History has shown that time-tested checks and balances are essential for the evolution of democracy. At times some restraints are necessary for democracy to flourish because it is obviously not wise to allow the freedom of the wild ass though some analysts believe such a cliché today is more an insult to that hard working animal. In addition we see business interests and the desire for personal gain or glory turning these checks and balances into cheques and imbalances in accountability.
In our Editorials, the Daily Mirror has regularly emphasized the need for rights to be linked to responsibilities. To the extent we fulfil our responsibilities, only to that extent are we entitled to our rights. If we fail in our responsibilities, we also forfeit our rights. This principle applies to the executive branch of government, the legislature, the judiciary and the free media -- the four vital pillars of democracy.
President Maithripala Sirisena, when he was swept to office on January 8 last year, gave priority to good governance which included the restoration of the freedom of the media. On Tuesday, some 15 months after taking control of the executive, the President charged that some electronic media groups were violating the terms of their licences issued by the government through the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL).
Addressing top TRCSL officials, Heads of State and private electronic media groups, the President said fair, balanced and accurate reporting was essential for the free media and for democracy.
The President, who has been asserting his authority more powerfully in recent days, said that some electronic media groups were attacking him without responsibility and even defaming his character. He complained that these media groups were not even checking with him to get his side of the story and give a balanced report. Without taking sides we need to say there is a practical problem here because it is difficult to contact the President directly and the Presidential media division, though trying to be helpful, often cannot give a substantial response.
Most social and media analysts believe it is difficult to maintain standards and principles in the electronic media with more than 50 TV and radio stations or channels operating in addition to on-line, cable and satellite TV and radio. There are instances where business interests have taken precedence over balanced reporting.
Yet there would be more negatives than positives in a government-appointed authority trying to regulate the standards of the electronic media. One option is to follow the principles of the independent Sri Lankan Press Institute and the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka appointed by the newspaper Editors’ Guild and the Newspapers Publishers’ Society of Sri Lanka. Another option would be for the Constitutional Council to appoint such a regulatory authority.
Whatever the options, political leaders would be well advised to remember that despite all the promises and hopes for good governance and the just society, we have made little progress towards this noble vision. We still have far too many party politicians and are still looking for a Statesman who is selflessly sincerely and sacrificially working for the next generation instead of the next election. Until then, consensus, consultation and compromise might be the best approach to cure the ills of democracy and give us media channels that work for peace, unity and justice.