[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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