Colombo Telegraph

Tough Lady Should Look At Media Corruption As Well

By Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr Ranga Kalansooriya

Wednesday this week (December 09) marked the international anti-corruption day with a nationwide campaign on eradicating corruption. Interestingly all mobile phone users, too, received a common text message with a pledge “I declare: I shall not pay a bribe, I shall not take a bribe and I shall report / give info on corrupt practices.”

Sri Lanka, according to the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, is still performing better compared to many of its Asian neighbors as far as anti-corruption is concerned. In fact both India and Sri Lanka are the best performing countries in this index in South Asia ranking in the 85th place among 175 countries.

When talking about corruption, the first sector of society that comes to anyone’s mind is politicians. They are the most visible and noticeable characters in the domain of corruption.

In fact Sri Lanka should be glad to reach its current position in the global anti-corruption index with the poor level of governance we experienced for the past one decade. Corruption and nepotism became a gigantic octopus that encroached every segment of society – from top to bottom. This does not mean that President Rajapakse initiated it, rather he fully enjoyed and benefited maximum out of what has been commenced by his predecessors.

All four pillars of democracy were severely affected by this epidemic. No need to specify the level of corruption of the executive, it was limitless. If the stories we hear are correct, the mere number of complaints of corruption against the ‘top family’ amounts to more than 700. How many years would it take to resolve these cases given the natural and unavoidable tendency of laws delays?

Then comes the legislature which was predominantly guided by a corrupt executive. So need no further explanations. There was a blanket approval for his “Yes Men” to determine their own conduct, irrespective of morality or ethical standards. When we refer to legislature, it does not confine to Parliament – but its allied institutions as well. The high profile cases that came into light during recent months – specifically the biggest ever bribery case of customs and several corruption cases of senior police officers were significant events in the fight against the menace in big scale. No doubt, the tough lady who heads the bribery office would leave no stone unturned and no case unresolved. She has proved her competency and won the public trust, I believe. The hurdle she is already facing is the lack of resources in the face of mounting complaints against the big wigs – both former and present.

The judiciary was not left alone. The interventions of the previous regime into the country’s judicial system not only deprived the trust among its own population, but extended to Geneva as well. Thus, the hybrid systems were proposed. It went to an extent where the winning President Maithripala Sirisena refusing to take oaths before the incumbent Chief Justice of the country. Getting him out of the job was a ‘mafia style operation.’ But these judicial corruption allegations should not confine to the Rajapaksa regime, to be fair by him. We still remember how Ravaya reported the appointment of Sarath Silva as Chief Justice by President Chandrika Kumaratunga by publishing the picture up-side-down on its front page with a caption “Adhikaranaye Malagama” (the funeral of the judiciary).

The fourth pillar of democracy is media – the watchdog of the society with no watchdog on itself. Thus, very less we hear about the issue of corruption within media. It exposes others but no mechanism to expose itself to the society and display its true picture to the people at large.

As in every other sector, corruption within the media sector spans from top to bottom with very few exceptions. Corporate ownership – either state or private – would always enjoy economic or political maneuvering while a few would engage in converting black money into white through media businesses. This is not a unique feature to Sri Lanka, but a global phenomenon where a significant portion of the media market is owned by cronies. Many owners would use their media outlet as political or economic tools, though they continue to make financial losses. Here I must repeat the fact that there are a few exceptions that engage in genuine media business, too.

When training journalists on practicing ethics, independence and accountability are among the most cardinal issues that are being discussed at length. But its practicality is in question. This includes both editors and journalists. From another perspective, eradicating corruption from a profession which is not paid well is a tedious task, but it is not a blanket excuse to engage in corrupt practices that could span from receiving a cap or a t-shirt as a gift at a press conference to massive financial deals – either to publish or not to publish a story. Such events could take place at provincial as well as headquarter levels.

There is an interesting advertisement by one of the Sinhala radio channels. It starts with a dialogue where a politician is receiving a bribe and then go on to say that even paying cash to the listeners is a direct mode of bribing. Several radio channels offer cash – not as a prize but as a gift – to their own listeners in a bid to promote the respective channels and provide extensive publicity to those cash receiving events. We should ask the tough lady at the Bribery Commission whether this could really be a bribe, and if so we need to take stern action against such misconducts of the Fourth Estate.

Another grey area that needs thorough scrutiny within the broadcast sector is the ‘rating madness.’ To my mind this is an extremely vulnerable sector that could be susceptible to corruption. The monitoring system has its own technical mishaps where a few hundreds of samples “indicate” the behavior of millions of media recipients and the so called research entities dominate and probably manipulate the market as well. A thorough academic research based on empirical evidence is a must to find out the loopholes, and possible corrupt practices within this system – and also to propose alternatives.

Thus, media should not be spared from any anti-corruption campaign. In fact we cannot think of a dynamic democracy without cleaning the media landscape from these unethical practices. We need a system to watch the watchdog.

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