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Thursday, February 22, 2024

GoSL must remove all restrictions imposed on media – Jacob Mathew, Global President of WAN-IFRA


 The government and parliament must heed the voice of the world and remove all restrictions they have imposed on the media through legislation and ordinances, said Jacob Mathew, Global President of WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers).

Delivering the Sri Lanka Press Institute’s (SLPI’s) Press Club lecture titled, “The Media Today-Challenges and Opportunities” at Hotel Taj Samudra on Tuesday, Mr. Mathew said a democratic government must create favourable conditions and policies that allow private media and independent press to grow and that any form of control is remnant of a past era.
Excerpts from his speech:
The media here has always cherished lofty ideals, which are based on the Sri Lankan love for intellectual integrity as well as the cultural heritage of the region.

Tarzie Vittachi, the acclaimed international journalist, drank deeply from his native land’s ancient wisdom. He adopted a spartan style of writing, while raising the benchmarks in South Asian journalism. He taught Asian journalists how to cut out clutter and get to the heart of the matter, through clear and simple writing. He was an engaging storyteller who used anecdotes and parables, to drive his point home. When Vittachi was International Press Institute’s Asia director, several workshops were organised for improving the quality of journalism in our subcontinent. Being our family friend, Vittachi in the mid 60s spent time at our organisation as a consultant and it was he who introduced the practice of preparing dummy page layouts in Malayalam journalism.

Friendship between the media in India and Sri Lanka goes back to the decades of struggle against colonial rule, and there were useful collaborations between newspapers of the two countries. This affinity has further grown because many here are active in key International media bodies.

Mr. Jacob Mathew addressing the gathering at The Taj Samudra on Tuesday.

WAN-IFRA is keen to associate closely with the Sri Lankan media. You run highly competent newspapers, magazines, television channels, radio stations and internet portals in three languages, and the diversity of the land is reflected in the attention to regional news. The plurality is evident in the 3 numbers as they are growing after the end of a quarter century of civil war.

You have seen the best of times and the worst of times in journalism. Editors, journalists and publishers bravely faced the tremendous challenges posed by events and adamant adversaries in the civil war. Press Freedom was in jeopardy, and most media organisations suffered extreme economic adversity.

The world admired your grit and determination as you pressed on regardless. Obstacles were placed in your path both by state and non-state actors, in an atmosphere of intense distrust and fear. More than 50 journalists were forced to flee the country. Many editors and journalists made the supreme sacrifice for the cause of press freedom. One of them Lasantha Wikrematunge, became a symbol of your suffering. It was amazing how the spirit of journalism remained resilient when everything else crumbled. In these troubled times, editors and publishers took the initiative to establish the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, which has offered succour to journalists who were targeted during the civil war.

Now, Sri Lanka is on the road to normalcy. The government must restore complete press freedom befitting a democracy. If telecom companies refuse platforms for websites that authorities dislike, it certainly is a form of censorship. The government and parliament must heed the voice of the world and remove all restrictions they have imposed on the media through legislation and ordinances. It is essential that Sri Lanka moves high up in the global press freedom index. This is a privilege that both the Sri Lankan people and the media richly deserve. WAN-IFRA is committed to a free press. After all, this is the age of social media, and the Arab Spring went on to prove that freedom of expression can take a new route if there are restrictions on the traditional media.

When a Government talks about economic development, they often neglect to support the development of media markets. Media must be at the heart of any sustainable development and it should be a priority. A democratic government must create favourable conditions and policies that allow private media and independent press to grow. Any form of control is remnant of a past era.

Encouraging self regulation helps media industry to become independent and responsible. This I feel would form the basis to imbibe sound media ethics. The media bodies and the authorities in power must work together to achieve the goal of self regulation. This will certainly benefit the society and would enhance the credibility of any Government.

Embrace the future
In the midst of a fast changing world, the media industry is facing challenges from all fronts. Thanks to the winds of change unleashed by technology. The tools and modes of news gathering, editing, printing and distribution are changing at an astonishing pace. Readers today spend a lot of time on the internet looking for news and information. As readers increasingly use mobile phones and tablets to read what they want at their convenience, the print media has come under tremendous pressure. Today the publishing cycles have become more immediate than broadcasting. To survive in the digital era, we must use new age tools and re-mould our organisational and newsroom structure and innovate to generate revenue from the new mediums and devices such as smart phones and tablets. This is one of the areas where WAN-IFRA can offer assistance, since they have the expertise for seamless adoption of the latest developments in newsroom management.

Now the ‘phablets’, the five inch screen phones with all tablet features have arrived. It is beginning to challenge the tablets. As these digital devices are becoming popular and cheaper, the time is ripe for us to deliver content through these devices as well. We must also pay attention in creating, showcasing and disseminating video content. There is a great opportunity for media companies to innovate and grow.

In many parts of the world, newspaper circulations are trending downwards. The revenues have also shrunk. The irony is that freeloaders are profiting from the content we have worked hard to create. We have spent tremendous resources on creating this content, and there is no reason why we should give it away free or let others liberally help themselves to it.

‘Content rules supreme’
Whatever be the mode of distribution, content will continue to rule supreme. I believe that the fundamentals of newspaper journalism are strong and it would be beneficial and important to all platforms.
Parliamentary bills are being explored in Germany, France and Italy, that would enable the publishers to collect a fee from search engines and news aggregators when they display excerpts from news articles, along side links to newspaper and magazine web sites.

