Sri Lanka Brief
NewsMake Public Institutions Independent And Rational

Make Public Institutions Independent And Rational

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[Sri Lankan protester calling for justice: Media suppression and lack of independent institutions go hand in hand]

By Prof. Siri Hettige –

The functioning of democratic systems of government depend heavily on effective and independent public institutions. While these institutions are diverse, i.e. Political, administrative, judicial, law enforcement, educational or communicative, their proper functioning is critical for the maintenance of public order, justice, development and public welfare.

However, what we witnessed over the last decade was a steady deterioration and subversion of most of the above institutions as a result of politicisation not only leading to loss of public confidence in them but also making them largely dysfunctional.

These developments have had both short term adverse effects as well as long term negative consequences.

The list of public institutions concerned is long and it is futile to make an effort to talk about all of them in a short article. So, in this article, I would concentrate on two types, namely educational and communicative. While the other institutions are equally important, there are others who can discuss them with greater authority than I do.

As is well known, education, both general and higher, plays a critical role not only in providing learning opportunities to children and youth in any country but also preparing the ground for addressing various societal issues.

There was hardly any space for independent views and opinions. Some of us who have consistently maintained an independent and critical position on important societal issues were completely left out by these institutions over the last ten years.

So, the institutions that are responsible for education in various ways need to function in keeping with widely accepted values and standards such as merit, equity, social justice and impartiality. So, those who are appointed to manage educational institutions should stand above petty political and other divisions in society. Since these institutions are meant to serve all segments of society, they cannot display sectarian tendencies and biases, as most of them did in
recent years.

Most people who were appointed to give leadership to important educational institutions in recent years did not have any shame in displaying their political biases. They openly campaigned for their political bosses during election campaigns.

How can such blatantly partisan persons manage educational institutions without fear or favour and pursue the key objectives of their institutions for the benefit of wider society?

What is noteworthy is that neither the appointing authorities nor the appointed persons did not care about the irreparable damage they did to these vitally important institutions.

This situation is clearly evident today within the entire university system in the country. When many countries in the rest of the civilised world were scrambling to build their universities as centres of higher learning, advanced research and innovation by appointing the best and the brightest as Vice-Chancellors and DVCs our appointing authorities brought in the most slavish, partisan and mediocre persons to such positions. So much so, today, almost the entire university system is in such hands.

How can the wider society benefit from such a system, let alone thousands of hapless youth who struggle to have good educational opportunities in their own country?

A similar situation prevails within the general education system. The tradition of making political appointments to important institutions such as the NIE and NEC goes back several decades. But the situation became so blatant in recent years. The National Education Commission, which is perhaps the most important institution in the entire field of education is in a sorry state today. While it has already been pushed to the background, it has become an urgent need to empower it to serve its original purpose, namely, directing the entire educational process in the country and to prepare the ground for addressing other vital societal issues such those of national development and national unity.

What is needed today is to engage in a critical discussion as to how we could restore public institutions in all spheres, not just in the areas of education and mass media. It is not a matter of recapturing these institutions by people who are sympathetic to the new regime.

As I have discussed in a number of previous articles, modern societies rely a great deal on media institutions to articulate important issues in society and deal with them critically so that the citizens have an opportunity to get acquainted with diverse aspects of an issue, without being unduly influenced by vested interests, be it political or economic.

It is well known that media institutions the world over have their own biases, either in favor of a particular regime or ideology or economic interests. While it is not possible to eliminate such biases, what is possible is to allow open, critical public discussion involving diverse ideological and interest groups, so that the general public can come to their own conclusions based on diverse views and evidence presented.

There has also been a school of thought that emphasised the need to have public interest broadcasting, to create a media space independent of sectarian biases and business interests.

But the presence of a diversity of media institutions in mature democracies has reduced public interest in such an alternative system.

Against the above backdrop, what happened in this country in recent years is tragic. While it is obvious that private media institutions had their own biases emanating from the interests of their owners, state affiliated media institutions became the mouth pieces of the regime in power and it’s apologists.

There was hardly any space for independent views and opinions. Some of us who have consistently maintained an independent and critical position on important societal issues were completely left out by these institutions over the last ten years.

Meanwhile, the hapless masses were continually exposed to partisan monologues presented by the representatives of the regimes and their political stooges.
Against the above background, what is needed today is to engage in a critical discussion as to how we could restore public institutions in all spheres, not just in the areas of education and mass media. It is not a matter of recapturing these institutions by people who are sympathetic to the new regime.

We need to reaffirm the values, principles and standards that should underpin modern public institutions rather than simply get rid of people who undermined them. Otherwise, they will come back and do the same again in the not so distant future.
-Courtesy Daily Mirror

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