ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 07
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Controlling the media under the pretext of policy

By Neville de Silva

There has been a deafening silence from the government and its media after President Rajapaksa told state media moghuls that they must rid themselves of the “prevailing political culture” and play a “more vibrant and efficient role”, to quote from a Daily News report. Neither the Media and Information Minister who was present at the meeting nor the state media institutions represented has thought it important enough to tell the public what the president had in mind when he urged them to get away from the “prevailing political culture.”

After all it is a significant policy decision – if that is what it is – and the state media had a journalistic duty to interview President Rajapaksa on this or explain this in more detail and precisely how and when the president’s intentions would be carried forward. What precisely is meant by the phrase “prevailing political culture”? Is it the prevailing culture in state media institutions which are shackled to the government in power and hardly utter a word in criticism of those in power?

Or is it a reference to the culture that prevails within the government, in the political establishment or in the nation as a whole which, to put it euphemistically, is not particularly enamoured of the antics of our politicians. If parliament reflects the “prevailing political culture” it is scant wonder that society has such a poor opinion of political life in the country. That institution has been degraded as never before as MPs sit in the Well of the House and disrupt proceedings, some shed their shirts and parade bare bodied like a modern day Tarzan and more recently minister Mervyn Silva hurls abuse in language that would sit with greater assurance in the gutter than the supreme legislature.

Strangely enough the media minister seems to be at a loss for words on what the president said and which the Information Department under his control reported, whatever that language might be called. The state media – at least the print media since I cannot really comment on the electronic media – seem to have taken the same vow of silence as their master, Minister Anura Yapa.

The question is why this silence on an issue that concerns the public at large and would mean a systemic change if the president’s thoughts are put into practise. Is it that Minister Yapa and the heads of state media institutions do not believe that “depoliticising” the media is not a far-reaching policy to merit an in-depth discussion?

After all President Rajapaksa could not have plucked what he announced from of the blue, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It could not have been a sudden flash of inspiration that came at the sight at the collective presence of those intellectual heavyweights.

He must surely have mulled it and chewed it before he told his minister and media heads about it. Is the silence because they too were taken aback by Rajapaksa’s statement or do they really think that this was just a inspirational outpouring that would never see the light of day.

Surely when the head of state says that its media institutions should shed the prevailing political culture, he is either inviting them to do so or he is going to make them do so. The first faint signs of an attempt at raising the issue were an editorial in the state-run Daily News the next day.

But that was a pro forma exercise in obsequiousness which began with the regulation bow in the direction of the presidential residence –“We are glad that no less a person than President…… blah, blah, blah.” In well established fashion the newspaper tries desperately to point the finger at the media in general and away from the obvious failings of the state-owned media.

This is the very thing which I think President Rajapaksa says he wants to avoid, this daily pooja to the government and its minions. Other than this editorial which unfortunately was not intended to generate wider discussion on the issue, I have not read of any serious attempt by the state print media to explain the president’s thinking or analyse what might have prompted this sea change in policy, what would be the consequences for the state media institutions and the media culture in the country.

In response to a question at a recent media briefing Minister Yapa has said they were “eating, drinking people.” Nobody seriously doubts that, especially when such “eating, drinking” is at the tax payers’ expense as is so common today. One wishes, however, that while these ministers engage in their Falstaffian bouts of eating and drinking that they occasionally stop to do some much-needed thinking. What thinking Yapa has done on the state of the Sri Lankan media and the way forward should emerge in his magnum opus, the National Media Policy which was referred to at the president’s meeting.

When that will happen one does not know. But at least for the moment the minister should spell out what he means by a national media policy, whether it encompasses only the state owned media or whether he is trying to draw a policy that covers the entire gamut of Sri Lankan media.

If it is the latter, is this new “policy” going to lay down what the government perceives as “a more ethical and responsible media policy in portraying the truth to the people”, as President Rajapaksa is reported by the Daily News to have said. To my mind the media does have a certain social responsibility and it cannot behave as though the freedom of expression is an absolute right. While the whole question of what is an ethical and responsible media is wide open to debate and has been debated over the years, what concerns me immediately is the second half of that statement –“portraying the truth.”

One does not have to go as far as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said truth is this to me and that to thee, implying truth is subjective like beauty being in the eye of the beholder. There is, of course, what one might call objective truth such as basic facts which are irrefutable. But even this becomes a problem for the media when the government does not speak in a single voice, when ministers themselves make statements that appear contradictory as Defence Spokesman, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama did on the CFA.

Or, for instance, the contradictory manner in which the government itself acted over whether Sri Lanka desires western assistance or not. One of the problems is that there are too many open mouths in government with too many ministers briefing the media. It is time the government reined in ministers such as Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who has taken upon himself to speak on matters relating to external relations instead of taking cognizance of the pot holes in our roads which is partly his remit.

Why this minister should be providing weekly briefings to the media is hard to understand unless the government’s intention is to unleash political rotweillers on the media. The fundamental question that faces those in the media and the larger society is whether this so-called national media policy is an attempt to control the media in general by other means and talk of depoliticising the state media is only a camouflage for new threats to come.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.