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Sri Lanka: Identifying Requirements for Structural Changes in Our Media System

by Wijayananda Jayaweera

(World Press Freedom Day lecture, organised  by the Free Media Movement and the Sri Lanka Press Institute )

Media disseminate stories, ideas and information, and act as a corrective to the natural asymmetry of information between governors and the governed and between competing private agents. In the normative sense the media should be a critical witness to events, function as a watchdog, promoting government transparency and public scrutiny of those with power – by exposing corruption, maladministration, and corporate wrong doing – and there by be a tool to enhance good governance and economic efficiency. The media can be a national voice, a means by which a society can learn about itself and build a sense of community and of shared values, a vehicle for cultural expression and cultural cohesion. Finally we should not forget that the media can function as advocates of certain issues and causes – as social actors in their own right.

Wijayananda Jayaweera
Wijayananda Jayaweera

Media as a system may potentially fulfill all of these functions or none of them. Not very long ago weexperienced how media was compelled to reinforce the power of vested interests. How media have exacerbated social inequalities by contributing to exclude critical and marginalized voices . At their most extreme we have seen how media can also promote conflicts and social divisiveness .

Somehow, we have passed an unfortunate period in which seeking ‘journalistic truth’ became reallya dangerous task. A number of journalists were harassed and killed. Some had to flee the country. Others had to self sensor or were compelled to survive by acting as loyal spokesperson for authorities, rarely questioning official information, and supporting extensive image building of ruling elites, thus serving as public relation agents, reinforcing the hegemonic control of the powerful, rather than providing a countervailing force and a diversity of viewpoints. This was more so with our vernacular media which authorities used to coerce the society to fall in line with their particular narratives.

Now it looks as if we have a window of opportunity to re-launch a discussion on media sector reforms. Following from the R.K.W. Goonesekera report of 1996, we have had numerous attempts to introduce media sector reforms. While our neighbours have made significantreforms such as the introduction of community broadcasting and right to information laws,our policy makers continued to ignore the calls for reforms.

Perhaps in the recent past the people have been conditioned to be complacent with an unchallenging media system subservient to the authorities,business and political interests. Also it could be because most media output consumed by people is unrelated to conventional understanding of watchdog role attributed to the media. Often it appears that the gratification media users seek from media is more to entertain than to inform. In such circumstances it is more likely that the efforts to attract largest audiences to satisfy the market needs compel media to put serving the public good as a secondary concern. Hence any re-conception of the democratic role of the media and changes requireto ensure it, need to think through the implication of this transformation. So how do we make media sector reforms become true concerns of the citizenry and how to.re-engage the society in a manner that would awaken the policy makers to accept demands for necessary changes.

Learning from the Hutchins Commission

In early 1940s, the functions expected from the media in a democracy became a debatable issue in the USA due to the undue influence media owners could exert on the press. At the time the prevailing argument in the USA was that the media should be organized purely as a free market system on the ground that any form of public ownership or legal regulation endangers media freedom. A public commission presidedover by Prof. Robert M. Hutchins, the president of University of Chicago, was established, with the financial support from the Time magazine, to look into this issue. After nearly a two years of engaged public discussions the Hutchins Commission concluded that the aim of media sector reforms should not be confined only to securing media freedom from the government control. The media have also a duty, it argued, to serve the public good – something that cannot be fulfilled automatically through the free paly of the market. This is because the efforts to attract the largest audiences can sometime undermine accuracy and encourage preoccupation with the ‘exceptional instead of the representative, sensational rather than the significant’. Hutchins Commission noted that free market process have given rise to plutocratic ownership of media and there is a real possibility that those who own media might be able to shape the public opinion.

Nonetheless, the Hutchins Commission did not moot the idea of advocating more laws and government action to arrest this threat, since that would endanger the media freedom. What then should be done ? The answer according to the Hutchins Commission was to promote an overriding commitment to the common good among media editors and staff. The concept of editorial independence, to insulate from owners’ and the external agents’ interferences, emanated from these discussions. The reform movement that came out through the deliberation of Hutchins Commission had not only public support but also more importantly from the editors, leading journalists and also journalism educators. Its championship of journalistic autonomy, editorial independence, ethical standards and public service orientation was anchored by adherence to the codes and procedures of ‘objective’ reporting. This demanded detachment, nonpartisanship, reverence for facts and fair balance. Although we might not necessarily believe that good journalism is the only remedy needed to address deficiencies of our media system, it is important to note the impact the Hutchins Commission process had on the society to realise thepertinent issues involved and there by to reassessthe role attributed to media in a democracy.As a resultof this engaged discourse, to date, the public service minded journalism remains as the centralcharacteristic of American journalism tradition, irrespective of free market domination of its media .

