21 September, 2018

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Sri Lanka’s Media Needs Constitutional As Well As Professional Reform

By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera

Any nation’s media would be hard pressed keeping track of a landslide of political change, environmental crises, imminent constitutional reform and a general election, all while keeping safe from a generation of assassins used to impunity.

When the media itself needs reform too, the problems might seem overwhelming. This is why Sri Lanka needs a constitutionally recognised national commission to oversee that reform and ensure freedom of expression is properly defended.

Maithripala Sirisena’s unexpected and virtually peaceful election win over incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quickly painted as a game changer for the country’s media.

He and new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe began well by lifting blocks on independent news websites banned by the old regime. Exiled journalists were urged to return. Sirisena also promised to use his new authority toinvestigate the 2009 murder of combative political journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, whose killers are still free.

But the early offers soon began to look token. There was no matching commitment to identify the killers of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, who went missing five years ago, or the men behind the notorious ‘white van’ abductions of peaceful activists. In fact Sirisena’s commitment to media freedom looks somewhat qualified.

Ranil with media

*Srisena and new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe began well by lifting blocks on independent news websites banned by the old regime.

A series of special expert commissions will be established to oversee an independent review of the judiciary, police, public services, elections, human rights and anti-corruption measures, to written into authority by a 19th Amendment to the constitution. Pointedly perhaps, the list does not include a commission on the media.

Plans for an independent Media Commission are not new, and were excluded from what was eventually enacted as the 17th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution in 2001. Media rights groups should steel themselves for a fight to ensure that the much-needed body is not excluded again.

Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, editor of the once banned Colombo Telegraph, thinks it unfortunate that the new government will not establish a media commission, but thinks it was deliberate. “They are not willing to transform state media into (independent) public service broadcasters, and they don’t want to broad-base (collectivise) the state owned Lake House newspaper group.”

The journalist and legal scholar Asanga Welikala calls for the founding of an Independent Media Commission on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council and represent working journalists, academics proprietors and new media.

“The Commission once constituted would have overall oversight of public service media and would be answerable to Parliament,” he argued for the online political journal Groundviews. “Its primary role would be to oversee the public service media institutions, but may include other powers and functions, including the regulation of the (new and traditional) media marketplace, and to promote the freedom of expression in all its forms including through new technology.”

Kurukulasuriya urges action to break the grip of the political appointees heading the country’s major public and private media companies. The co-option of the owners was the subtler side of the old regime’s system of media control, he says. “The previous Rajapaksa regime changed the ownerships of several media institutions through intimidation,”

Self-censorship drove the majority; more deadly means of censorship were reserved for the small cadres of independent journalists who could not be bought or fired, says Kurukulasuriya. Will the government go on reading “media freedom” as owners’ rights, not journalists’ rights?

Reforming the Sri Lankan media is a vast task. The counter-intuitively named Independent Television Network needs privatisation and the nominally public Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), needs a proper public service broadcast mandate and an end to political interference. A constitutionally mandated Media Commission could appoint and ‘audit’ the works of a new Independent Broadcasting Authority founded to oversee their works.

There is justice still to be found too. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Sri Lanka has the fourth worst record on its 2014 Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and the killers remain free.

In an open letter to Rajapaksa on the eve of elections, Wickrematunge’s widow Sonali Samarasinghe wrote: “At no time in the history of our country has the freedom of expression so brutally been repressed as it is now. Such media as do operate in the country, have been transformed either into propaganda mouthpieces for you and your brothers, or bullied into submission.”

The state media’s job is to “reflect the line of whatever government is in power,” admitted Rajpal Abeynayake, the editor of the state-run Daily News in a memorable post-election quote to the Guardian’s Amantha Perera. “If the government changes, so does the newspaper. It’s as simple as that. If they want to change that practice they could, but so far no government has done it.”

