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Monday, May 16, 2011

Should the Media in Sri Lanka be regulated? Print Media too?

It has been my long held view that the media in Sri Lanka should be regulated. Some very interesting conversations since yesterday with @groundviews, @NalakaG and @sittingnut have made me want to contribute more fully to this debate even though I realize I'm swimming against a strong tide.

Let me very briefly outline the history of media in Sri Lanka. Print media is believed to have originated with the publication of the Government Gazette, government publication of official announcements that continues todate. Radio had its origins in 1923 and evolved as both a news and entertainment medium. TV which made its formal entry with ITN's first transmission in April 1979 made its debut with an experimental TV show compered by Vernon Corea in June 1972 trnsmitted from the Dehiwala residence of Ivor Le Mercier to the residence of J.E. Amaratunga in Colombo 5. This was followed in 1976 with the reception of Doordarshan's experimental transmissions with a satellite receiver and dish antenna built by the same duo of Radio Amateurs and a week of transmissions of the Non-Aligned Conference courtesy of Major Tudor Perera of the Sri Lanka Army.

To better understand my views, it is necessary to briefly outline my own association with the media. I was associated with the experimental TV transmissions in the seventies and chased Shan Wickremasinghe and Anil Wijewardena as they raced against the clock to get ITN going, till I managed to schedule the ad for the health food, Pollen-B. It was one of just four ads that made it on air on day one of ITN. There followed a long association with the print, radio, television and outdoor media as I made my sojourn through the advertising industry. Three years with the SLBC and two as Editor-in chief of the government's official website PRIU rounded off my direct association with the media. I believe there was no one practicing PR in Sri Lanka when I did in the late eighties and none doing media buying when I initiated it for St. Anthony's Consolidated Ltd., and SANYO with the Daily News and Dinamina during the same period.

Free Media
The definition of free media should be seen as the freedom to express your opinion with civility and not be subject to restrictions or punishment as a result. Journalism should not receive favoured treatment or be independent of the legal framework applicable to other professions or industries. If the media were to be given special privileges, it would be pertinent to question why the judiciary, health or other disciplines are not given the same freedoms.

To state the obvious, while opinion is free, facts remain sacred. The distortion or suppression of facts is a grave crime against society. While the obvious villain in this regard has always been the incumbent government, journalism as a profession has also been equally guillty. How so, you might ask. While fighting for the freedom of expression, journalists also fight through labour unions for perks and privileges such as housing and travelling. The media have also benefited from loans and scholarships granted by the government. Why then should we expect more privileges than those in other professions?

Let me state some facts. Advertising and the media are inseparable since it is advertising that sustains the media. When I joined the advertising industry in the late seventies and through to the late eighties, print, radio and television had very strong ethics to be followed. At the SLBC which was the only radio station at the time, the guidelines were in the form of a booklet and specified in great detail the do's and don'ts. Non-conformity with any one of the guidelines ensured that your ad was thrown out no matter how much influence you had. The officers who approved the advertisements were very sharp and knew the guidelines word-for-word. When Rupavahini was established in 1982, the SLBC code was modified to suit television. The standards continued to be strictly maintained.

Was it all perfect? Perhaps not. In the early eighties a photograph of a nude woman momentarily appeared on-screen on ITN. Although some fuss was made I do not recall anyone losing his job as a result. Perhaps the liberal-minded minister of state at the time who was in charge of the media would have laughed it off.

Since the early eighties media outlets proliferated with radio and TV stations allowed to operate with just a letter from the Ministry. No longer were licences issued as per the provisions in the statute. The codes that bound the SLBC, ITN and Rupavahini were gradually loosened without a proper implementation mechanism. It must be said here that new technology and new formats challenged the existing codes and made it difficult to implement some of them. One popular Sinhala radio channel had a phone-in listener exhort the female presenter to check her undergarments for the answer to a question asked on-air. Live phone-in was already proving dangerous.

