Colombo Telegraph

Developing Sri Lankan Media; The State’s Obligations

By Wijayananda Jayaweera

Wijayananda Jayaweera

The State’s obligations in the development of free, pluralistic and independent media

The obligation of the State is to provide an enabling environment for its people to enjoy their fundamental right to receive and impart information without any obstacle to their freedom of expression. Therefore, State’s interventions in Media development should be done only with a view to enhance the freedom of the press and to ensure people’s right to receive quality information from media.

To begin with, ideally the government should organise a comprehensive multi-stake holder assessment to identify media development needs utilising the widely accepted UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators in which media development issues are categorised into the following five different and interlocking areas.

  • a system of regulation conducive to freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity of the media.
  • plurality and diversity of media, a level economic playing field and transparency of ownership:
  • media as a platform for democratic discourse
  • professional capacity building and supporting institutions that underpins freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity
  • infrastructural capacity to support independent and pluralistic media:

Gayantha Karunatilake – Minister Media

Nonetheless, some important media development tasks can be based on the recommendations made by R.K.W. Goonesekere Committee established in 1996 to advise on the reforms of laws affecting media freedom. But it is less likely that they can be implemented fully in this interim period. However belated is to act on those recommendations, it would be important to pronounce media development initiatives following from them, so all stakeholders, including the political parties contesting the next election can take a stand on the policy issues pertaining to media development. In the meantime the government should start a consultative process to build consensus around the following vital reforms recommended by the R.K.W. Goonesekere Committee.

1. Establishment of an Independent Media Council

Replacement of the existing Press Council law with an Independent Media Council Act (This act can be based on the legislation enacted to establish the Independent Press Council of Indonesia, with the expert advise provided by UNESCO). The independent media council should co-regulate all established news media which are originated in the country and distributed through print, electronic and online platforms with the following intentions.

  • fostering freedom of media and media accountability;
  • ensuring the right of the citizen to be informed freely, factually and responsibly on matters of public interest;
  • ensuring the enforcement of news ethics and the right to reply by respective media organisations.
  • taking measures to prevent media ownership concentration ;
  • defending editorial independence from interferences by powerful people with vested interests;
  • auditing media circulation;
  • monitoring/adjudicating on fare distribution of government advertisements;
  • advising the government on media development and related issues;
  • fostering media literacy among people.

2. Independent Broadcasting Authority

Establishment of an Independent Broadcasting Authority to regulate the broadcasting sector in the public interest. Regulator should ensure fair, pluralistic and efficient public interest minded broadcasting system.

The tasks could include

  • planning broadcast frequency spectrum to optimise the access to different channels by audiences and determining the number of services permissible to prevent cluttering of the frequency spectrum;
  • issuance of licences to public, private and community broadcasters in a transparent, open and fare manner; review the current ownership of licences and take necessary measures to address the anomalies which could undermine the pluralism in broadcasting sector;
  • fostering pluralism in the broadcasting sector by preventing ownership concentration and cross media ownership;
  • safeguarding editorial independence of the broadcasters from vested interest groups;
  • Function as a oversight body during the election on implementing the media guidelines issued by the election commission/commissioner;
  • take measures to promote local media content in the broadcasting sector by maintaining and administering of a fund to foster quality documentary productions by independent audio-visual media producers. The fund could be maintained by imposing a levy on licence fee, commercial advertisements and broadcast of foreign productions;
  • provide start-up financial support to establish community radio by disadvantaged communities
  • actively monitor broadcast frequency use, to ensure that actual usage conforms to license conditions.

3. Transforming state broadcasting services in to Independent Public Service Broadcasting Institutions

This task could be launched immediately by establishing an expert committee to make recommendations, including the means of public funding to achieve complete transformation of the state broadcasting services into a public interest minded public service broadcasting institute editorially and intuitionally independent from the government of the day. The members of the PSB governing board/s should be appointed with a mandate to act as independent trustees of the public interest in broadcasting and not as representatives of the government of the day.

Primary functions of the public service broadcaster could include the following:

  • Satisfy peoples right to receive quality information
  • nourish representative pluralism;
  • serve educational and cultural dimensions;
  • editorial purpose should consistently show the ability to become the society’s voice;
  • to elevate cultural levels of the society;
  • to set programme standards for all broadcasters by providing quality programmes;
  • to cater to special interests which may not have a large audiences;
  • the staff should have a highly motivated public interest minded professional attitude devoted to promote democracy and to foster educational and cultural dimensions of a civilized society.

4. Introduction of community broadcasting, particularly community radio

Establish an expert committee to define the community radio praxis, licencing and support mechanisms to promote community radio. Currently independent community radio stations are allowed in India, Nepal and more recently in Bangladesh in the sub-region. Lessons can be learnt from these initiatives.

Community radio is an affordable, accessible media established to promote democratic participation, transparency and accountability at the grassroots level . This is particularly important in a multi ethnic country where remote communities need an affordable communication set up to discuss their perceptions and development needs in a larger context of participatory democracy . A community radio, which caters to a limited geographical community is a property of and is controlled by a not for profit organisation whose structure allows members of the community to adhere and to participate in the management, operation and programming of the radio station. The programming should reflect the diversity of the community the radio station is authorised to serve .

Here, the emphasis is on the ownership of communication means by the members of the community themselves and the use of the media, in this case radio, to achieve it. In every sense, this is participatory communication (not programmes made about them by somebody else!). it is above all a process, not a technology, not merely a means, because the people are part of that means, and so is the message and the audience. Community radio operates on a prescribed guidelines to provide a healthy communicative space at the grassroots level

Few Quick actions:

Besides the above transformational tasks the following few immediate changes to existing practices would help in fostering a new media culture.

  1. Introduce a weekly media critique programme broadcast over the national TV/Radio as an effort to raise media literacy among media users. Experts, civil society representatives and veteran journalists can make their interventions to educate people on media/news ethics and to inculcate a critical mind towards media use.
  2. News guidelines for state broadcasting media to increase the quality of their news (These guidelines can be drawn up by adapting the All India Radio and Durdharshan Guide lines established by the Committee headed by Mr. G. Parthasarathi and issued in May 1982)
  3. Request the Rupavahini to air a weekly film of international fame which could challenge the tunnel vision viewers are accustomed to. Dubbed in to local languages such films would enable the viewers to relate to other cultures, understand the human conditions and difficulties faced by people in different situations. An example is the academy award winning Schiidler’s List in which the true story as to how one German industrialist resisted Hitler’s atrocities against Jews are depicted. Adequate advance publicity should be given to such programmes.
  4. Live broadcast parliamentary proceedings and open the parliamentary committee proceedings to media, including live broadcasting of the committee sessions.
  5. Request the SLBC to re-introduce ‘ Sarala Gee’ programme which enabled many talented people to become national level artists.
  6. Take measures to prevent the current malpractices of the private broadcasters charging a fee (a kind of a bribe) from new artists in order to provide them with opportunities to broadcast their songs.

*Wijayananda Jayaweera – Formerly the Director of UNESCO’s International Programme for Communication Development (IPDC) w.jayaweera@gmail.com  

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