By Kusal Perera –
“Any change in the media there (in Sri Lanka) after January 08 ?” asked the head of a renowned and respected media training institute across the Palk Straits, a few days ago. I guess my answer to his pointed question except for details in this here, was no different to this.
There are two sides to this single question. First is to know if the new government is into controlling media by some means to it’s advantage, to which the general answer would be “No”. The next is to know if the media on its own acts more independent now and a quick answer to that would be “Yes”. Where does that leave the media different to what it was pre January 08, is my question thereafter.
To answer that, one would need to carefully journey through pre war time rule under the Rajapaksas to date. Let’s begin by accepting the fact that here in Sri Lanka as in India and in most other democratic countries, to own a media institute, print or electronic (that’s FM radio and TV), provides the owner/investor much leveraging space with political power. Especially the electronic media that can influence political thinking in ordinary minds, compels the owner/investor to first make political affiliations with influential leaders in the government to have broadcasting or telecasting license, renewable yearly. That was the status when Rajapaksa first came to power in 2005 November and the dynamics remain the same to date.
The media on a matrix
In terms of ownership, by now there are 36 FM radio stations in operation outside State ownership, owned by about 16 private companies. Some of these radio broadcasting companies are subsidiaries of TV telecasting companies or a company that has both radio and TV operations. Some companies operate channels in all 03 languages and have all island reach. The State owns 03 corporations that have 09 FM channels in all three languages with national coverage.
*Photo -Editors and media owners with Prime Minister – March 26, 2015
There are 07 State owned TV channels on Analog and the national Rupavahini channel on Digital telecasting. Of the privately owned channels, there are 17 channels awaiting telecasting rights from the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) applied for by a single company, the “Art Media Network (Pvt) Ltd.”, while at present 13 are operating on Analog owned by about 08 private companies. As for their reach, while all channels claim national coverage, most do not. There are channels that have dumb patches in provinces where they can only be accessed through cable networks.
Print media has the oldest publishing house (ANCL) that has publications in all 03 languages taken over by the State in 1972 during the rule of Madam B and 04 private publishers (Wijeya, Upali, Sumathi and Rivira) handling Sinhala and English news papers. Another, “Standard Newspapers” funded by a politico businessman came in a few years ago. Tamil language print media is the only nationally and regionally established news media with at least 03 regular news papers published in Jaffna serving the North including Vanni and the East, while Express News Papers has the nationally accepted Tamil publication in “Veerakesari”.
There are also a few weekend broadsheets that have come to stay. Of them the most influential news paper is “Ravaya”, unique in many ways apart from being the only Black & White publication despite the rage for colour in all other media.
Most importantly, media in Sri Lanka is “Colombo” based and has a “Central government” fixation. Over the past few years, almost all print and electronic media reached out to the world and not to provinces in disseminating news. They have thus gained a significant presence in the internet and have a global presence. Within this cyber world are also other digital news sites that emerged during the past few years. Their right to exist is determined by a culture in urban society and the Sinhala/Tamil Diaspora to access speculative news. This presence is very much on quick news reporting and not so much on entertainment, discussions and educational content. [Two exceptions to the rule are Colombo Telegraph and Groundviews]
Ownership and culture
There was this Colombo based debate over 02 decades ago and it still continues over freedom of expression and media freedom. This debate is outside the media restricted to “watchdog” organisations funded by donor agencies and within democracy activists and groups in Colombo. While there is very little explanation as to how such freedoms could be enjoyed within editorials, the debate focuses on these rights in terms of ownership. The popular argument remains, State owned media has to be “balanced”, should not be mouthpieces of the ruling power as they are maintained and managed with public money. By “balance” what is often meant is that, State owned media should accommodate the Opposition with respect and with adequate coverage.
Private media should thereafter be allowed to have their own editorial freedom and programmes without government pressure and demands by any means, goes the argument for media freedom. It thus implies the government in power should not use State advertising allocations to demand allegiance from private media.
This understanding was partly relevant and partly right over two decades ago. It isn’t that any more. Not because the Rajapaksa regime coaxed and coerced them to fall in line with the regime during the war. Today, no media can be classified as private and State owned, based on who the owner/investor is. Technically there is privately owned media. But all private businessmen work hand in glove with the regime. Some or most will not survive without regime patronage. Most who now manipulate the Colombo stock market are exceptionally rich men who are that because they worked for the regime. These new rich cronies played proxy for the regime in moving investments to areas and places of regime’s choice during the Rajapaksa era. Most print media including the Sunday Leader went under such proxy. Others worked in tandem with the regime and played hide and seek with the people. Even FM radio stations were that and so were TV stations. They were either financed or controlled by regime proxies or the owners had business through State patronage as decided by the regime. And the regime remained the Rajapaksa regime till 08 January 2015.
