By Mass L. Usuf –
Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship: “Edmund Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
While Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with reference to India is famed to have called the media ‘the watchdog of our democracy’.
To call the ‘Press’ or the ‘Media’ as the fourth estate or the watchdog per se signifies its station in the temple of democracy. The Media besides its institutional nomenclature, functionally alludes to the collation and dissemination of information. This functionality is wide and varied encompassing democracy and good governance and, matters of public interest with relevance to society, economics, religion, culture and so forth. Along with these via discussions and debates educating and guiding the public. Of course, entertainment is an integral part too.
In the context of a government there is the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary as the indispensable triad of democracy. Stability between them is ensured by the doctrine of separation of powers which enables maintain checks and balances. The news coming out of these three portals is given to the public by the media. Edmund Burke in order to emphasise the importance of the media said that the Fourth Estate is more important than the other three.
The country’s first television station was the Independent Television Network (ITN) which started broadcasting in April 1979. The new station remained independent only for two months as the government took control of it. Sri Lanka’s second state-owned television station – Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) – was established by the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation Act No. 6 of 1982.
According to a research study by the Open University, as far as Sri Lankan Media industry is concerned, there are more than 60 radio channels, 20 television channels and 200 newspapers in all three languages. Only two market research companies operate audience rating systems on radio and television broadcasting in Sri Lanka. Yet the ratings systems operating in Sri Lanka have generally lacked transparency in terms of their methodology and process. (ISSN 2012-9916 © The Open University of Sri Lanka). This situation is exploited by the television owners to claim that they are the best or they are the number one. The common man is not aware of the intricacies of media rating systems. They can be easily fooled to believe in these fictitious claims.
Sri Lankan has a rural population of around 81% (of total population), according to the World Bank collection of development indicators. Only 19% are living in the city and urban areas. Access by the rural population to information disseminated by the print, electronic, social media, radio and the internet is obviously limited. The reason being lack of infrastructure, domestic economic priorities, ignorance, weak purchasing power and, in general, typical rural backwardness. It is not strange to note that there are many households without even a television set. If they have one it is connected only to the free to air channels. Mostly, the State television. Despite this the number of viewers is far greater when those who do not have television sets visit their neighbours to watch programs.
It is essential that any news given in whatever form radio, print or electronic is presented with due accuracy and done so impartially. Public interest should be foremost in the minds of the news provider. Contextually, examine the following observations made about media reporting on the 2014 Aluthgama riots. “The mainstream media did not cover the events of Aluthgama as they unfolded. … The State media in particular presented a distorted and highly sanitised version of events. The editorial of the English medium state newspaper, Daily News on 17 June 2014, downplayed the incident by claiming it was ‘isolated’ and was being exaggerated. Privately owned newspaper ….. the Island’s editorial on 16 June 2014 insinuated that the blame lay with the Muslim community, as it claimed that participants at the BBS rally were attacked first.” (Post war religious violence in Sri Lanka, ICES & Equitas 2015.)
It is reasonable to ponder over the ethics of unbiased journalism with regard to the privately-owned newspaper. In connection with the State controlled Daily News, can it be argued that such distorted reporting tantamount to an act of discrimination on the grounds of race and/or religion? Is there a violation of the fundamental rights of a citizen as enshrined in the Constitution? Article 12. (2) states:
“No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds: ……. ”
Freedom of Speech and Restriction
Freedom of speech is indisputably fundamental for the functioning of an effective media. However, this freedom cannot be absolute and, therefore, our constitution has placed certain restrictions. Article 14 (1) (a) grants this freedom and by virtue of Article 15 (2) it conditions the extent of this freedom to certain restrictions.
Article 14 (1) (a) states:
“Every citizen is entitled to –
(a) the freedom of speech and expression including publication;”
Article 15 (2) states:
“The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1)(a) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
The limitations, inter alia, apply to situations ‘prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony’. Since this restriction refers to other laws, it will be of interest to know what these laws are. The clear implication is also that whatever has been prescribed by the other laws as a violation of racial and religious harmony cannot be disseminated as news. Such news will not fall within the ambit of the right to free speech under 14 (1)(a). Two references under the Penal Code are given below as examples.
291A. Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
291B. Whoever, with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
The media does not pay heed to these restrictions. Especially, some broadcasters and the press who are obsessed by Sinhala Buddhist nationalism have disseminated news which fall under these prohibitions. Such news offends against good taste and decency. Likely to incite crime and public disorder. Offend racial and religious susceptibilities. While journalism needs to be free, independent, responsible and ethical most of our ‘journalists’ are just the antithesis of these principles. Extending this a little further, is it not a shameful joke that these blokes masquerade as journalists?
Fifteen million voters
Professor Noam Chomsky in relation to media manipulation once said, “The general population does not know what is happening, and it does not even know that it does not know”. Remember our rural population is around 81%. Not all rural folks would be inclined towards reading newspapers. Therefore, television and radio have a significant role to play in educating the rural illiterate masses and making them aware of all the events happening in the country. Sri Lanka has a voter registration list which exceeds fifteen million voters. All these people too have the right to know and the moral right to be told the truth via the television or the other media.
The State media and certain private Television channels have failed in their moral duty and commitment to educate the masses. Media is expected to supply the political information that voters base their decisions on. On the contrary, they have continuously manipulated the thinking of the population especially the helpless rural people. Their effort had been to promote the concentration of power based on narrow nationalistic political schemes. To achieve this evil plan, they deliberately engineer the disintegration of the population into compartments of race and religion or regionally, as North and South. The extent of influence wielded cannot be measured but what is certain is that it is presented in a manner appealing to the emotions of the rural masses.
Professor Chomsky says that the Media uses the emotional aspect more than the rational aspect. The emotional aspect short circuits rational thinking. It finally opens the door for the implantation of ideas, fears, anxieties and compulsions. The Sinhala rural population who are innocent and gullible would naturally believe in these types of propaganda. Our media was saturated with consistent populist campaigning and the moulding of deceptive and treacherous public opinion against the ‘opponents’.
Populism destabilizes democratic practices and provide a foundation for antidemocratic leaders to come to power or even abuse power, as seen recently. Thanks to the judiciary which oxygenated democracy and democratic institutions when it was nearing death.
The ultimate goal of media is to serve the public interest. The Media as the fourth estate must protect what has been saved. Do not asphyxiate Democracy. It must act responsibly and play a positive role in fostering a democratic culture that goes beyond petty and opportunistic politics. The most recent event which showcased media bias and manipulation of the minds of the people was the period from 26 October 2018 onwards. While its function was to be the watchdog of the three organs, it conducted itself in a manner which only helped to give rise to uncertainty, deep suspicion and tension between people. If a democracy is to run smoothly in any country, it is a must that the media discharge its duties without being influenced by any particular political party or few individuals and should treat everyone on an equal footing. Democracy is meaningless without a free, neutral and active media.
The next item in the Agenda of the civil society organisations is to rally demanding a balanced State media and to censure the private media if they do not change their ways. The theme should be: “A media free from intervention from media owners and the State and, enhancing professionalism among journalists.”