ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 06
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Depoliticising media is easier said than done

By Neville de Silva

One wishes that President Rajapaksa’s remarks about “depoliticising” the state-owned media and ensuring media freedom had been reported more clearly and at greater length. Apparently these remarks were made at a meeting to review the progress of the media ministry at which heads of state-run media institutions were present along with the minister in charge.

Since it appeared to have been a closed meeting the Information Department should have reported the president’s observations in depth and in a comprehensible manner not cursorily. After all it is an important subject that has been debated for decades and does raise questions of definition and interpretation.

Depoliticising the media, whatever that was meant to mean, cannot be done overnight. First there must be the will and commitment and then the action to translate that will into reality. But what could be done quickly and as a matter of urgency is to transform the Information Department into one that makes sense. To begin with it must be headed by media savvy individuals and those that write English and not the kind of rubbish that passes for it.

Consider, for instance, the “The Official Government News Portal of Sri Lanka” which is the handiwork of the Information Department. This is how it reported the president’s meeting. “Emphasizing the need to avoid the prevailing political culture at most Government owned media institutions, President Rajapaksa stressed the need for a more vital and efficient role by the Government owned media.”

“President Rajapaksa also reiterated the necessity of adapting in to a strong international media network to update the international community effectively with the real political situation of the country which has reached to a more sensible position than in the past.”

This is not only bad reporting it is also incomprehensible. Readers of this official website who want to glean from it what the government of the day says on various issues are surely left wondering whether their eyes are failing them. One could cite numerous examples of the nonsense that appears on this website in the name of the Sri Lanka Government. Some of them are infinitely worse than what I have quoted and could only be described as linguistic gobbledegook.

The problem that confronts readers – and many of them could be foreign diplomats, academics, think tanks and policy institutions who are trying to obtain official views on relevant matters – is serious.

It is both challenging and hazardous. Challenging because one has to try and unravel what is being said in order to get at the meaning and its import. Hazardous because in doing so one could easily misinterpret what is reported as what was actually intened.

Let me give one more example of what the Information Department is capable of putting on its website. On July 4 it quoted Defence spokesman minister Keheliya Rambukwella as saying this: “Even during a ceasefire, if the national security is threatened, we (Government) deserve (sic!) the right to act appropriately to ensure the safety of the nation.”

Immediately after that came this sentence. “The highest standard of any Government believing in a democratic system is to let the people decide for themselves by freeing them from terrorist’ clutches.”

Either minister Rambukwella cannot articulate whatever thoughts he has – it is a probability one cannot dismiss having read several earlier remarks by him at press briefings – or the Information Department does not know what he is talking about – or both. If one talks of non sequitur, these two sentences appearing cheek by jowl surely exemplify it.

If President Rajapaksa wishes to “update the international community” then he needs to revamp the whole of the Information Department into one that not only knows how to report events accurately and succinctly but is also able to write in comprehensible language, if the intention is to have it on the official government website.

As it is, English languages skill is not the problem of the Information Department alone. It seems to permeate the administration including the foreign service and the media too. Two state-owned English language newspapers are particularly guilty of this. Consider this from the Daily News of July 5 (mistakenly stated in its web edition as June 5) under the headline “A chilling warning to Gordon Brown” and written seemingly by a contributor: “Amazingly there are no NGOs and INGOs to pork their noses…..” Is this ham-fisted (no pun intended) editing right up the chain of command or just plain ignorance. Either way it proves the point
While President Rajapaksa mulls “depoliticising” the state-owned media and how to ensure media freedom there is an immediate task. If government departments and state-owned media are writing and broadcasting in English, they have to ensure that their use of language does not set a bad example to thousands of school children who are struggling to cope with a foreign language and in whose homes English is not common usage.

If I could extrapolate some sense out of the official website, depoliticisation could mean one of two things. Either that the state-owned media – and lets concentrate on them since the meeting was with heads of these institutions – refrains from reporting on politics and eschews chat-shows and other programmes that are now inundated with ministers and government spokesmen or that the state media are allowed editorial freedom in the way that, say, the BBC is allowed to operate.

The first is too narrow a meaning and to say state media should not report on politics is to deprive the people of news and information, however one-sided and partial that might be. To my mind President Rajapaksa meant “depoliticising” in the broader sense.

This could be done in two ways at least. The government continues to appoint the administrators and editors to these institutions but they are given a free hand to run them as proper media institutions without government interference.

The other is to change, if necessary the charter or legislation under which these institutions operate so that they could function as autonomous bodies with editorial independence, drawing on the best journalistic talent instead of turning them into the dumping grounds for the political stooges and cronies of ministers and MPs.

Consider for instance the Lake House newspapers. The Associated Newspapers Act provides for the government to divest itself of the large number of shares – about 75 % I suppose – held by the Public Trustee on behalf of the people.

Every government since the virtual nationalisation (broad base was the euphemism employed) of Lake House had clung to its share holding and did not divest itself regularly of the shares as required by law because it wanted to continue with its stranglehold over the institution.

Inevitably the newspapers were packed with stooges and incompetents who made little or no contribution to journalism or its ethics because they owed their presence to political patronage and the needs of their patrons had to be satisfied.

One need only to study carefully the newspapers produced over the last 25 years or so to notice the steady decline in the quality of journalism and writing. It is a pity that what was once the country’s premier newspaper publishing house and so recognised by the media world, has been reduced to this pitiable state.

In the past Lake House newspaper had editors that could hold their own anywhere in the world not only for their journalistic skills but for their vision as well as depth of knowledge. Not any more unfortunately. There is much more to be said on this important question. Lack of space prevents me from doing so right now.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.