A need for a Media Truth Commission

Similarly we can engage the society at large to discuss the democratic role of media, starting with a comprehensive assessment of weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our media system. Such a public assessment ideally should bebased on evidence gathered through a public hearing.A Media Truth Commission,some thing similar to Hutchins Commission, but with the authority to investigate into abuses of power occurred at various levels in the recent past, could serve this purpose.A similar idea was mooted recently by the veteran editor Mr. Victor Ivan who emphasised the need to establish a Presidential Commission to investigate into the difficulties faced by our media and media professionals in the recent past. It is important for the society to have an open discussion on various pressures exerted on media by political authorities, business concerns or from partisan groups promoting social divisiveness.Such an investigation led by public intellectuals would enable the society to discuss the measures needed to prevent threats to freedom of the press, and its editorial independence. An open discussion based on evidence as to which deficiencies, prevented media to withstand abusive pressures during the last few years, could be both educational and hold abusers accountable.

This Media Truth Commission, should have the power to call upon anyone and obtain information regarding the pressures media were subjected toduring the previous regime. Such a public inquiry would help the society to identify the changes necessary to promote and protect the democratic role of media.

Potential structural changes

Without being highly prescriptive I wish to discuss few changes which could impact positively on our media system. Here, I suggest to focus on two basic questions. namely;

• How to ensure editorial independence of news media and its public service orientation?
• How to make the media system an inclusive one than the one we have now. ?

Any media sector reforms should be able to eliminate those obstacles which dis-empower journalists from providing ‘journalistic truth’. It is said that journalists pursue truth in a practical sense rather than an absolute sense. Therefore “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then the journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning underlining different view points, valid for now, subject to further investigation. In a democracy the people expect the journalists to provide verified information in a meaningful context for them to make sense, consequently enabling to take decisions. In fulfilling this task journalists help the society to negotiate consent between all segments of the citizenry and the government in the exercise of concentrated state power. This is the expert role attributed to journalists, which also justifies their own claim of being public service minded professionals.

If the public service is the mission of news media, the editorial independence remains as an absolute must. The partisan media has no such obligation of public service. Therefore editorial independence of partisan media depends on the whims and fancies of its paymasters. But a news media which sells on the pledge of providing accurate and reliable news and information,cannot compromise its editorial integrity.

An Independent Media Council

It is therefore important to prevent situations where the individual who controls the press financially, would also control public opinion. Thus, the editor’s function become crucial where arguably he is required to safe guard the public interests rather than the owner’s interests. Editors are expected to perform this function ensuring the right of the citizen to be informed freely, factually and responsibly on matters of public interest. Media are business ventures, which survive on credibility they can establish among their users. Thus, in addition to managing a commercial enterprise, editors have a decisive relation to the public interest, unlike that of any other enterprise perused for profits. The question, however, is whether the editor s are able to maintain a balance between the desires of the owner and of the journalists when public interests and private interests are at loggerheads.

To address such concerns the editorial independence of the news media should be guaranteed by the law and respected in practice. This would mean that there should be a compelling mechanism to safeguard editorial independence from the interferences whether they come from the government, the media owners orthe outsiders. One such mechanism could be an Independent Media Council empowered to protect press freedom and safeguard the editorial independence. The Independent Press Council of Indonesia, which comprise with public intellectuals and eminent journalists selected by the media professionals, is a good example for such mechanisms. The Independent Press Council Law of Indonesia requires all news media to abide by the decisions made by this Council.

In a similar manner as independent Media Council comprising media professionals and public intellectuals could help co-regulate our news media in the public interest, protect editorial independence and resolve relevant disputes. Linked to editorial independence and the public service orientation,there are a number of other important tasks the Independent Media Council can perform. To be succinct I list them below;

• taking measures to protect press freedom and promote media accountability;
• ensuring the enforcement of news ethics and the right to reply by respective media organisations.
• taking measures to prevent media ownership concentration ;
• defending editorial independence from interferences by the government and by the powerful people with vested interests;
• auditing newspaper circulation;
• monitoring/adjudicating on fare distribution of government advertisements;
• providing financial support for local newspapers in need
• advising the government on media development and related issues;
• fostering media literacy among people.

