka is set to adopt a law that guarantees citizens’ Right to Information (RTI). With that, we will at last catch up with nearly 100 countries that have introduced such progressive laws.

Better late than never — but passing the law is only a beginning. Institutionalising it requires effort and funds. Continued vigilance is needed on civil society’s part to guard against the process becoming mired in red tape.

RTI signifies unleashing a new potential. To draw an analogy from water management, opening a ‘sluice’ does not by itself mean much unless the downstream systems are in place. In both cases, the recipients need to know how to make the best use of what comes through.

Journey so far

Why is RTI such a big deal?

Its basis is that in democracies, the public have every right to know what is being done in their name by those entrusted with governance.

RTI is the right to access and obtain information from public officials. This right serves several purposes: improve public participation in policy making; promote transparency and accountability in government; and minimise wastage and corruption of state resources by public officials.

RTI and freedom of information are used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between the two.

According to lawyer Gehan Gunatilleke, who recently wrote a book on the subject (published by Sri Lanka Press Institute, 2014), freedom of information implies a citizen’s freedom to access and receive public information on request. In such a situation, the government should not violate that freedom by restricting access. RTI goes further, and implies that information is an inherent right of the people. Governments are duty-bound to provide such information.

The concept of RTI can be traced back to the principle of ‘public access’ which emerged in Europe during the 18th century. In 1766, Sweden became the first country to legislate RTI: it allowed the public access to government documents.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted at the United Nations in 1948, recognised the right to seek, impart and receive information as part the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 19).

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

RTI does not mean opening up everything. Sensitive information – related to national security, for example – is excluded. The challenge is to strike a healthy balance between full transparency and a few justified exemptions.

 Indian experience

In Asia, India was a frontrunner in developing RTI laws. The campaign for RTI started in the 1990s with a grassroots movement driven by social activists and rural groups. They saw its clear value to counter the growing misuse of authority and public funds by local officials.

State level RTI laws were adopted in Tamil Nadu (1997), Goa (1997), Rajasthan (2000), Delhi (2001) and Maharashtra (2002). The national law came into effect in October 2005 after a decade of agitation.

Under the Indian law, citizens can request information from any ‘public authority’ within 30 days. It covers all branches of government — executive, legislature and judiciary – as well as institutions and statutory bodies set up by an act of national Parliament or a state legislature. Even non-governmental organisations, if they receive significant amounts of government funds, are covered.

The act required all public authorities to appoint a public information officer (PIO) to handle RTI requests. It also mandated computerizing of public records so that certain categories of information are proactively published online, enabling interested citizens to just look it up.

Since the RTI law was introduced, India has seen an improvement in governance, dissemination of information and involvement of civil society in the governance process, says Dr Rajesh Tandon, founder and head of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a voluntary organisation providing support to grassroots initiatives.

At the same time, Tandon points out that some challenges remain at implementation level. Certain states in India have been more active in creating a culture of information sharing and open government, he told me in a television interview in mid 2014.

As Indians found out, it isn’t easy to shake off centuries of misplaced state secrecy and mistrust in the public. “Old rules and procedures continue to co-exist as new laws and methods are invented. Official Secrecy Act and Right to Information Act co-exist, just as written precedent and e-governance co-exist,” says Tandon (watch our full interview: https://vimeo.com/118544161).

 New challenges

In Sri Lanka, civil society groups and journalists’ organisations were at the forefront advocating RTI. Groups like Transparency International and Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) have been lobbying, training and raising awareness on the societal value of this right.

However, RTI is not only for journalists or social activists. It is a right for all citizens living in modern societies where their well-being – sometimes even survival – depends on knowing critical information. Ignorance may have been bliss once upon a time, but it is not recommended for the 21st century.

Reorienting the public institutions to a new culture of openness and sharing will be an essential step. Undoing decades of habits will take effort.

Asanga Welikala, a legal scholar now with the Edinburgh Law School, said in a tweet that we need a moratorium of ‘at least two years’ before RTI law comes into force – so as to train officials and make all government procedures compliant.

He also says the Information Commission must have a proper budget for promotion and public awareness of the new Act, rights and procedures. For example, how to ensure citizen information requests can be accommodated equally in both official languages and the link language?