Sirisena is showing little inclination to substantively change matters. The chairman of the state-owned Lake House newspaper group, morning news show anchor and well documented supporter of the Rajapakse family, Bandula Padmakumara, went just a few hours after the election results came in. But few others have followed.

The new president may have to rely on these established partners in self-censorship to help shore up his “fragile, sprawling and diverse” coalition, as the New York Times described it. During the election campaign old favours may be called in and the media expected to help paper over the coalition’s cracks.

Without greater independence the Sri Lankan media will not be able to fairly and accurately report the campaign. International and regional media rights groups need to heap pressure of their own on Sirusena’s new media ministry secretary, Karunarathna Paranawithana, who decribes himself on his Facebook page as a “diplomat, journalist (and) political activist”.

The appointment of a constitutionally recognised commission for the media next month would not do much to change this situation in time for an election call in April, but it would send a clear message to embattled journalists that change was on the agenda and risks were worth taking.

According to Sirisena’s own strict 100 day schedule, his administration will establish the independent commissions on Wednesday February 18. There’s still time to add one on media to the list.

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Latest comments

  • 1
    1

    This is exactly what happened the last time a “civilized Government” aka the UNP, came to power. People expect miracles overnight.

    These are the same people who tolerated 10 years of abuse with hardly a whimper !

    Besides all this has been said before and in these columns too.

    • 0
      0

      Rohan Jayasekera –

      RE: Sri Lanka’s Media Needs Constitutional As Well As Professional Reform

      Rohan Jayasekera. after Media Constitutional As Well As Professional Reform, will Sri Lanka be able to find a Common Sense Phamplet Writer like Thomas Paine of 1776?

      A Sri Lankan Crisis Pamphlet?

      There was none, before the Reform. Will, there be on after the reform?

      When the Sri Lankan Writer were asked about the Common Sense Phamplet, all they did was make strange sounds like Cattle (Harak) Baeee, Baeee, Baeee, which only the Cattle(Harak) seem to understand.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Sense_%28pamphlet%29

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_American_Crisis

      Common Sense[1] is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76 that inspired people in the Thirteen Colonies to declare and fight for independence from Great Britain in the summer of 1776. The pamphlet explained the advantages of and the need for immediate independence in clear, simple language. It was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution and became an immediate sensation. It was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and meeting places.

      Washington had it read to all his troops, which at the time had surrounded the British army in Boston. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history.[2] As of 2006, it remains the all-time best selling American title.[3]

      Common Sense presented the American colonists with an argument for freedom from British rule at a time when the question of whether or not to seek independence was the central issue of the day. Paine wrote and reasoned in a style that common people understood. Forgoing the philosophical and Latin references used by Enlightenment era writers, he structured Common Sense as if it were a sermon, and relied on Biblical references to make his case to the people.[4] He connected independence with common dissenting Protestant beliefs as a means to present a distinctly American political identity.[5] Historian Gordon S. Wood described Common Sense as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era”.[6]

  • 2
    0

    Those of us who’ve said the same things before can and need to keep repeating them until there is a response.

    The Ranil/Sirisena government has provided very disturbing signs of practicing the “same old, same old” hypocrisies and there is a clear need for their feet and those of their supporters to the fire without let up.

    Paying lip service to the eternal verities of democracy and democratic practice is just not enough! Precept has to be converted to practice. The failure of every government since independence to do this has brought Sri Lanka to this sorry pass. Let’s not be party to history repeating itself.

  • 0
    0

    Those of us who’ve said the same things before can and need to keep repeating them until there is a response.

    The Ranil/Sirisena government has provided very disturbing signs of practicing the “same old, same old” hypocrisies and there is a clear need for their feet and those of their supporters to be held to the fire without let up.

    Paying lip service to the eternal verities of democracy and democratic practice is just not enough! Precept has to be converted to practice. The failure of every government since independence to do this has brought Sri Lanka to this sorry pass. Let’s not be party to history repeating itself.

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