We mark World Television Day today and as the United Nations General Assembly resolution says, we need to focus not on the tool -- which some cynics describe as an idiot box or a stranger in the home -- but rather on the philosophy which it represents, a symbol for communication and globalization in the contemporary world.
According to the United Nations, the global exchanges of television programmes focusing on peace, security, economic and social development and the enhancement of cultural exchange indicate the growing significance of television in today’s changing world. The information sharing through television facilitates social and cultural communication and encourages cooperation and partnerships in the world.
In recognition of the increasing impact television has on decision-making by bringing world attention to conflicts and threats to peace and security and its potential role in sharpening the focus on other major issues, including economic and social issues, the UN General Assembly proclaimed November 21 as World Television Day.
In Sri Lanka a new communication era began on April 13, 1979 when Shan Wickremesinghe, brother of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe launched the Independent Television Network Limited (ITN), the first terrestrial television channel. But on June 5, 1979 the J. R. Jayawardene administration took over ITN as a government-owned business undertaking and it was later brought under the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Act of 1982 along with the newly created Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC).
Since then SLRC and ITN have been misused and abused by successive governments for political party propaganda at public expense with the worst period being the last few years of the former regime.
Fortunately President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have told the state TV channels that they are free to operate with freedom and telecast even dissenting views. We hope the two main television channels will have the courage to act independently though in recent years we have regularly seen the tendency to be stooges for personal gain.
However no one can fool all the people all the time as the legendary Abraham Lincoln warned and demonstrated by the people’s silent revolution of January 8 this year. If the state television channels wish to regain the trust and the respect of the people they need to act independently and be seen to be acting independently. The state television channels funded by public money also need to set an example in telecasting programmes that educate people and make them aware of deep values and virtues as proclaimed in our major religions. These include the values of love and compassion and mercy, faithfulness, integrity and honesty. Unfortunately despite protests by civic-minded citizens and groups the state television channels also continue to telecast programmes, mainly the peak time teledramas or melodramas, where our time-honoured civilisation appears to have gone with the wind. Often in these teledramas the vices of unfaithfulness, adultery and broken marriages and even violence are portrayed far too often. If the state television channels are not ready or willing to promote the noble eight-fold path of right thought, right concentration, right mindfulness, right action and other virtues then responsible parents need to intervene and insist on selective viewing in their homes. If the people don’t watch then the teledrama directors cannot sell cheap values and neither will there be unethical marketing.
During the past few decades a selfish and wicked world has abused great inventions and turned them into tools of destruction. We see this in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity which during the World War II was abused by others to build nuclear weapons which today could destroy the whole world. Similarly television also has tremendous positive aspects for mass communication, education, awareness and to some extent entertainment also. We need to make sure that television and the latest social media and digital technology are used to promote the virtues of peace, unity and goodwill instead of phonograph and provocative online radicalisation which have today brought us to the brink of a third world war.