[ Lakshman Gunasekara, Vikalpa Photo]
The changes in leadership that the country’s public-owned news media institutions undergo along with changes in government is now so automatic that it is almost a hallowed tradition.
In one venerable public-owned institution, for example, there is a permanent ‘consultants’ room’ where, come regime change, politically appointed senior media managers of the ancient regime are put into cold storage on being displaced in their posts by the political appointees of the new regime. Sometimes, media executives who had been hibernating in the consultants’ room are rehabilitated and march out to resume their former or new positions while those displaced troop into that room to sit out the tenure of the new regime.
The bulk of the staff in these institutions, however, remain in their work stations, resigned to continuing the same kind of sycophancy and propaganda-style news production in lieu of the professional journalism that they would like to do. Incoming managers, in the past, have tended to
follow the now traditional policy of pro-Government and anti-Opposition propaganda, promotion of political personalities and even dis-information to divert public attention from governmental failures and mis-rule.
This insidious ‘tradition’, hopefully, has been broken by the historic political change that occurred with the presidential election on January 8. Whether the new political environment will remain conducive to substantive and enduring change in the public-owned mass media sector remains to be seen and, depends on how current national political dynamics evolve.
Previously, with regime change, incoming government tended to merely replace managers with their own trusted spin doctors and continue with the same old propagandist practices.
The only previous exception to this continuity was in 1994, when, as a result of public exhaustion over the overbearing propaganda and authoritarianism of the pre-1994 regime, the incoming Chandrika Kumaratunga-led government did attempt to fulfill its promise of ‘liberalisation’ of the State media.
For a couple of years, the State media did enjoy relatively liberal management and the public was slightly incredulous at this suddenly liberal State media behaviour. But the Kumaratunga regime fell prey to that vital dynamic of competitive democracy, namely, the criticisms of the political opposition. In addition to the politicians’ need for self-aggrandizement, all governments face the far more important challenge of a critical Opposition.
A critical and watchful political opposition is an essential pillar of a normally functioning liberal democracy. With a vociferous opposition inside and outside Parliament and struggling with the armed insurgent opposition of the Tamil secessionist movement and international propaganda by supportive
elements in the Sri Lankan Diaspora, the Kumaratunga regime instinctively resorted to using the State media in defensive mode as did all previous regimes. Thus, the State media enjoyed only a short-lived liberal honeymoon.
This time, however, the political landscape is totally transformed as never before. Most importantly, there is the broadest ever consensual government that Sri Lanka has experienced as a modern republic, perhaps, in this island society’s entire history.
There is a nation-wide sense of urgency to repair and recover the basic structures of the Sri Lankan polity after a decade of very serious decay and near collapse. Indeed, for those concerned about nationhood, there is compulsion for rebuilding civilisation.
This consensus and these compulsions alone provide a good basis for consistency in government policy. Additionally, and more specifically relevant to the State media is the lack of a coherent and legitimised political opposition.
The lack of a legitimised Opposition whose criticisms are seen as valid by powerful vote banks, has reduced the pressure on the regime to defend itself via the State media (leave aside white vans and other past repressive tools).
Thus there is an opportunity for the country’s news media both private and public sector to liberally report, criticise, expose and, most importantly convey the aspirations, grievances and celebrations of the mass of people and all communities, small or big. This is a precious moment in our history when the State media can leap beyond the restraints of political caution, propagandist manipulation and vendetta and function more responsibly to serve the public.
The country’s joint national leadership has the opportunity now to enable the publicly owned mass media to truly serve the citizenry as a critical and watchful media. The critical media will hold up a mirror for the rulers to truly see themselves rather than any ‘graven images’ that sycophancy creates and then leads them astray along with the people.
[Lakshman Gunasekara has been appointed as the Editor of the Sunday Observer. Mr. Gunasekara (59), held this same post previously and also held several positions in the private sector news media. ]