Points accusing finger at polarised Sinhala and Tamil print media
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s last week comments on the conduct of several Sinhala print media have generated a wider public debate mainly in the social media. Premier Wickremesinghe alarmed several sections of the Sinhala print media not to add fuel to racism in a bid to topple or challenge his regime of cohabitation.
The way he expressed his sentiments could be seen as a direct threat to the free press while some would find logic behind his arguments. But only a few would belong to the latter category.
Though Wickremesinghe only referred to a section of the Sinhala print media, the same argument would be valid to a greater extent on some of the Tamil media as well. Heavily polarised in nature, both these media camps are serving their own respective markets with hidden commercial or political agendas. As most of these Sinhala and Tamil print media outlets are not profitable in commercial terms, one could easily argue that the agenda could easily be political in nature.
The PM, directly or indirectly, was referring to several challenges the present day Sinhala and Tamil media, specifically the print media, is facing. This phenomenon requires a wider discourse within the society if we are to strengthen our media landscape as a robust pillar for a better democracy. In a way, I am glad that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who hails from a media mogul family, has given a kick start to this public discourse, if it gets into that shape. But many would not tolerate it as it came from a politician that be easily be counter-productive. Nevertheless, being a seasoned politician, Ranil would have calculated the political risk before making such a sensitive statement in public.
The socio-political transformation of January 8 challenged several segments of society, predominantly the media in Sri Lanka.
The media unfriendly environment was turned down and a new era dawned with many hopes and promises.The stereo type accusation on the previous regime was about its harsh approach on media freedom, but the situation changed over-night. Nonetheless, the question is whether the media, mainly the Sinhala and Tamil press is making use of that newly emerged opportunity in providing balanced, professional journalistic products to its readers.
I would rather argue on its contrary. Unlike its English counterpart, the Sinhala and Tamil print media - either state or private - is facing numerous challenges that could be categorised into two main segments – professional and ownership. In my doctoral research – which was mainly on the professional standard of the Sinhala and Tamil print media – I tried to argue on the fact that the poor professional status of these two local language print media has been an inherited syndrome within the Sinhala and Tamil newsrooms even before the commencement of the ethnic conflict. The reporting format has hardly gone beyond single sourcing and has failed to bring strong analytical and journalistic skills to a story by bringing contrasting viewpoints. Thus, they clearly violate the acceptable norms and ethics in journalism. The ethnically non-diverse newsrooms of both sides have further fueled the polarisation of society on ethnic lines, and this phenomenon has led the media in serving its own clientele with “what it wants to know” than “what it needs to know.” This trend continues even after the completion of the war.
The broadcast media has some advantage in this context compared to the print. Not that it has total professional standards but given the short time frame to a story, it seems to manage professional standards to some extent.
In this backdrop I strongly feel that the Sinhala and Tamil press lacks professional capacity in making use of this new opportunity and providing strong, in-depth and analytical stories to its readers. It still continues to report day-to-day events with a single source and provides yesterday stories to the today’s market in this heavily information savvy society. Thus, with all these factors accumulating, the thin line between activism and journalism gets extensively blurred and patriotism surpasses professionalism. Sometimes, this particular argument could well fit into some sectors of English journalism as well.
But this scenario is not a unique feature to Sri Lanka. The status of the local language press in any developing country would be the same, mainly when it comes to professional standards. In India it would mostly be nationalism and in Pakistan radicalism would over-run professionalism. Lack of exposure, language barriers, poor working conditions that attract lesser quality human resources are a few reasons behind this situation. Corporate ownership would manipulate this weakness to achieve its economic, political or otherwise goals.
The Code of Conduct of the Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka envisages the professional standards of journalists. In Chapter 9 it discusses the issue of integrity of media practitioners at length.Wickremesinghe in his remarks raised concerns over a conduct of an editor – mainly on moon walking – which in my own judgment has violated the code of the Editors Guild, if the allegation is correct.But do we have an effective system to watch the watchdog and take action against it? What would be the response from the guild to this accusation? Or at least, do we in the media tolerate public criticism on us?
The other challenge is the nature of the media ownership. We witnessed the change of ownership of several media houses during the previous regime through the purchase of such companies through ‘kith and kin’ and its use as a key modus operandi in silencing several media voices. This feature still remains, and would continue to remain albeit the political change of January 8.On the other hand, the political agenda of the media corporate ownership has been a widely discussed issue within global study circles, though it does not have clear answers or solutions to the concern. Though the prime minister claimed of an investigation into a particular media corporate ownership, the leverage he can manipulate through the law could extensively be limited under the good governance perimeters.
Thus, what is the solution? We need a paradigm shift in professional standards in the Sinhala and Tamil media – not only in print but in all sectors. Building capacity - of both journalists and their gatekeepers - is paramount. In a parallel move, the country needs a dynamic and effective regulatory mechanism that ensures the implementation of professional standards. None of the existing two systems (Press Complaints Commission and the Press Council) are working up to their expectations. The most acceptable mechanism in the global context is the self-regulatory system by the Press Complaints Commission but it requires comprehensive legal teeth. Wickremesinghe’s previous regime paved the way for the emergence of the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission but it lacked necessary backing from the state.Nevertheless, this is not the sole responsibility of the state, although it is a major stakeholder. The industry needs to get together and take the lead in making use of this opportunity, as it did some years ago through the Colombo Declaration.