24 March, 2023


Embattled Media: On A Unique Book & A Seminal Launching Event

By Chaminda Weerawardhana

Dr. Chaminda Weerawardhana

Dr. Chaminda Weerawardhana

The book Embattled Media: Evolution, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (ISBN: 978-93-515-0062-9), edited by Dr William Crawley, David Page and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, was launched at the Senate House of the University of London on 20th October 2015. The launch involved an all-day conference, rich in contributions on a range of issues, from governance and media law reform in Sri Lanka, free speech jurisprudence in India, jurisdictional and political constraints to media freedom, teaching media, to donor behaviour with regards to media interaction. The event brought together senior academics and professionals, including past and present officials of the Commonwealth Secretariat and professional bodies attached to the Commonwealth, including the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association and the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association.

The presentation by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, entitled Governance and Media Law Reform in Sri Lanka involved a trenchant analysis of persistent threats to media freedom, and issues pertaining to jurisprudence in this sensitive area. Using many examples from past and ongoing cases such as Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, Lawrence Liang’s excellent presentation dealt with the complex interrelationship between media freedom, liberal democracy and vital human rights issues.

The panel on media policy and governance in the Commonwealth included Victoria Holdsworth, head of Media at the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Communication Division, who strongly emphasised the Secretariat’s commitment to promoting civil society activism standing up for media freedom. This presentation was complemented by that of Mark Stephens CBE, past President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, who engaged in a comparative and retrospective evocation of policy and jurisprudence-related challenges to the free press across the Commonwealth. Dr Lawrence McNamara, of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, reflected upon the broader significance of the Latimer House principles in ensuring media freedom and executive accountability across the Commonwealth.

Embattled Media- Evolution, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (ISBN- 978-93-515-0062-9)The panel on safeguarding media freedoms particularly focused on the work of the non-governmental organization Article XIX and its work in Asia, in the presence of its Asia chief Oliver Spencer. Filmmaker and journalist Nupur Basu reflected upon issues facing journalists in the Indian context, especially under the neoliberal Hinduthva politics of the Modi sarkar. Dr Judith Townend, Director of the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (School of Advanced Study, University of London) devoted her presentation to digital media regulation in the UK. Townend stressed the inadequacy of the term ‘citizen journalism’, outlining different categories of new digital media such as hyper-local media tied to local communities and small media not subject to regulatory frameworks. Willam Horsley, Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield, focused on the global ordeal of protecting journalists in contexts where journalistic expression especially involves life-threatening risks.

The final panel, chaired by Professor James Manor, included a presentation by Professor Daya Thussu of the University of Westminster, who shared the challenges of teaching journalism to highly cosmopolitan and international student audiences, outlining the evolution of academic approaches to the teaching of journalism, and the vital importance of looking beyond Eurocentric approaches. James Deane, Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action, discussed the issue of procuring funding for media-related projects and international donors’ lack of enthusiasm to critical perspectives on donor engagement. It was a book launch of a unique nature, with a primary focus on media, governance and legal/political reform in Sri Lanka, opening up to broad-ranging debates on related issues at a broader international scale.

The book: a unique contribution to media research

The book edited by Crawley, Page and Pinto-Jayawardena includes some fourteen chapters, arranged in five parts, namely, print media, electronic and new media, legal and institutional reforms, media education and reform, and future prospects. The contributors include a plethora of eminent professionals. Sinha Ratnatunga’s chapter takes a diachronic look at the erosion of media freedoms, developing a wholesome picture of a sorry trajectory of the powers that be restricting the freedom of journalistic expression, discussing infringements upon the free press in the pre-Rajapaksa years as well as during the decade of Rajapaksa rule. Ameen Izzadeen’s chapter reflects upon what he terms ‘minority media’ – divisions in the media carved along ethno-national lines. This article provides a glimpse into how newspaper reporting on key political junctures, such as the end of Eelam War IV, dramatically differed and stood in contrast between Sinhala and Tamil newspapers. Izzadeen concludes that post-war, the ethnically divided media outlets are ‘drifting further away from a point of convergence’.

Amal Jayasinghe’s chapter, emphatically entitled ‘Journalism on the Front Line’, focuses on the substantial security threats that Sri Lankan journalists have been (and to a certain extent continue to be) forced to work with. This chapter is strengthened by its semi-autobiographical narrative style. Jayasinghe provides an insider’s view of working under constant security threats in an unwelcome atmosphere for political/investigative journalism. In a highly informative and well-researched contribution, award-winning journalist Namini Wijedasa evaluates the role/s and presence of women in the media. Using empirical evidence, Wijedasa maps out specific challenges faced by female journalists, especially in terms of juxtaposing the profession with personal/family engagements. This article also includes an evaluative discussion on the issue of workplace sexual harassment.

Exploring the political economy of the electronic media, Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapota provide a useful retrospective account of the evolution of electronic media since the last century’s early decades, which then moves on to a discussion on the demanding years of insurgencies and protracted civil war. In mapping transformative currents, the writers explore the case study of the New Education Service (NES), which came to being in the early/mid 1990s, and suffered an abrupt termination at the beginning of the Chandrika Bandaranaike government, also involving a Supreme Court case. For the analyst seeking a nuanced view between the state of media freedom under the Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa regimes, this chapter will provide an invaluable source of insights from two deeply engaged practitioners.

