By Ranga Kalansooriya –
Just switch on to your radio set in your car and continue to pay attention for a few minutes. You would be shocked to realize the standards of radio journalism in Sri Lanka, no matter what language you would be listening to. The English channels would be comparatively bit better, but mostly the local language channels would never reach any standards whatsoever. A male and a female host would be on non-stop jabbering and making jokes to themselves – assuming the listeners too would laugh at them; or extremely sub-standard radio dramas that would last for many hours; or else Buddhist prayer programs. These are the three common features of the day of any Sinhala radio channel – of course except for few news bulletins – mainly the private stations. There could be minor exceptions on investigative programs in some selective channels, yet again, it stops there.
One particular commercial radio channel is airing Buddhist religious programs which amount to approximately 60 to 70 percent of its content of the day. What is the objective of this move? To make Sri Lankan society a pure religious one? Madness! Purely to win the audience to attract more advertisers, as its own employees would claim. In other words selling religion for its own commercial gains? Other stations, too followed the trend and now almost all stations are guiding their own audiences to Buddhist prayers at many intervals of the day.
Is the television sector different from this phenomenon? Not at all. Despite for a few exceptions, mostly the television programming, too does not abide by its desired standards. But at least it has some informative, educational content, compared to the radio. The political discussions and some documentaries would do the needful, but yet more to be done.
The political allegiance of these stations, either state or private – also would become an issue mainly during election period. That was the reason behind the move to bring them under the scrutiny of Election Commissioner under the original 19 amendment to the constitution but yet again it could damage the basic principles of freedom of expression. Thus the particular clause was removed from the amendment – though some stations continued to ‘play political games’ during the elections where even the election commissioner was helpless.
None of the stations are abiding by the guidelines of their licensing procedures which again is not the best system we have in Sri Lanka. The fact of the matter here is that these broadcasters – both television and radio – are using a public property which is public waves in doing their business. Thus the state has a responsibility in ensuring the good use of this public property by broadcasters – both state and private – but not through its direct intervention.
The word of the game here is regulation –which is NOT control. Sri Lanka does not have any system to regulate the broadcast media in the country. So, it is a free ride to all without a proper professional watchdog.
Any system needs regulation, no argument about it. There are various mechanisms of regulations, mainly two – either by the state or by the industry itself. Professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants regulate themselves through a mechanism by themselves without any intervention by the state. So should be the media. No democratic system would tolerate media being regulated by the state, so a proper independent regulatory mechanism should be established by the industry itself with the blessings of the state.
What is the point of departure in establishing an independent broadcast regulatory system in Sri Lanka? The lesson could be learnt from the print media industry in this regard which established a self- regulatory mechanism to the print industry more than a decade ago. Though the print media self-regulatory mechanism – the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) – is not the perfect model, a great deal of lessons could be learnt from the process.
The cardinal necessity of this process is the unity among the industry stakeholders at all levels. But the process should begin with the unity among the ownership, otherwise no process will sustain or succeed. Of course there is fierce competition among broadcast stations – sometimes it goes beyond mere commercial competition to inter-institutional battles – but the industry should understand the fact the common enemy is not among themselves but external to them, which is the state. If the industry does not get its acts together and organize itself on a common platform to regulate itself, a state intervention and impose its own authority would be inevitable.
The second requirement is an industry accepted Code of Conduct for the broadcast sector. The Code that is effective under the law, as far as I am aware of, is the one under the Rupavahini Act which would not be acceptable to the larger industry players and also not aligning to any updated and accepted international standards of a code. As initiated by the Sri Lanka Press Institute in 2006, a special committee headed by Dr D B Nihalasinghe prepared a comprehensive Code of Conduct for broadcast media. The committee was represented by senior media practitioners from all broadcast stations and it was a well participatory process. This particular code was adopted by a few stations that included Independent Television Network (ITN) later. Thus, no need to re-invent the wheel in preparing and adopting a Code of Conduct for broadcast industry.
The situation of the print media industry is not different. Mainly the local language print media – Sinhala and Tamil – is suffering from lack of proper professional standards. Violating basic ethics is a common feature while standards of news journalism remain at their lowest. Basically it has not gotten out of the rudimentary framework of selling politics, sex and crime. A simple glance over the page three of many national Sinhala dailies would justify this argument. Sunday Sinhala newspapers do not need any further explanation as they are full of politics, sex and crime. My Tamil journalist colleagues would vouch for the same argument in their own language stream as well.
Print media regulation, too is not in a good shape, rather it is in a total mess. Both self- regulatory system by the industry through the Press Complaints Commission and the state mechanism of Press Council are in existence today. Though the Yahapalana regime pledged to do away with the press council system during its electioneering process, President Maithripala Sirisena reactivated it by appointing members to the council a few months ago. What should have been done was to revise the PCCSL system, fix its loopholes and provide necessary legal teeth for its continuation without state intervention. But what has been done so far is creating a further mess by activating the press council.
We should not forget the fact that any government would love to regulate media according to its own political agenda and for its political gains. No government would waste time in taking decisions in this process. But it is totally up to the industry stakeholders to take proactive actions to avoid such measures by authorities and get their industry in order through unity.
Media is the watchdog of the society, but the media itself needs an independent professional watchdog for itself. Media itself should derive that watchdog through professional and internationally accepted procedures and mechanisms. Otherwise we will continue to blame the government for our own mistakes.