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NewsSituation AnalysisSri Lanka media in spotlight: Where is the responsibility?

Sri Lanka media in spotlight: Where is the responsibility?

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  • Media urged to use RTI, other tools
  • Opposition and Government join in calling for more responsible reporting
  • Journalists should be the compass of citizens, says Norwegian Ambassador

Media freedom is essential to a functioning democracy, but reckless use of such freedoms will be the death of it. This was the key takeaway at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility, where several speakers highlighted the dangers of irresponsible reporting and media coverage.

In terms of Sri Lanka, both Mangala Samaraweera and M. A. Sumanthiran – on separate sides of the country’s political divide – were on the same page in calling for stern self-reflection from the media in the country.

The hard-won rights of a free media are in danger of slipping back into the “the draconian controls of an authoritarian regime,” warned Samaraweera, as he urged the Sri Lankan press to use tools such as the RTI Act in aid of more responsible reporting.

“The media enjoys the freedom guaranteed by our democratic values, but it is essential that this freedom is not abused and that a sense of responsibility is always upheld,” noted the Finance and Media Minister. “As an industry, there is an urgent need to upgrade standards and quality of media reporting, to ensure rigour in analysis, and to give precedence to facts.”

“The media owes this not to the Government – the media owes this to the citizens of Sri Lanka and to democracy itself. It is an arduous journey to win the rights of a free media, but there is a risk of slipping back into the draconian controls of an authoritarian regime, which was sadly the experience of all Sri Lankans before 2015.”

Using the example of the touted Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, Samaraweera cited the prevalence of poorly researched and misleading reports on the matter to highlight the grave state of media coverage in the country at present. One illustration of this is the widespread and incorrect reporting of plans by the Singapore Government to use Sri Lanka as a waste disposal ground, something that is protected by international treaties and regulations to control cross boundary movement of waste. Samaraweera believes this could have been easily avoided had reporters made use of facilities such as the Right to Information Act in verifying information.

“The RTI Act was passed in the expectation that fact-based journalism will be more prevalent. Unfortunately, this has not always transpired. We continue to see the media peddling sensationalist news items without proper fact-checking or rigour. A good example of this is the completely erroneous information about the Sri Lanka-Singapore FTA, which was spread by interested parties, being liberally shared by certain media outlets without any effort to ascertain the veracity of the information.”

Sumanthiran, member of the Tamil National Alliance, echoed Samaraweera’s sentiments going further in lambasting a press that he feels is missing their mandate with increasing frequency.

“The Colombo Declaration is about two things: media freedom and social responsibility. A lot will be said in these few days on media freedom. We, from the other side as it were, expect some deliberation on the social responsibility of the media as well. Media freedom is necessary so that the press reports the truth, not for anything else,” noted the Opposition MP.

Sumanthiran’s comments resonated even more keenly when compared with those of Commonwealth Trust Director Lindsay Ross, who brought clarity to the dangers of social media.

“Electronic media has become the preferred platform for the distribution of news, but the danger of social media is that it is opinion-led. It makes no attempt to be balanced or impartial. It is all too frequently a kneejerk reaction,” noted Ross.

“Responsibility and accuracy are thrown to the wind. Like Chinese whispers, facts and figures are exponentially exaggerated and the truth is eventually lost in the maelstrom of conjecture and hyperbole. Each party only intent to serve their own agenda.”

While Ross’s speech was geared towards a more modern problem, it is telling how similar those comments are to the situation in terms of Sri Lanka’s traditional media landscape, which appears to be at risk of losing itself while competing with its younger social sibling.

“Today, unfortunately, our struggle seems to be against the press. The press that is irresponsible, a press that has no inhibition in reporting untruths. I’m sorry if I’m sounding a negative note at this symposium, but it must be said. Coming as I do, even from the Opposition benches, we are exasperated time and again by the irresponsible conduct of the press today in Sri Lanka,” said Sumanthiran.

“Unfortunately, today in Sri Lanka, we see a lot of the other, a lot of reporting of falsehood with impunity. So, from 1998 when we were at one end, it seems to be that the pendulum has swung to the other end. That’s very unfortunate.”

That said, Samaraweera was still keen to point out the positives, namely that Sri Lanka, which was ranked 165 in 2014 in the World Press Freedom Index, has since moved to 131 in 2018.

“When the legitimacy of press is questioned and legitimate reporting is castigated as fake news, it puts great stress on the role of the media as a pillar of democracy. Under the Unity Government since 2015, much has been done in Sri Lanka to ensure that journalists can fulfil the role without interference or intimidation by the Government.

