By Ranga Kalansooriya –
Dear Gayantha and Parane,
You accepted the media as a ministerial portfolio from Keheliya Rambukwella – Charitha Herath duo after a challenging period for us in the field of journalism. All four of you are not strangers to the media but the expectations from you two are high as ever. These hopes go well beyond laptops, bank loans, foreign trips and duty free cars.
These high expectations are quite natural whenever there is a change of regime but in all previous instances they were subdued by piece-meal tinkering such as laptops, bank loans etc. The to-do list within the media sector is heavy with many priorities but I do not think you can address them all within the 100-day program.
To be fair by them, mainly of Charitha, he managed to build some rapport with the media when he was the coordinating secretary to the then media minister Anura Yapa. After the 2005 polls, Charitha was the bridge between the media activists and the government and he was our first contact whenever there was an incident of concerns. When the then government attempted to reactivate the Press Council in 2006-2007, Charitha and Anura Yapa, to my mind, managed to shelve that move amidst pressure from within the government hierarchy. Also there were constant dialogue between media stakeholders and the ministry even though serious attacks were carried out against media and its practitioners where this duo became helpless. Some of those who are now talking of media freedom were behind these incidents.
*PM Ranil is talking to journalist – Promising RIT?
The post 2010 election scenario became more ruthless against the media and Charitha became to a more powerful position as the Secretary to Media Ministry. More than direct, the threats were indirect, the ownership of the opposing media houses were bought over, the standards of the state media were devastated, journalists were silenced through various means and more importantly the Right to Information (RTI) was continuously denied. I was shocked to see an academic like Charitha opposing the right to information when all South Asian countries were adopting RTI laws including the Maldives and Bhutan – and even conflict ridden Pakistan. Attempts by both Milinda Moragoda and Karu Jayasuriya were thwarted in the House and the voices for RTI within the civil society were silenced. Efforts by organizations like Transparency Sri Lanka were annulled through direct and indirect attacks.
The excuse to oppose the RTI was national security. One of Charitha’s columns to Lakadeepa dealt with the issue of RTI by providing lame excuses such as national security that could not be expected from a learned university don.
Be that as it may, now the responsibilities are upon your shoulders. There were repeated assurances from leading government leaders that the dark history will not be repeated and media will have a free environment to function. But can it function on its own to ensure media freedom?
Of course, a professional media (I would not use the word ‘free media’ here as it would raise many other issues) is a paramount requirement for a strong democracy. If executive, legislature and judiciary are the three pillars that uphold the roof of democracy, the fourth pillar is the professional media. But what are the requisites for a professional media landscape?
As per my belief, there are five primary requirements for a healthy media landscape. The first is the professional journalist who should have a proper upbringing, proper regulatory mechanism through ethical codes and sound knowledge on issues. Then there should be conducive legal environment for the proper functioning of the media – draconian laws should be repealed and laws like RTI should facilitate the media freedom. Thirdly, media needs updated technology and government has a responsibility in securing freedom of expression through facilitating this requirement, not through blocking the opposing views and tapping the phones of journalists by using technology via wrong means.
Whether we like it or not media is a business whose primary objective is profits. This could generate conflicting arguments, mainly in the Sri Lankan context, but it is a business that strongly tied up with social responsibilities. Thus, it requires a healthy competitive environment, otherwise, the business will not thrive and it would put the media houses in commercial losses threatening the existence of freedom of expression. The last requirement is a literate media consumer market that would understand the dynamics of media and its social responsibilities. A poor farmer in Wellawaya or in Kilinochchi should be able to understand the complex political economies within the media landscape and whose voice he is listening to – irrespective of whether it is private or public media.
It is not entirely the responsibility of the government to ensure all these five requirements in total, but the government certainly has a major role to play as a key stakeholder in all these five areas. The role of the media industry is equally important and it should be a partnership between the government and the industry in ensuring a healthy media culture in this new era. No one should function in isolation in achieving the goal of professional media culture.
On top of these requirements you two have another challenge in reforming and taming the state media which went berserk for the past few years. They openly violated the basic norms and ethics of journalism that led to severe erosion of public trust upon them and I am sure they are now making heavy commercial losses.
I am certainly aware of the fact that the new regime could not do wonders within 100 days where two weeks have already lapsed without much ado. But it is your responsibility at least to generate a public discourse and lay the foundation for a professional media landscape for the future. Introduction of RTI laws will, of course, be strengthening the democracy but it is a small, but important component of this large picture.
I am sure you are aware of these matters, but thought of highlighting and reinvigorating them as we feel it is our primary duty as media practitioners in this country.