By Chandra Goonewardene –
Should not there be greater discussion on the ethics of the private media in manipulating what they publish or what they allow to be featured on their websites? The question is not of impolite language which needs to be ‘moderated”. The question is one of suppressing one set of views while giving free rein to the other.
The media is, of course, not alone in their culpability. Take non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Sri Lanka. Many of those heading these NGOs have been tarnished by extravagant lifestyles and by the thousands of money that they spend (virtually) on nothing at all. They have also spoilt the good name of others who engage in public spirited activism in the manner of many such efforts elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
Yet, this continuous NGO-bashing that some sections of the media engage in, appears to be a good campaign on which the government could then start witch-hunting selected NGO’s and then usefully subdue all others as well. If NGOs who are supposed to get cartloads of dollars are under investigation, it is a mystery as to why an NGO czar who famously said some years ago that he gets Rs one million as a regular monthly payment, is not under similar investigation and similarly targeted? Was this NGO czar omitted by these eager-beaver ‘journalists’ because he has close links to the Rajapaksas?
As someone pointed out recently, it is no coincidence that the loudest voices in the private media leading the campaign against non-governmental organizations, Malinda Seneviratne (Nation ), Rajpal Abeynayake (Lakbima) and CA Chandraprema (SundayIsland) have their bases in publishing companies that have direct links to the government.
The Lakbima is owned by Thilanga Sumathipala who has direct political links to the government and more importantly has fingers in the lucrative pie of the cricket industry. Some months ago, former captain of the Sri Lanka cricket team, and the only captain to bring home the World Cup, Arjuna Ranatunge raised fun all around when he made contemptuous remarks over the Sirasa channel in a panel discussion, referring to ‘cricket mudalalis’ whom he said was responsible more than politicians, for ruining the game. Sumathipala’s dubious background in wheeler dealing and his forays into newspaper publishing for the benefits that would gain him politically, are well known.
On the other hand, theIsland’s link to the government is also not a secret. As said in AsiaViews written by CPJ’s Bob Dietz and Shawn W Crispin (Attacks on the Press, 2010, Asia Analysis) Prabath Sahabandu, editor of The Island daily, had told CPJ that his paper’s pro-Rajapaksa stance was a natural fit: “This government was preoccupied with the war effort and we were also campaigning against terrorism as a newspaper. On this particular issue, we saw eye to eye. So we didn’t have the problems that other newspapers had.” Less said about the Nation, the better.
So, it could be said that, these are government mouthpieces, permitted to periodically castigate the government over corruption and such but never challenge government policy where it matters; ie questions of accountability. Earlier this year, many of these government propagandists in the private media went to Geneva for an all expenses paid trip by the government and acted as vicious hounds barking at every person who tried to criticize the government in the United Nations when the Human Rights Council vote was on. They not only failed in their task but also angered Western moderates and made other Sri Lankans cower in shame at their due and crude tactics! Some of these crude propagandists are members of the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and ‘represent’ the Guild on occasion! To a non media person, this is an amusing thing to see, particularly when the Guild itself is rarely brought to public action on serious issues affecting the Sri Lankan media.
Media commentators who try to portray a different point of view then get attacked by these propagandists in a deliberate campaign. Some time ago, a balanced description of the strains that Sri Lankan NGOs are facing by Feizal Samath had been attacked (surprise! surprise!) by Malinda Seneviratne! I applaud principled columnists in the Sunday Times, Island and Sunday Leader who have taken on these attacks in very different styles of writing while others cower in fear. To give it credit and perhaps through a shrewd understanding of the need to preserve its credibility, theIslanddoes indeed at least give space to some views that are liberal in nature.
But this is not about individuals. Granted, the NGO sector may have lost public support in general. It should address this by internal self regulation, a stronger focus on public spiritedness and a gradual inching out of the rogues in their midst. But the Sri Lankan private media must also realise that it cannot look for any public support if it does not enforce professionalism among its ranks by whatever means necessary and in regard to what they choose to publish. Featuring advertisements on the Code of Ethics for journalists, holding meetings of the Press Complaints Commission and the Editors Guild, having glossy events and awards nights for journalists (which is presently more marked by ugly infighting) is not enough.
Discussions on media ethics must be brought to the forefront not only in closed discussions among media sympathisers but also featured in the pages of newspapers by editors and by senior journalists as I saw recently in the United Kingdom when visiting my daughter. As long as the Sri Lankan media and its industry lobbies are perceived to have agendas in the way that they function, hosting Awards Nights will not do to win public support. And if the media fritters away public support, it will be wide open to the government to attack it on all fronts which it is now doing anyway.