As champions of RTI, media and civil society must now switch roles. While benefiting from it themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere, showing citizens how best to make use of it.

National Right to Ino laws status - as of 2013 Source: http://home.broadpark.no/~wkeim/foi.htm

National Right to Ino laws status – as of 2013 Source: http://home.broadpark.no/~wkeim/foi.htm

Info Literacy

Public information can exist in many forms today – ranging from minutes of meetings, budget allocation and expense records, and scientifically gathered information such as census data, or trade statistics. These may be stored on paper, tape or – increasingly – in digital formats.

In recent years, with digital technologies the volume of specialised data held by governments has risen phenomenally. Both the data custodians and public today need higher levels of information literacy to navigate through this torrent.

The good news: the web makes it easier to store and share information. ‘Open Data’ means that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.

The open data approach is especially applied to scientific data and government data. But the debate is far from settled: while there are many strong arguments for opening up, some are concerned about potential misuses. Guidelines are still evolving.

A key attribute of open data is its usability. Each country needs to adopt information gathering and data storage standards, so as to minimize users facing problems that arise with the use of different devices, systems and measuring systems.

Some public data custodians in South Asia still release vast amounts of data in hard copy (paper-based) form. For example, India’s Marine Fisherfolk Census of 2010 had results running into thousands of pages of data tables – they were only released on paper. That made further analysis impossible. Undaunted, a fishers’ collective mobilised some tech-savvy volunteers to create computerised spreadsheet databases.

Like many other elements of good governance, RTI’s effectiveness depends on imagination, innovation and persistence on the part of citizens. Its best results will accrue in a society and political culture where evidence and analysis are trusted. Sri Lanka is not there yet.

The road to RTI is a journey, not a destination!

ACT

 

සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #42: සයිබර් අවකාශයේ කරනම් ගසන්නට පෙර…

Who’s Afraid of Online Journalists? This was the provocative title of my presentation to a national media conference on media self-regulation in Colombo in September 2011, organised by Sri Lanka Press Institute. Speaking in the session devoted to online media, I argued that SLPI was ill-equipped to tackle online news content when it lacked even full representation of the mainstream print media in Sri Lanka, and had no representation whatsoever from the radio and TV broadcasters whose outreach far outstrips that of print.

My PowerPoint presentation to SLPI Conference is here

I return to the topic of whether or how web news coverage in Sri Lanka might be self-regulated in my weekly Ravaya column published on 27 Nov 2011.

නෙත් අද වූ පස් දෙනකු ජීවිතයේ මුල් වතාවට සද්දන්ත ඇතකු මුණගැසීමේ කථාව අප අසා තිඛෙනවා. ඇතාගේ ස්වරූපය නෙතින් නොදැක, ඇසෙන හ`ඩින් හා ස්පර්ශයෙන් පමණක් මේ සත්ත‍වයා ගැන මනෝ චිත්‍රයක් මවා ගන්නට ඔවුන් තැත් කරනවා. එහෙත් තමන්ට ශෝචර වූ නිරීක‍ෂණ මත පමණක් පදනම් වී මේ පස් දෙනා එළැඹෙන නිගමන එකිනෙකට බොහෝ සෙයින් වෙනස්.

ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යය ගැන අපේ ඇතැම් දෙනා දක්වන අදහස් දෙස බලන විට මට මේ කථාව සිහි වනවා. ඉන්ටර්නෙට් ලෙහෙසියෙන් ග්‍රහණය කර ගත හැකි, අවබෝධ කර ගත හැකි සංසිද්ධියක් නොවෙයි. එය භෞතික ලෝකයේ නොව පරිගණක හා සන්නිවේදන ජාල තුළ පමණක් පවතින, තනිකර ම විද්යුත් මාධ්‍යයක් නිසා අපේ පංච ඉන්ද්‍රියන්ට ගෝචර වන්නේ ද සීමිත ලෙසින්. ඉන්ටර්නෙට් ගැන අප එකිනෙකා ඇති කර ගන්නා මනෝ චිත්‍ර වෙනස්. එයට හේතුව එහි විශාලත්වය හා විවිධත්වයයි. මුළු ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍ය පුරා සැරිසරන්නට කිසිවකුට බැහැ. එසේ කිරීමේ තේරුමක් ද නැහැ. අපට අවශ්‍ය තොරතුරු සොයා ගන්නට හා සන්නිවේදනයන්ගේ යෙදෙන්නට උවමනා පරිද්දෙන් අප එහි පැතිකඩ කිහිපයකට පමණක් බද්ධ වනවා.