Perhaps someone could say that the objections to regulation are largely with respect to the print media. That would be true. Sri Lanka's newspapers began their transformation in the sixties and seventies. One key event which had a lasting impact was the takeover by government of the then privately-owned Lake House or as it is more correctly known, the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited. It is significant that political parties that vehemently opposed the takeover of Lake House did not restore it to the private sector as they promised time and again. Interestingly, the political powers that were responsible for the takeover also promised time and again to restore it to the private sector but never did.

The seventies proved to be somewhat of a golden era for print journalism in Sri Lanka. Readers of English newspapers received a treat with the advent of the Daily Mirror and the Sun and Weekend. While the Daily Mirror tackled serious issues with Big Bold Headlines, the Sun was more sensational. The Weekend ensured an expose for relaxed Sunday reading, changing with time from Broadsheet to Tabloid and looking much like a tabloid from London with a pin-up cover. Interestingly, despite being under government control, the Daily News and the Sunday Observer continued to deal with serious issues and maintained impeccable English. The Daily Mirror scored with its journalistic quality while the Sun shone on content. The government of the day was continually assailed by the new private newspapers which showed great editorial independence. It fell to the Lake House Group to defend the government. A practice that has survived regime changes and continues todate.

For or Against?
It is here that the arguments for and against the regulation of the media clash most. It is a fact that the political and social evolutions over the past fifty years have given immense power to mass media communications. Control of the media gives the power to influence large sections of the population. It is also a fact that apart from the SLBC, Sri Lanka did not have a mass communication tool in the hands of the government. This changed with the takeover of Lake House and later ITN. It also changed with the establishement of Rupavahini with its state-of-the-art facilities and islandwide coverage. No government has since wished to give over this power to the private sector and deprive itself of an essential tool to carry its messages to the masses.

No longer was it a level playing field. Most of the private media were politically aligned with the opposition while the government media heavily promoted the governing party viewpoint. However, in recent years new media outlets have been established, which though private in nature, support the government's viewpoint. Ideally, government owned media should be totally bereft of politics and deal only with key issues of national concern.

This brings up another relevant point. Should the media support the government, or not? To my mind, the media should confine itself to fact and issues. However, with the increasing population and the advances in communication that have brought with it an avalanche of news and information (media clutter), it has beocme necessary to obtain the services of analysts to sysnthesize and make the message coherent for the consumer. The result is the emergence of a plethora of analysts. (Here I am, doing an analysis for you.) Unfortunately, unbiased analyses are as rare as unbiased news stories.

As much as the western countries led the development of media and set the agenda for how it should be framed worldwide, they lead in how the ethics should be broken. While many examples could be cited I will cite one of the most recent. Several journalists covering the current conflict in Libya (including at least one NYT journalist) were found to have entered Libya illegally. Often, a journalist would justify by pointing to the importance of the news. This could very well be true but would still remain a gray area. How for instance could one explain to a child why a journalist would do something deemed illegal under normal law to bring out a story. Would it not show the child that if you do something dramatic, it would be acceptable even if it is illegal? Media rights organisations however, fight for the rights of the journalists without condemning the obvious transgressions.

That paints a frightening picture for the future. But what of the here and now? That's equally frightening. It is a widely known fact that journalism has been infiltrated and is being used as a tool of vested interests. No more are governments sovereign. They have to comply or be thrown out. Readymade 'Regime-change' operations are available that will run at the flick of a switch.

Is it the same in Sri Lanka? I hope not. One journalist who enquired why I don't work for a major foreign organisation gathering intelligence, for a monthly salary of $30,000 did make me wonder. It may have been a totally innocent question devoid of any ulterior motive. Nevertheless, it did make me wonder.

Having been out of the country during the last stages of the war, I was tearing my hair out in frustration at Sri Lanka's inability to project a true picture of the situation. The result was the dissemination of incorrect information and speculation. The country's current difficulties are a result of this lapse where many people were led to believe that the lack of openness to foreign media was to cover human rights abuses in the war theatre. Sadly, it left room for some international news agencies and outlets to carry false stories and spin the news to the detriment of Sri Lanka. Ethics were nowhere to be seen in a laissez faire environment. To me it appeared very clear that the media was one tool being used by vested interests to force issues in Sri Lanka in directions that most suited them.