Nalaka Gunawardene’s chapter approaches new and electronic media through a reflection of the evolution of Internet and mobile technologies in Sri Lanka, examining current levels of access to these services in minute statistical detail. This is followed by sections on the state of affairs of online media and related legal and regulatory frameworks. Gunawardene also discusses the controversial issue of web censorship, blocking online media and digital content filtering, mapping the processes of web restrictions put in place under the Rajapaksa regime. This chapter further explores issues of the nexus between established and new media, public perceptions of new media and the digital divide between advocates and sceptics. It also brings together a range of data that would benefit future research in the areas of telecommunications and new media.

Primarily focusing on the print media, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and Gehan Gunatilleke explore the ebbs and flows of media law reform in Sri Lanka from three distinct perspectives – legal, institutional and educational. Exploring problems within the media law reform process, this chapter also discusses sensitive issues such as self-censorship, editorial independence from state authorities and newspaper management bodies, and industry reforms. This chapter broadens the scope of existing debates on the free media, stressing the need to look beyond an exclusive focus on authoritarian excesses of governments, taking stock of the nature of the media industry itself. The writers particularly evoke the diversification of Sri Lankan media and competing state and private media interests. The section on media law reform could be described as the most important contribution of this chapter, with an expert analysis of key junctures and developments. The chapter concludes with an insightful discussion on judicial responses to media issues, reiterating a range of vital aspects such as the continued absence of a definitive legislative framework on contempt of court.

In Chapter 9, Jayantha de Almeida Guneratne PC makes a convincing case on the urgent necessity of a Right to Information Act, raising the question as to how media freedom and rights ought to fit into Sri Lanka’s existing constitutional-cum-legal framework. The writer extensively discusses English legal precedents on media rights as fundamental rights, relevant provisions within the constitutional framework of Sri Lanka, and several key Supreme Court decisions. The chapter concludes with a useful summary of judicial observations noted by the Court, also emphasising the limits to judicial activism, highlighting problems of interpreting Article 14 (1) of the 1978 Constitution of the 2nd Republic, and the reality that basic democratic values remain unfulfilled until a Right to Information Act is added to the statute book.

In their second co-authored chapter, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and Gehan Gunatilleke devote Chapter 10 to a curricular review of media education in Sri Lanka. They discuss media-related curricula available in the Sri Lankan system of education in relation to universal standards of media education, with extensive research on university curricula and programmes offered by training institutes and colleges. The authors then add a comparative dimension to their research, exploring comparative experiences from India, as well as institutional and attitudinal challenges. Pinto-Jayawardena and Gunatilleke call for an integrated approach to media teaching/training, which addresses legal, industry and educational dimensions through a comprehensive and all-encompassing strategy.

Chapter 11, by S. Raguram, makes an invaluable addition to this book, given its focus on the lesser-explored area of media education in the Tamil community, with a primary focus on the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Raguram examines the challenges faced in media education at secondary and tertiary levels in a socio-political context marked by the scars of long-winded war and post-war dilemmas, raising issues of teaching expertise, medium of learning, professional prospects for media graduates, research avenues and persistent threats and restrictions. The article concludes with a clearly articulated list of suggestions to improve media education at university level in the North and East.

Chapter 12, the second contribution by Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha, revolves around new approaches to media literacy, upholding the vital importance of a policy area that has suffered considerable neglect in the Sri Lankan context. Focusing on innovative citizen-centred media literacy training approaches, Jayaratne and Kellapotha engage in an authoritative discussion of media education and training, as well as media studies syllabi. In implementing a concerted plan to enhance media literacy, the authors suggest, in conclusion, the setting up of a media research and study centre modelled on the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

In Chapter 13, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and Gehan Gunatilleke further reflect upon challenges ahead for Sri Lankan media, discussing latent trends, and the scope for future intervention at the legal, institutional and educational levels. The authors highlight the importance of the media putting its house in order, commensurate with further work to strengthen the democratic structure and the rights of free speech and expression. This chapter includes analytical sections on Sri Lanka’s record in terms of the independence of the media, governmental regulation vis-à-vis self-regulation, as well as institutional structures and the non-state sector. The discussion then moves on to media standards, best practice and professionalism, means of transmission and distribution, ethnicity and language issues, gender issues, the market, and the erosion of media freedom, especially focusing on censorship and grievous violence upon journalists. In conclusion, and while being optimistic that the media is set to reflect heavily on its role in the forthcoming years, the authors note that the media, much weakened by years of state control, is yet to come out of its shell.

The concluding chapter includes a fitting summary of the key points raised in the preceding chapters, discussing issues such as the direction/s of media reform and harnessing media literacy. Overall, this book, produced in the course of a multi-year research initiative funded by the Ford Foundation, forms essential reading to anyone interested in journalism in Sri Lanka, media freedom, media-related legal frameworks, the intersections of journalism and jurisprudence, and the politics of contemporary Sri Lanka in general.

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  • 2

    It is the media that defeated the truth and the Tamils.

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