මුද්‍රිත මාධ්‍ය ෙක‍ෂත්‍රයේ බොහෝ අත්දැකීම් ඇති ජ්‍යෙෂ්ඨ මාධ්‍යවේදීන් මෙන්ම එම ෙක‍ෂත්‍රය ගැන කලක් තිස්සේ පර්යේෂණ කරන විද්වතුන්ද නොදැනුවත්වම කරන වරදක් තිඛෙනවා. එනම් ඉන්ටර්නෙට් යනු තවත් එක් මාධ්‍ය අංගයක් ලෙස සැළකීමයි. මීට පෙර (2011 නොවැ 6) මා එය සම කළේ මුද්‍රණ ශිල්පය සමග මිස රේඩියෝ, ටෙලිවිෂන් හෝ සිනමාව සමග නොවේ.

මුද්‍රණයේ සංකල්පය ක්‍රි ව 220දී පුරාණ චීනයේත්, ක්‍රි.ව. හතරවන සියවසේදී පුරාණ ඊජිප්තුවේත් දැන සිටියත් එය මහා පිම්මක් පැන්නේ 15 වන සියවසේදී ජර්මනියේ යොහාන් ගුටන්බර්ග් අකුරු ඇමිනීමේ සංකල්පය සොයා ගැනීමත් සමගයි. ගුටන්බර්ග්ට පෙරත් පැපිරස් තීරු, පුස්කොළ හා වෙනත් මාධ්‍යයන්ගේ ලියා සන්නිවේදනය කිරීම පැවතුනා. ඒ කිසිවක් මුද්‍රිත පොතපතට සම කළ නොහැකි වූවාක් මෙන් පවතින අනෙකුත් ජනමාධ්‍ය ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සමග ඍජුව සැස`දීමට ද නොහැකියි.

කලක් භාවිත වූ හා බොහෝ දෙනකු හුරුපුරුදු වූ ක්‍රමයකින් අළුත් ක්‍රමයකට පිවිසීමේ දී හුදෙක් තාක‍ෂණය අතින් පමණක් නොවෙයි මානසිකවත් හැඩ ගැසීමට සිදු වනවා. ඉන්ටර්නෙට් හරහා පැමිණි නව අවස්ථා හා අභියෝගයන්ට මුහුණ දීමට රාජ්‍යයන්, මාධ්‍යවේදීන් ඇතුළු ජන සමාජය තවමත් උත්සාහ කරනවා.

පත්තර හා සගරා පමණක් පැවති ලෝකයට 19 වන සියවසේදී ඡායාරූප ශිල්පය හා සිනමාවත්, 20 වන සියවසේදී රේඩියෝව, ටෙලිවිෂන් හා වීඩියෝ බ`දු මාධ්‍යත් එකතු වුණා. එසේ අළුතෙන් ආ හැම මාධ්‍යයකට ම ආවේණික ලක‍ෂණ තිබුණත් ඒවා පවතින ප්‍රධාන ප්‍රවාහයේ මූලික නීතිරීති හා සම්ප්‍රදායන්ට කෙටි කලෙකින් නතු වුණා. මේ ඓතිහාසික ප්‍රවණතා දෙස බලා ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යකරණයටත් සීමා පැන විය යුතු යයි ඔවුන් තර්ක කරනවා.

තර්කයක් හැටියට මා ඔවුන් සමග එකගයි. තොරතුරු, විශේෂයෙන් ප්‍රවෘත්ති එකතු කිරීමේ හා ඛෙදා හැරීමේදී මූලික සාදාචාරමය රාමුවක් තුළ එය කිරීම අවශ්‍යයි. එහෙත් මගේ එකගතාවය නතර වන්නේ පුවත් විග්‍රහයන් හා මත දැක්වීම ගැන කථා කරන විටයි.

The web was supposed to set us free, but has it?

