Media: Necessity to look inwards
It might be seemly in the coming year for the Sri Lankan media to examine the manner of its own functioning as opposed to the searchlight being turned on the political system, the legal system or for that matter, the prevalent malfunctioning of civil society

Inward looking in this regard is necessary for the reason that the media itself has a fair share of responsibility to bear for the dolorous state that the country finds itself in today. The media has to accept its share of the burden in its complicity in the subversion of this country's judiciary, for instance, to cite one of the more obvious instances where there was clear lack of critical and apolitical reporting but there are other instances where blame has to be equally apportioned.

The expansion of independent, privately owned newspapers, journals and radio and television stations has now completed the transformation of Sri Lanka's mass communication structures into a diversified media culture. We have tremendous public interest manifested in highly popular 'chat shows' on television that focuses mainly on political issues but among which also rank occasional investigative journalism pieces that look at human-interest stories. The so-called mainstream media has huge impact in a country where the Internet remains accessible only to a fragment of the population despite its touted literacy rates.

With rare exceptions, the mass media has not been not averse from practicing ethnic exclusivism or gender insensitivity in its reportage and commentary, (as evidenced in the language medium playing a selective role in the manner in which ethnic and gender issues are represented), for example.

This is in the context of a general deterioration of standards afflicting the media in general. Lack of internal scrutiny regarding insensitive and inaccurate journalism is evidenced. These complaints are perhaps common to many of us who live in countries where journalism has still not been able to overcome the politicisation of its spaces. Journalists who are interested in community stories do not get the opportunity or the space to engage in actual reporting of the problems of the poor. Instead, most often, they get subsumed in the sensational stories or the copies that report the 'hot news' or the 'political news.' In the process, thoughtful analysis and balanced commentary is ignored.

It may be convincingly argued that unless the structural and institutional framework is corrected, little can be done to improve the quality of reporting. There are, at present, efforts at self-regulation within the industry and a training institute has been set up with special emphasis on training journalists already working in media networks. It is hoped that this will have a greater impact on the raising of standards in Sri Lankan journalism.

In general, it is a matter for deep regret that we have not seen a transformation of print and broadcast media from a primarily government dominated, monopolistic and monolithic media environment to people centred and democratic media structures. The state media remains the biggest segment of the industry in the country. The government controls the country's largest newspaper chain, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL), despite its 1994 election campaign promise to broadbase ANCL's ownership. Two major television stations, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) and Independent Television Network (ITN), together with Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and Lakhanda (a FM radio station operating from the SLBC) continue also to be under government control, thereby constituting a substantial 'state media'.

The approach of the state media to issues concerning rights has been lackaidaisical, preoccupied as they have been with political interests and protecting those who come into power with each election. The deterioration of professional standards has been obvious with a correspondingly severe negative impact on media focus that is issue based.

The state stranglehold has meant that there is no true public service broadcasting as such where the concerns of the communities may be adequately represented. Currently, citizens' participation in broadcasting is assured through a variety of ways. While one method is through the public service or privately operated 'mainstream' electronic media as such, the other is through community radio, where there is direct participation of citizens in broadcasting but in regard to which we do have community radio stations in the true sense of the word.

The prevalent regulatory environment has been un-supportive to the development of a genuine community media movement. The broadcasting system in Sri Lanka does not either reflect external pluralism (that is, pluralism of views broadcast) or internal pluralism (that is, in the composition of its governing board). The notion that private stations must also be permitted to operate but their existence does not diminish the obligations of the public station concerning pluralism since the public's constitutional right to know can only be enforced against a public broadcaster and not against a private broadcasting station (as affirmed by the Supreme Court in numerous cases) has not been reflected in practice.

Similar inhibitions govern the private broadcaster who has to depend for its licence from the Government. And what about the rights of listeners/viewers to such broadcaster who may be nervous to air their views due to the very reasonable apprehension that its licence may not be renewed the next time? This is not a theoretical possibility but indeed, has happened many times in Sri Lanka for example, where heads of private broadcasters have been arrested or their licences not renewed. While these actions have been primarily centered around political issues, the message is clear.

Parliament needs therefore to establish the rules governing the public broadcasting system as well as the framework for the admission of private broadcasters, provided that such rules and framework be fair and free from state control. There should be an independent broadcasting authority regulating the granting of licences to private broadcasters and consequent repeal of existing legal provisions that prescribed ministerial intervention in the process. Important attributes of such a licensing body should be its procedural as well as substantive freedom from state control.

The independence of Sri Lanka's broadcasting regime had been a strongly voiced concern by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) in the course of examination of the country's periodic reports submitted in compliance with its international law obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (ICCPR) and by domestic media monitoring bodies.

In sum, the collective failure on the part of both the print and electronic media to act as a real catalyst in the emergence of democratic structures in Sri Lanka is in large part due to prevailing structural and institutional infirmities but also to the lack of sufficient internal scrutiny and self awareness regard its own deficiencies.

If the fundamental goal is to enable effective and informed media/civil society participation in debates relating to democracy and rights sensitive development in Sri Lanka and if responsible and community based reportage is to be promoted, structural reform of the domestic broadcasting and print regime should be among the first objectives. This should obviously be accompanied by effective internal media regulation. While we see isolated attempts to break free from past legacies of excessive politicisation, extreme repression and entrenched policies of gender and racist centered intolerance, there is still a long way more to go.

Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.