Therefore by end 2013 and after, it wasn’t a matter of who owned the media. It was a case where the Rajapaksa regime controlled all media through ownership, whether under the State or not. They therefore didn’t have a need to interfere directly with media personnel/journalists after some years, as they did in the first years of coming to power.
On the editorial side too, there weren’t much effort either to assert their professional rights and status. So much so, the very Code of Ethics meant for professional journalism conceived, drafted and adopted by The Editors’ Guild itself, is being openly flouted day in and day out by the editors themselves. Not because they are under pressure by any in government or by political forces. But because they do subscribe to the Sinhala supremacist ideology on which all regimes rule to carve out a sizeable chunk of Sinhala votes. Therefore ideologically too there was very little difference between the media and the Rajapaksa regime where ownership was no serious factor under the Rajapaksa regime. Metaphorically speaking, when we came to the January 08 presidential poll, the demarcation between State and private media was as blurred as it is today with the main Opposition and the new MS-RW government. One could speak or argue from any seat left or right of the Speaker, on condition, one runs alone but hunts with the government.
The privileged media
Most or almost in all privately owned electronic media and in some print media too, no unionisation is allowed. It is prohibited to organise or join a trade union. Therefore the only organisation that was begun with a trade union flavour way back in the 60’s, the SL “Working Journalists’ Association” is restricted to few print media publishers. Interestingly, it is not structured to have membership based branches within those media institutes. Where there are trade unions for media personnel of any classification is the State owned media, print or electronic.
Whenever FM radio anchors approach me for comments and opinions on various rights based issues, I have told them they should first talk about rights denied to them. For they live in a country which is a signatory to and have ratified both ILO Conventions 87 and 98 that guarantees their right to association and collective bargaining. But no media watchdog organisation or journalists would ever discuss that in relation to media practitioners.
This lack of basic rights, in some cases even the right to a written contract on employment is been compensated with heavy remuneration packages. Packages much above their capabilities and experience. That raises another question. The Sri Lankan advertising market on which all media, State and private, print and electronic has to live on, is not a very large market that can accommodate an increasing number of news papers and radio/TV channels. By year 1999 end there were only 09 private radio channels that had now increased to 40 plus including the State owned. Very much less TV channels and news papers there were too. The advertising market has not grown in relation to the news paper and station numbers we have now to accommodate them all with comfort. Most private electronic media therefore don’t profit enough to sustain heavy remuneration packages given to their staff. Yet they do cushion them. But how?
With most private owner/investors working with and for the Rajapaksa regime counted as the most corrupt regime since independence, the black money economy in Sri Lanka has become quite large. Some estimates count the black money economy to be over 35 p.c of the national economy. True or not, there’s plenty and enough black money that goes into politics and the media is not free either. In fact, it is now said, new investments that came into media in changing ownerships were in fact black money turning white.
How different could such media be ?
Here is a question that will not have immediate answers. For now, with the main Opposition in parliament also sharing collective responsibility in cabinet as a partner in this new government and the JVP playing an equally dubious role partaking in decision making as a full member of the National Executive Committee (NEC), how do we now judge the independence of media ? How do we expect the media to behave ? The usual benchmarking of media independence and freedom has been in how the Opposition is treated in coverage and what leverage the ruling party has in media coverage. That is a smudged picture now, to carry in news coverage. That thus gets filled up with coverage the Rajapaksa campaigns get in his efforts to be alive politically. He still has influence with his old time proxies controlling private media.
All of it allows mainstream media ideology to be Sinhala supremacist. What often get highlighted still are quips from political leaders and news stories that can lift the spirits of the Sinhala mindset. National Anthem in Tamil, Tigers regrouping, genocide resolution, EU ban on Tigers is all news that continues with different flavours and comments with highlights too. Simply saying, a change of regime on January 08 has not changed the media ideology and will not. The new government too only uses such as “media bites” and is not willing to politically challenge media practise in public discourses. Media freedom is wrongly interpreted in terms of the new government allowing the Right to Information law promised to be enacted soon. Thus for now, the owner/investor is in no hurry to choose sides. In fact there is no political demarcation to choose the right partner in government.
This media scramble continues as there is no conscious campaign in society to rightly pin the media to its social responsibility. Media is all about social responsibility and not about balancing between the ruling party and the opposition. How the media should position itself with responsibility towards society and how it should be regulated is a discourse that “January 08” has also not helped emerge.