තමන්ට අහිතකර වූ හෝ විරුද්ධ වූ හෝ මත දැක්වීම වාරණය කිරීමට විවිධාකාර බලපෑම් ප්‍රධාන ප්‍රවාහයේ මාධ්‍යයන්ට එල්ල කිරීමට රජයන්, ලොකු සමාගම් හා වෙනත් බලාධිකාරයන් ක්‍රියා කිරීම බොහෝ රටවල දැකිය හැකියි. මේ යථාර්ථය හමුවේ ර්‍ඇග බේරා ගෙන” වැඩ කිරීමේ ස්වයං-වාරණ පුවත්පත් කලාවක් (self-censored journalism) බිහිව තිඛෙනවා. එබදු වාතාවරණයක නිදහසේ මත දැක්වීමට ඉඩ ඇති තැනක් ලෙස තවම ඉතිරිව ඇත්තේ ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යයයි.

එමෙන්ම ප්‍රධාන ප්‍රවාහයේ මුද්‍රිත හා විද්යුත් මාධ්‍යවල දැඩි සේ බල පවත්වන අධිපතිවාදයක් තිඛෙනවා. මාධ්‍ය හිමිකරුවා හා ආයතන ප්‍රධානියා නොකැමති කිසිදු තොරතුරක් හෝ මතවාදයක් හෝ පළ කිරීමේ නිදහස සීමා කැරෙනවා. මෙය දොරටුපාල සංකල්පයයි (media gate-keeping). මේ අධිපතිවාදීකම අපේ රටේ සිංහල මාධ්‍යවල ඉතා ප්‍රබලව තිඛෙනවා. (මීට විසි වසරකට පෙර සිංහල පුවත්පත් ලෝකයේ මා ක්‍රියාත්මක වූ අවධියේ මා ද එයින් පීඩා විද තිඛෙනවා!)

ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යයේ දොරටුපාලයන් නැහැ. ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සබදතාවයක් හා සාක‍ෂරතාවය තිඛෙන ඕනෑ ම කෙනකුට තම තොරතුරු, අදහස් හා මතවාදයන් ප්‍රකාශයට පත් කිරීමේ අවකාශය තිඛෙනවා. මෙය බ්ලොග් අඩවියකින්, නැතිනම් Twitter වැනි වෙබ් මාධ්‍ය (social media) හරහා කළ හැකියි. එය වචනවලට සීමා වන්නේ ද නැහැ. ඡායාරූප, හඩ, වීඩියෝ ආදී ඕනෑ ම ක්‍රමයකින් ලොවට ම සන්නිවේදනය කිරීමේ හැකියාව තිඛෙනවා.

මේ හැකියාව ඉන්ටර්නෙට් පරිශීලනය කරන බොහෝ දෙනකු භාවිත කරන්නේ නැහැ. බහුතරයකගේ භාවිතය විද්යුත් තැපෑල, තොරතුරු කියැවීම හා Facebook වැනි සංවෘත පද්ධතිවල ටික දෙනකු සමග පෞද්ගලික කථාබහ (chat) කිරීමට සීමා වනවා. එයින් ඔබ්බට යන ඉන්ටර්නෙට් භාවිතාකරුවන් පුරවැසි මාධ්‍යවේදීන් (citizen journalists) බවට පත්ව සිටිනවා. මේ ගැන වෙන ම කථා බහ කළ යුතුයි.

ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යය සෙසු සියළු මාධ්‍යයන්ගෙන් වෙනස් බවට උපමිතියක් (analog) ගැන මා කල්පනා කළා. සරලව කිවහොත් මුද්‍රිත මාධ්‍ය ගොඩබිමටත්, රේඩියෝ හා ටෙලිවිෂන් මාධ්‍ය සාගරයටත් සම කළ හැකියි. ගොඩබිම කළ හැකි හැම දෙයක් ම සාගරය මතු පිට හෝ පතුලේ කළ නොහැකි වූවත් ඒ හැම තැනට ම ගුරුත්වය බල පානවා. මේ උපමිතිය තුළ ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සම වන්නේ අභ්‍යවකාශයටයි.

