By Kshama Ranawana –
State media in Sri Lanka received a scathing reprimand by Maithripala Sirisena, during his acceptance speech, soon after he was sworn in as President.
Never before, he said, had state media gone to the extent it did, as in this election, adding that state media has abandoned every vestige of professional decency.
Indeed his rebuke was most telling. State media was in overdrive the last several weeks, looking for cheap theatrics to attack Sirisena and his coalition of opposition parties.
Since the take over of the Lake House group during Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government, and state control of media was introduced, successive governments have utilized the media to promote themselves. However, it was under the Rajapaksa regime that the media, including many private sector groups fell to its worst depths. Shamelessly! Many so-called editors both in print and electronic media behaved more like attack dogs.
The new regime promises change. President Sirisena campaigned on a platform for change, and promises in his manifesto, “I will create the background necessary for providing a balanced service to the country by immediately stopping the State media being used as a propaganda weapon of the ruling party. I will consolidate to the maximum mass media freedom and the right of information.”
But here is the catch. If this regime goes on to make political appointments to staff any media outlets, their plans of reform will fly through the door.
If the media is to be truly free, state control must be replaced with a regulatory committee that would oversee appointments and content. Appointments to executive positions, such as Chairmen and Directors General should be through a parliamentary select committee. Key positions must be held by professionals who are capable of withstanding political interference and bringing balanced information to the public, not by those who are rewarded for supporting a political party or for being “close to” any politician. Will this new regime be willing to forgo its hold of the Lake House group, and turn it into a crown corporation or privatize it.?
None of the private broadcasters have the ability to reach all Sri Lankans in the manner State control media has. Therefore, a large section of the country hears and reads only what the government wants it to know. As has been observed during this past election, members of the opposing coalition were denied time to air their views on national channels. That is a flagrant violation of the rules governing the media during an election. Believing in the immortality of the regime, government minions went on to distort facts and sling mud at opponents. That was not curtailed to the election alone. Shaming and labeling individuals has been practiced by previous governments too, but it was the Mahinda Rajapksa’s regime that took that dastardly behavior to its lowest depths resulting in security issues and even murder of those who fell out of the governments favour.
Had social media not played its part, many Sri Lankans would have been in the dark even about the oppositions’ manifesto. Yet, the reach of social media in Sri Lanka is limited. Voting patterns in this past election is clear. Where internet is freely available, for the most part, voters supported President Sirisena.
Our expectations of this new ruler is high. Let’s hope his promise of media freedom and by extension the restoration of democracy will be upheld with appointments of professionals and not derailed by political opportunists.