“I am happy to note that we have achieved much in the sphere of freedom of press. Sri Lanka was ranked 165 in 2014 in the World Press Freedom Index, and has since moved to 131 in 2018. There is clearly a long way to go, but I am pleased to note that we are moving in the right direction,” he added.

However, this is still a long way off the number 1 spot, which has been reserved for Norway. Addressing the gathering, Norwegian Ambassador Thorbjørn Gaustadsæther drew attention to how Norway had used press freedom for the betterment of their society which, as per the UN, is the second happiest in the world.

“Media can show the richness of life, it can celebrate love, and it can reveal pain. In many ways, the journalists should assist the people and be the compass of the citizens who could otherwise be easily lost. Like we always believe that democracy is good for economic growth, we need media freedom as well.”

“Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental human rights and a core principle of democracy. At the same time, freedom of speech is one of the most controversial human rights, for two reasons. It is not absolute and there are certain disagreements about whether it should be withdrawn. One of the functions of freedom of speech is that one should be able to defend one’s life and criticise those in power without fear. However, right to freedom can also be misused. Freedom of speech is a right, but as all rights it comes with responsibilities and duties.”

Sumanthiran calls for investigations on slain Jaffna journalists

Bemoaning the lack of progress in the cases of assassinated Sri Lankan journalists, TNA Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran also called on the Government to commence investigations into journalists killed in Jaffna.

According to the Opposition MP of the Jaffna District, it is in Jaffna where the most number of journalists have been killed in the last 20 years – most notably when six working at Udayan newspaper were assassinated.

“There have been investigations and inquiries that have commenced into several assassinations, but they have not moved forward too much. However, coming from the Opposition, and my capacity as MP of the Jaffna District, I must make mention of the fact that the largest number of journalists killed in the last 20 years was in Jaffna – six in one news agency alone, which suffered 33 attacks,” he noted, speaking at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility in Colombo yesterday.

“If my memory is right, about 14 Tamil journalists were killed, and it is unfortunate that no investigation has commenced with regard to their deaths. And that’s a shame when one considers that we have in fact made progress with regard to intimidation of journalists.” (MB)

Mangala implores media to use RTI Act

By Madushka Balasuriya

The hard-won rights of a free media are in danger of slipping back into the “the draconian controls of an authoritarian regime,” warned Mangala Samaraweera, as he urged the Sri Lankan press to exercise more responsibility in their reporting and to use tools such as the RTI Act in aid of this cause.

The Minister of Finance and Media was addressing the 20th celebration of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility in Colombo yesterday.

“The media enjoys the freedom guaranteed by our democratic values, but it is essential that this freedom is not abused and that a sense of responsibility is always upheld,” he noted. “As an industry, there is an urgent need to upgrade standards and quality of media reporting, to ensure rigour in analysis, to give precedence to facts.”

“The media owes this not to the Government – the media owes this to the citizens of Sri Lanka and to democracy itself. It is an arduous journey to win the rights of a free media, but there is a risk of slipping back into the draconian controls of an authoritarian regime, which was sadly the experience of all Sri Lankans before 2015.”

Using the example of the touted Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, Samaraweera cited the prevalence of poorly researched and misleading reports on the matter to highlight the grave state of media coverage in the country at present. One illustration of this is the widespread and incorrect reporting of plans by the Singapore Government to use Sri Lanka as a waste disposal ground, something that is protected by international treaties and regulations to control cross boundary movement of waste. Samaraweera believes this could have been easily avoided had reporters made use of facilities such as the Right to Information Act in verifying information.

“The RTI Act was passed in the expectation that fact-based journalism will be more prevalent. Unfortunately, this has not always transpired. We continue to see the media peddling sensationalist news items without proper fact-checking or rigour. A good example of this is the completely erroneous information about the Sri Lanka-Singapore FTA, which was spread by interested parties, being liberally shared by certain media outlets without any effort to ascertain the veracity of the information.”

That said, Samaraweera is nevertheless optimistic that the country is on the right trajectory despite some hiccups along the way.

“When the legitimacy of press is questioned and legitimate reporting is castigated as fake news, it puts great stress on the role of the media as a pillar of democracy. Under the Unity Government since 2015, much has been done in Sri Lanka to ensure that journalists can fulfil the role without interference or intimidation by the Government.”

“I am happy to note that we have achieved much in the sphere of freedom of press. Sri Lanka was ranked 165 in 2014 in the World Press Freedom Index, and has since moved to 131 in 2018. There is clearly a long way to go, but I am pleased to note that we are moving in the right direction,” he added.

By Madushka Balasuriya  FT 

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