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22 January 2015 07:19 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Open letter to two new pilots in the media cockpit

Dear Gayantha and Parane,

You accepted the media as a ministerial portfolio from the Keheliya Rambukwella – Charitha Herath duo after a challenging period we faced 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; they 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. The to-do list within the media sector is heavy with many priorities, and I do not think you can address them all within the 100-day programme. 

To be fair by them, especially of Charitha, he managed to build some rapport with the media when he was the coordinating secretary to the then media minister AnuraYapa. After the 2005 polls, Charitha was the bridge between media activists and the government and he was our first contact whenever there were incidents 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 was constant dialogue between media stakeholders and the ministry although serious attacks were carried out against media and its practitioners when this duo became helpless. 

Some of those who are now talking of media freedom were behind these incidents. 

The post 2010 election scenario became more ruthless against the media and Charitha rose to a more powerful position of Secretary, Media Ministry. The threats were more direct, than indirect, the ownership of 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 civil society were silenced. Efforts by organisations like Transparency Sri Lanka were annulled. 

The excuse to oppose the RTI was national security. One of Charitha’s columns to the 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 as it may, now the responsibilities are upon his shoulders. There were repeated assurances from leading government leaders that the dark history will not be repeated and that the 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 the 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?

My belief is that there are five primary requirements for a healthy media landscape. The first is the professional journalist who should have a proper upbringing, awareness of proper regulatory mechanisms through ethical codes and also a sound knowledge on issues.Then there should be a conducive legal environment for the proper functioning of the media – draconian laws should be repealed and laws like RTI should facilitate media freedom.Thirdly, the media needs updated technology and the government has a responsibility in securing freedom of expression,, not through blocking the opposing views and tapping journalists’ telephones using technology [illegally].

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 is strongly tied up with social responsibilities. Consequently,  it requires a healthy competitive environment, otherwise, the business will not thrive and it would end in commercial loses to media houses threatening freedom of expression. The last requirement is a literate media consumer-market that would understand media dynamics and its social responsibilities. A poor farmer in Wellawaya or in Killinochchi should be able to understand the complex political economies within the media landscape, a voice he is listening to – irrespective of whether it is private or public media. 

It is not entirely the responsibility of the government to meet all five of these requirements, but it   certainly has a major role to play as a key stakeholder in all five sections. 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 professional media culture. No-one should function in isolation in achieving that goal. 

On top of these requirements you two have another challenge in reforming and taming the state media which went berserk over the past few years. They openly violated the basic norms and ethics of journalism that led to a severe erosion of public trust upon them. I am sure they [ the state media] are now making heavy commercial losses. 

I am aware that the new regime cannot do wonders within 100 days: two weeks have already passed by without much ado.But it is your responsibility at least to generate a public discourse and lay the foundation for a professional media in the future. The introduction of RTI laws will, of course, be strengthening our democracy. Although small, RTI is an important component of the large picture. 

I am sure you are aware of these matters; but all the same, I thought of highlighting and reinvigorating them as a primary duty of a media practitioner in this country. 

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