1961 දී මිනිසකු මුල්වරට අභ්‍යවකාශයට ගිය දා පටන් අද වනතුරු අභ්‍යවකාශයට යාමේ අත්දැකීම ලබා ඇත්තේ 600කට අඩු සංඛ්‍යාවක්. ගුරුත්වය අඩු හෝ නැති, වායුගෝලයකින් තොර අභ්‍යවකාශයේ හැසිරීමට හා ජීවත්වීමට විශේෂිත පුහුණුවක් අවශ්‍ය වනවා. උපන්දා සිට ගුරුත්වය සහිත මහපොළව මත විසීමෙන් ලද සහජ බුද්ධිය මදෙකට පසෙක ලා, වෙනස් විධියට සිතීමට සිදුවනවා. සයිබර් අවකාශයට පිවිසි අප සැමටත් මෙසේ අපට සහජයෙන් හෝ වෘත්තියෙන් ලද තත්ත්වාරෝපණය (conditioning) වෙනුවට අළුත් පරිසරයක නව යථාර්ථයකට හැඩ ගැසීමට සිදු වනවා.

අජටාකාශගාමීන් දිගු කාලීන පුහුණුවක් ලබනවා. එහෙත් පැය දෙක තුනකවත් පුහුණුවකින් තොරව සයිබර් අවකාශයට පිවිසිය හැකියි. එසේ පිවිසෙන අපේ ඇතැම් දෙනා භෞතික ලෝකයේ පුරුදු එතැනටත් ආරෝපණය කරන විට යම් නොගැලපීම් ඇති වනවා.

මේ පරස්පරයන් හා අභියෝග මැද්දෙන් ප්‍රශස්ත ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සාක‍ෂරතාවයක් කාටත් ලබා දීම තොරතුරු සමාජයක අප කාගේත් ඉලක්කය විය යුතුයි. මෙය පරිගණකවේදීන්ට හා ඉංජිනේරුවන්ට පමණක් පැවරිය හැකි වගකීමක් නොවෙයි. මනා ඉන්ටර්නෙට් සංස්කෘතියක් බිහි කිරීමට තාක‍ෂණවේදයෙන් ඔබ්බට යන බහුවිධ සහභාගිත්වයක් උවමනායි.

ඉන්ටර්නෙට් හරහා පමණක් පුවත් ආවරණයේ හා විග්‍රහයේ යෙදෙන වෙබ් අඩවිවලට ස්වයං නියාමනයක් (self-regulation) කළ හැකිද? 2011 සැප්තැම්බරයේ ලංකා පුවත්පත් ආයතනය (SLPI) සංවිධානය කළ තෙදින සම්මන්ත්‍රණයක එක් සැසිවාරයක් මේ තේමාවට වෙන් කළා. එයට දුරකථනයෙන් සම්බන්ධ වූ බ්‍රිතාන්‍ය මාධ්‍යවේදියකු කීවේ බ්‍රිතාන්‍යයේ එබදු උත්සාහයක් කි්‍රයාත්මක වන බවයි. එහෙත් එය එරට සාම්ප්‍රදායික පුවත්පත් පැමිණිලි කොමිසම (PCC-UK) හරහා නොව වෙබ් මාධ්‍යවේදීන් විසින් ම පිහිටුවා ගත් එකමුතුවක් හරහායි. වෙබ් අඩවියක් හරහා පළ කැරෙන වාර්තාවකින් යම් පුද්ගලයකුට හෝ ආයතනයකට හෝ අපහාසයක් වේ නම් ඒ ගැන ප්‍රතිචාර දැක්වීමේ හා පැමිණිලි කිරීමේ අවස්ථාව ඒ හරහා සැළසෙනවා.

SLPI තර්කය නම් සියලූ මාධ්‍ය තමන්ගේ හැසිරීම සදාචාරමය රාමුවක් තුළ ස්වයං නියාමනය නොකළහොත් එය රජය හෝ අධිකරණය හෝ මැදිහත්වීමෙන් සිදු වනු ඇති බවයි. එය පිළි ගත හැකි තර්කයක්. නමුත් මාධ්‍ය නියාමනය (media regulation) හා මාධ්‍ය පාලනය (media control) යනු පැහැදිලිව එකිනෙකින් වෙනස් සංකල්ප දෙකක්. නියාමනය අවශ්‍ය බව කවුරුත් පිළිගන්නවා. එහෙත් මාධ්‍ය පාලනය හා එහි උච්ච අවස්ථාව වන මාධ්‍ය වාරණය (censorship) ගැන එබදු එකගතාවක් නැහැ. බලයේ සිටින විට මාධ්‍ය පාලනය කළ යුතු යයි කියන අය ම ප්‍රතිපක‍ෂයේ සිටින විට එයට එරෙහි වනවා.