Some news organisations in the United States have collaborated to create a forum for providing authorised access to original news content and for giving its members authentic data about how their news content is being used across the web. It is only a small beginning. We should devise similar strategies for protecting and charging for content and also think of creating a combination of pay models for digital and print. Our future also lies in finding efficient ways to license the use of our content. Print publishers need to be proactive in protecting their intellectual property rights. Shelving of two anti-piracy bills in the US Congress in January 2012 shows the power of the on line forces. We should never surrender our initiative to corporate groups and new entrants who give away devices to cream off our advertising and subscription revenues in the 3G and now the 4G era.

Sri Lanka’s literacy rate of over 90% is the highest in South Asia. You have a correspondingly high reach for print publications when compared to countries of a similar economic status.

Unlike the neighbouring countries, the readership of Sri Lanka is driven by weekly publications. Seven out of top 10 publications are weeklies, where as in India only daily newspapers figure in the top 10 list.

Another significant difference in this market is that regular readership of publications among youngsters between 10- 18 years old is more, compared to all adults. This is an encouraging sign and I am sure, you are doing everything right to build on it further. The readership among youngsters is coming down in developed countries and is a challenge faced by many, including India. All are attempting to address this issue on a priority basis.

The use of internet is a growing force in Sri Lanka and many of the newspapers now have online editions. 15% of Sri Lankan population comprises internet users, against 10% of India and 33% among global population. There are around 50 news websites in Sri Lanka and 80% of them are updated hourly or on a daily basis. The World Press Trends Survey by WAN-IFRA indicates that today, globally 2.5 billion people read a newspaper regularly and 2.2 billion use the internet, or have mobile phones that can receive content.

Newspaper circulation grew by 1.1 % globally last year, and 4.2 % between 2007 and 2011. The growth in Asia has offset losses elsewhere. Asia now accounts for a third of global circulation. Circulations here grew by 16 % in the last five years, while circulations in Western Europe and North America declined by 17 %. But the rate of decline in Europe is slowing.

At the same time, newspapers are changing. And change they must, if they are to continue as watchdogs and as the providers of credible news and information that citizens need to make informed decisions. Our problem is not one of audience. We have the audience. The challenge is largely one of business, of finding successful business models for the digital age. The growth in digital audiences may replace the overall numbers lost to print, but current advertising growth levels are not replacing lost revenues.

There is a trend towards charging for online content. The models range from pure pay wall to free to metered models. However, I feel one would pay only for unique, quality content and not for something that is free elsewhere.

Print media, not going anywhere
The newspaper industry has the resilience of over 400 years in its genes. The impression that our industry is today in a total crisis is a misleading one. Often, we ourselves are responsible for this propaganda. If you look at our media map, Asia with its increasing circulations has been a shining beacon in the global newspaper industry. In countries such as India, newspapers have gone truly hyper local with multiple print sites and editions, which are sometimes contracted out. Newspapers there have been experimenting with innovative ad formats and placements, which are sometimes against the liking of the editors. They are often bold and surprising. Rising circulation and advertising volumes support the costs for the present, though we do see some signs of a recession or a slow down.

Unlike in Sri Lanka, keeping low cover prices seems to be the business model in India, though it has been much in debate. While they still make profits, a newspaper remains cheaper than the cost of a monthly Internet connection. In the communication business we are selling credibility. Stable and credible newspapers with good content will continue to play a pivotal role in the busy media matrix.

To me, good stories and good story telling, written to the mood of the story in a pictorial way will attract the reader. We should never lose sight of our core competency. Credible newspapers are custodians of a great legacy. The great playwright, Arthur Millar said, “A great newspaper is a country speaking to itself”. Our audience expect sensible judgment from us. However, economic compulsions, as well as a lack of ethical core, have driven some newspapers in some countries to publish ‘Paid News’. I understand this is not prevalent here.

When advertisers are able to purchase editorial independence, it undermines unbiased journalism. We need to strike at the root of this evil and condemn the obnoxious practice, if and when it happens.

I am confident that the print media will robustly meet the challenges and make use of the emerging opportunities. The lead time available is shorter than ever before. We have a promising future but we need to get it right.

The digital world today offers media companies an opportunity to innovate and grow. The future belongs to those who would embrace new ideas and innovation. Innovators who follow the principles of good journalism and grab technology by the forelock are most likely to survive in the new age.

A news organisation needs to be profitable, if it needs to maintain a vibrant independent voice. Financial stability is required to continue to do good journalism. To survive and grow, we in the newspaper industry have to look at ways to seek additional revenue, operate efficiently as possible and keep on raising the quality.

This is no rocket science but was the gist of the simple note given to his staff by late Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the former Publisher of the New York Times who passed away a few months ago. He also said, “A financially sound Times also is good for newspapering. A newspaper that is broke is not going to be able to spend the money necessary to support thorough and aggressive reporting”.

On that note, I thank the hosts, ‘The Press Club of the Sri Lanka Press Institute’ for giving me this honour and opportunity to share some familiar trends pertaining to the media industry.
 Photo:Mangala Weerasekera


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