Media Reforms: The Unfinished Agenda
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Sri Lanka’s media landscape was very different. We had only one radio station (state-owned SLBC) and three newspaper houses (Lake House, Times of Ceylon and Independent Newspapers). There was no TV, and the web wasn’t even invented. At that time, most discussions on media freedom and reforms centred around how to contain the overbearing state – which was a key publisher, as well as the sole broadcaster, dominant advertiser and media regulator, all rolled into one. Four decades on, the state still looms large on our media landscape, but there are many more players. The number of media companies, organisations and products has steadily increased, especially after private sector participation in broadcasting was allowed in 1992. More does not necessarily mean better, however. Media researchers and advocacy groups lament that broadcast diversification has not led to a corresponding rise in media pluralism – not just in terms of media ownership and content, but also in how the media reflects diversity of public opinion, particularly of those living on the margins of society. As the late Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha, two experienced broadcasters, noted in a recent book, “There exists a huge imbalance in both media coverage and media education as regards minorities and the marginalised. This does not come as a surprise, as it is known that media in Sri Lanka, both print and broadcast, cater mainly to the elite, irrespective of racial differences.
Media under pressure
● The multi-author book, titled Embattled Media: Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka (Sage Publications, Feb 2015), was compiled during 2012-14 by a group of researchers and activists who aspired for a freer and more responsible media. It came out just weeks after the last Presidential Election, when media freedom and reforms were a key campaigning issue.
In their preface, co-editors William Crawley, David Page and Kishali PintoJayawardena say: “Media liberalisation from the 1990s onwards had extended the range of choice for viewers and listeners and created a more diverse media landscape. But the war in the north and insurrections in the south had taken their toll on media freedoms. The island had lived under a permanent state of emergency for nearly three decades. The balance of power between government, judiciary, the media and the public had been put under immense strain.”
…the media industry as a whole also needs state assistance to exorcise demons of the recent past.
The book, to which I have contributed a chapter on new media, traces the evolution of mass media in post-colonial Sri Lanka, with focus on the relevant policies and laws, and on journalism education. It discusses how the civil war continues to cast “a long shadow” on our media. Breaking free from that legacy is one of many challenges confronting the media industry today. Some progress has been made since the Presidential election. The new government has taken steps to end threats against media organisations and journalists, and started or resumed criminal investigations on some past atrocities. Political websites that were arbitrarily blocked are once again accessible. Journalists who went into exile to save their lives have started returning. On the law-making front, meanwhile, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution recognized the right to information as a fundamental right. But the long-awaited Right to Information Bill could not be adopted before Parliament’s dissolution.
Thus much more remains to be done. For this, a clear set of priorities has been identified through recent consultative processes that involved media owners, practitioners, researchers, advocacy groups and trainers. These discussions culminated with the National Summit on Media Reforms organised by the Ministry of Media, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) and International Media Support (IMS), held in Colombo on 13 and 14 May.
Parallel to this, there were two international missions to Sri Lanka (in March and May) by representatives of leading organisations like Article 19, UNESCO and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). I served as secretary to the May mission that met a range of political and media leaders in Colombo and Jaffna.
● We can only hope that the next Parliament, to be elected at the August 17 general election, would take up the policy and law related aspects of the media reform agenda (while the media industry and profession tackles issues like capacity building and greater professionalism, and the education system works to enhance media literacy of everyone).
Pursuing these reforms needs both political commitment and persistent advocacy efforts.
• Right to Information: The new Parliament should pass, on a priority basis, the Right to Information Bill that was finalised in May 2015 with inputs from media and civil society groups.
• Media Self-Regulation: The Press Council Act No. 5 of 1973, which created a quasi-judicial entity called the Press Council with draconian powers to punish journalists, should be abolished. Instead, the self-regulatory body established in 2003, known as the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL), should be strengthened. Ideally its scope should expand to cover the broadcast media as well.
• Law Review and Revision: Some civil and criminal laws pose various restrictions to media freedom. These include the Official Secrets Act and sedition laws (both relics of the colonial era) and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act that has outlived the civil war. There are also needlessly rigid laws covering contempt of court and Parliamentary privileges, which don’t suit a mature democracy. All these need review and revision to bring them into line with international standards regarding freedom of expression.
• Broadcast regulation: Our radio and TV industries have expanded many times during the past quarter century within an ad hoc legal framework. This has led to various anomalies and the gross mismanagement of the electromagnetic spectrum, a finite public property. Sri Lanka urgently needs a comprehensive law on broadcasting. Among other things, it should provide for an independent body to regulate broadcasting in the public interest, more equitable and efficient allocation of frequencies, and a threetier system of broadcasting which recognises public, commercial and community broadcasters. All broadcasters – riding on the public owned airwaves – should have a legal obligation to be balanced and impartial in coverage of politics and other matters of public concern.
• Restructuring State Broadcasters: The three state broadcasters – the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and the Independent Television Network (ITN) – should be transformed into independent public service broadcasters. There should be legal provisions to ensure their editorial independence, and a clear mandate to serve the public (and not the political parties in office). To make them less dependent on the market, they should be given some public funding but in ways that don’t make them beholden to politicians or officials.
• Reforming Lake House: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited or Lake House was nationalised in 1973 to ‘broadbase’ its ownership. Instead, it has remained as a propaganda mill of successive ruling parties. Democratic governments committed to good governance should not be running newspaper houses. To redeem Lake House after more than four decades of state abuse, it needs to operate independently of government and regain editorial freedom. A public consultation should determine the most appropriate way forward and the best business model.
• Preventing Censorship: No prior censorship should be imposed on the media. Where necessary, courts may review media content for their legality after publication (on an urgent basis). Laws and regulations that permit censorship should be reviewed and amended. We must revisit the Public Performance Ordinance, which empowers a state body to pre-approve all feature films and drama productions.
• Blocking of Websites: Ensuring internet freedoms is far more important than setting up free public WiFi services. There should be no attempts to limit online content and social media activities contravening fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and international conventions. Restrictions on any illegal content may be imposed only through the courts (and not via unwritten orders given by the telecom regulator). There should be a public list of all websites blocked through such judicial sanction.
• Privacy and Surveillance: The state should protect the privacy of all citizens. There should be strict limits to the state’s surveillance of private individuals’ and private entities’ telephone conversations, emails and other electronic communications. In exceptional situations (e.g. crime investigations), such surveillance should only be permitted with judicial oversight and according to a clear set of guidelines.
Dealing with Past Demons
● While all these are forward looking steps, the media industry as a whole also needs state assistance to exorcise demons of the recent past – when violence against journalists and ‘censorship by murder’ reached unprecedented levels. Not a single perpetrator has been punished by law to date. This is why media rights groups advocate an independent Commission of Inquiry should be created with a mandate and adequate powers to investigate killings and disappearances of journalists and attacks on media organisations. Ideally, it should cover the entire duration of the war, as well as the post-war years.