There was no mention in the international media coverage of the final stages of the conflict that local journalists were embedded with the Sri Lankan security forces. Nor was there any mention that there were Indian journalists embedded with the forces. Do the ethics of journalism demand that journalists from Sri Lanka and India should be totally disbelieved?

Such a situation can continue only in an environment of a free media. One where the rules and the ethics are only those set by foreign entities. One where some journalists are expected to conform to ethics while others would do as they please. One where governments can be brow-beaten into submission by wielding the stick of a free media. It is not one where the facts are sacred and comment is free.

Way Forward?
What then is the way forward? Should media regulation be scrapped? Or, should the calls for media freedom be scrapped? Should the media be accountable for its actions and if so, to whom?

It is my belief that a regulatory system should be in place to ensure a level playing field for all media. Even more importantly, it would afford an official mechanism for the public to seek redress where they feel aggrieved by any publication or broadcast. I have been appalled to see advertisements in the newspapers where employers publish photographs, names and details of persons who have apparently left the institutions, and disclaiming any liability for their future actions. To my mind, such companies should have in the first instance advertised the appointment of such persons to the respective posts in their companies. To advertise only the departure is I believe designed to largely cast aspersions on their integrity. Newspapers should not be willing collaborators in such actions that amount to near acharacter assassination. If someone were to contest this as being advertising and not journalism, I would point out the numerous instances where names of litigants or accused are published while those of high profile persons who may have the means to seek legal redress never have their names mentioned in print.

It is also my view that proposed legislation should be discussed and debated by the people. My mind goes back to the time of the 1972 Constitution when meetings were organised in various places and the likes of Dr. Colvin R. De Silva and Dr. N.M. Perera engaged with others in public debates before the enactment. Whether it be the establishment of a Press Council or some other piece of legislation, the debate should be as much on the streets as in Parliament. Used extensively by some INGOs even in Sri Lanka, it would be identified as giving ownership to the stakeholders. The process itself is identified as stakeholder consultation. It could be argued that it is not entirely honest by the stakeholders. You would be doing what you want but making them feel that you're doing what they want.

While it is a subject by itself for another long essay, I believe that Sri Lanka should have national policies that find agreement both within the government and the opposition. Journalists can help in such a process by narrrowing down the differences in the public domain. I am reminded of the explanation of the political differences among the various parties in Norway told by a Norwegian colleague around 1990. With elections looming in the country I asked him to tell me how the people would vote. His reply was that he could not explain it to me as the differences were so minute. He illustrated by telling me that it could be a 1/4% difference in social security. The result is that all work towards the development objectives.

Journalism has a major role to play in the development of Sri Lanka. However, the role of media should not be one of confrontation with the government of the day or in fighting for rights. It should be more in sharing the skills that they have in abundance; the power of persuasive words, or the technical skills of communication. Arrogance and confrontation may well be the preferred choice of some in the international community. It may even be the choice of those who seemingly from a high pedestal, talk down to governments and demand media freedom, human rights and a host of other pious themes for which almost every day of the year seems to be devoted.

The media in Sri Lanka however, is mature enough to stand on its own and chart a new course, productive for both itself and the country.

Long-winded as it is, if you have read it all, @groundviews, @NalakaG and @sittingnut and anyone else, thank you!

In Words

Loved and mentored by parents with values and discipline and a passion for good English; guided by teachers who wouldn't spare the rod to ensure excellence; copywriter; on-line journalist; editor-in-chief; and at long last, giving into the passion; Freelance Writer.

Nurtured in advertising and PR from freelance copywriter to account director and agency head; engaged throughout to humanitarian work in NGOs including the Red Cross and the UNDP; and experienced in both public and private sectors.

Looking forward to a future of writing on diverse subjects; sharing knowledge and experience; enriching the lives of others; but most of all, acquiring more knowledge and using it to make the world a better place for all.

More of my writing:
* Fuelling the Peace Process * Concepts for decentralisation of government * PEACE: Is it still an elusive dream? * Interview with the late Major General Trond Furuhovde first Head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission * How polar bears are affected by global warming * Red Cross takes lead in clean water for Sri Lanka flood victims * The poorest hardest hit by Sri Lanka floods *