එදා සමුළුවේදී මා කියා සිටියේ මෙරට ජන සමාජයට දැනටමත් සමීප වී ඇති රේඩියෝ හා ටෙලිවිෂන් මාධ්‍යවල සදාචාරාත්මක ස්වයං නියාමනයකට මුල් වටයේ යොමු වන ලෙසයි. ජනගහනයෙන් සියයට 10-15ක් බද්ධ වන ඉන්ටර්නෙට් මාධ්‍යයට වඩා විශාල ග්‍රාහක පිරිසක් රේඩියෝ හා ටෙලිවිෂන් නාලිකාවලට සිටිනවා. නමුත් එකී නාලිකාවකින් අපහාසයට හෝ අගතියට හෝ පත් කිසිවකුට පිළිතුරුදීමේ අයිතිය සහතික කෙරී නැහැ. රටේ නීතිය හරහා අපහාස නඩුවක් ගොනු කිරීම හැරුණු කොට දුක් ගැනවිල්ලක් ඉදිරිපත් කොට යම් සමතයක් (mediation) කළ හැකි විද්යුත් මාධය එකමුතුවක් ද මෙරට නැහැ. එපමණක් තබා මෙරට රේඩියෝ හා ටෙලිවිෂන් නාලිකා නියාමනයට රාජ්‍යයෙන් පවා පැහැදිලි රාමුවක් නැහැ. මේ මහා හිදැස් පුරවා නොගෙන එක්වර ම වෙබ් ප්‍රවෘත්ති නියාමනයට යොමුවීමට SLPI ආයතනයට හෝ මෙරට ප්‍රධාන ප්‍රවාහයේ මාධ්‍ය ආයතනවලට හැකියාවක්, පළපුරුද්දක් හෝ ශිල්ප ඥානයක් නැති බව පිළි ගත යුතුයි.

ලංකාවේ සියළුම මුද්‍රිත මාධ්‍යවල පවා පූර්ණ නියෝජනයක් නැති SLPI ආයතනයට, විද්යුත් මාධ්‍ය ගැන නිසි අවබෝධයක් නැහැ. සමස්ත මාධ්‍ය වෙනුවෙන් කථා කිරීමේ වරමක් ද නැහැ. බ්‍රිතාන්‍යයේ පවා සෙසු මාධ්‍යවලට වෙනස් සංවිධාන ව්‍යුහයක් හරහා වෙබ් ප්‍රවෘත්ති ස්වයං නියාමනය කැරෙද්දී ලංකාවේ පුවත්පත් පැමිණිලි කොමිසම මෙරට එයට අත තැබීමට කල් වැඩි බව මා සමුළුවේදී කියා සිටියා.

ලංකාවේ සැබෑ තත්ත්වය දත් අපට, පොදු උන්නතිය සදහා වෙබ් ප්‍රවෘත්ති ද නියාමනය කළ යුතු යයි මතු කරන තර්කය ගෙඩි පිටින් පිළි ගත නොහැකියි. “ලබ්බට තැබූ අතමයි පුහුලටත් තබන්නේ” යන කියමන සිහිපත් කරමින් කිව යුත්තේ පොදු උන්නතිය ඉක්මවා යන බොහෝ දේත් ඒ සමග ම නියාමනයට හා පාලනයට උත්සාහ කැරෙන බවයි. එයට මෑත ඉතිහාසයේ සාක‍ෂි හා අත්දැකීම් බහුලයි.

ඉන්ටර්නෙට් ප්‍රවෘත්ති නියාමනය ගැන නිරවුල් හා මැදහත් සංවාදයක් අවශ්‍යයි. ගොඩබිම සිට පිහිනීම ගැන හා කිමිදීම ගැන කථා කිරීම ප්‍රායෝගික නොවන්නා සේ ම මිහිමත සිටගෙන අභ්‍යවකාශයේ හැසිරීම නියාමනය කරන්නට තැත් කිරීමත් සීරුවෙන් කළ යුත්තක්!