There are other measures we could consider, such as the provision included in the Croatian media law requiring media owners to obtain prior consent from the journalists in the appointment of their editors. It prevents media owners making arbitrary decisions in the choice of media editors, thus making the editors more loyal to their professional role scrutinised by the peers than to the desires of the media owner.Provisions fostering editorial independence could require media organisations to develop and implement media accountability systems based on professional values. Editorial statutes could be adopted to ensure a separation of business and editorial activities.
Nevertheless, independent journalism alone as a potential check on the abuse of power is insufficient,if channels of mass media do not reflect the diversity, and widespread access to and inclusive representation in media is not possible.

Therefore we should take necessary measures to increase media pluralism and diversity. The audience’s capacity to demand media to reflect plural values of society depends not only on the degree of media pluralism but also on the measures available to increase media ownership diversity. In this connection our broadcasting sector need a complete reassessment. We need to establish a transparent licensing system based on am enabling policy of diversity of sources and types, beyond mere plurality of channels. Here, there are two main requirements that need to be addressed,

a) An independent regulatory mechanism to foster the diversity in broadcasting sector. Linked to this requirement is the introduction of community broadcasting to foster inclusiveness and diverse media ownership.

b) Transformation of the state own broadcasting system into an independent public service broadcasting system.

Independent Regulator for the Broadcasting and introduction of community broadcasting

The purpose of the Independent Broadcasting Authority should be to regulate the broadcasting sector in the public interest. Currently there is no independent authority to regulate the Sector and thus the danger of interference from institutionalised pressure groups and the government is rather high. Therefore the function of the independent regulator should be to develop a fair, pluralistic and efficient public interest minded broadcasting sector, comprising private, public and community broadcasting institutions fulfilling complementary roles.

The tasks of the independent regulator could include

• planning broadcast frequency spectrum to optimise the access to different channels by audiences and determining the number of services permissible to prevent cluttering of the frequency spectrum;
• issuance of licences to public, private and community broadcasters in a transparent, open and fare manner; review the current ownership of licences and take necessary measures to address the anomalies which could undermine the pluralism in broadcasting sector;
• fostering pluralism in the broadcasting sector by preventing ownership concentration and cross media ownership;
• safeguarding editorial independence of the broadcasters from vested interest groups;
• Function as a oversight body during the election on implementing the media guidelines
• take measures to promote local media content in the broadcasting sector by maintaining and administering of a fund to foster quality documentary productions by independent audio-visual media producers. The fund could be maintained by imposing a levy on licence fee, commercial advertisements and broadcast of foreign productions;
• provide start-up financial support to establish community radio by disadvantaged communities
• actively monitor broadcast frequency use, to ensure that actual usage conforms to license conditions.

A special task of this regulatory body would be to foster independent community radio. Community radio are considered to be affordable, accessible media established to promote democratic participation, transparency and accountability at local level . This is particularly important in a multi ethnic country where remote communities need an affordable communication set up to discuss their perceptions and development needs in a larger context of participatory democracy . A community radio, which caters to a limited geographical community is owned and controlled by a not for profit organisation whose structure allows members of the community to participate in the management, operation and programming of the radio station. The programming should reflect the diversity of the community, the radio station is authorised to serve . Our neighbouring countries – Bangladesh, India and Nepal have vibrant community radio movements supported by the civil society. What a better way to understand media freedom and accountability than having to operate a community owned radio station.?

Transforming state broadcasting services in to Independent Public Service Broadcasting Institutions.

The transformation of the government managedstate broadcasting service into a truly independent public service broadcasting system, cannot be substituted with government’s intentions to make them merely competitive and profitable. Public service broadcaster should be accountable to the public, with necessary resources to compensate deficiencies of free market broadcast systems. A truly independent public service broadcasting system could be a defining change to our media system. A democratic public sphere depends on the quality of informed discourse derived from multiple sources. With a limited advertising revenue and the motive to generate more profits, commercial concerns put constrains on private media to spend on high quality programmes, which are not necessarily attractive to larger audiences. Illustrating this point, Adam Grffins, a viewer of the BBC, the UK’s public broadcaster, deplored the government’s recent attempt to trim the BBC budget, and expressed his view in the following manner.

“The BBC is the absolute pinnacle of world TV production. As a child listening to BBC Radio 4, I learned to love literature, kept up with science and had my world view widened. BBC TV has given me both David Attenborough AND Dr Who!Without an effective BBC, Britain will loose a substantial amount of influence in this important market, world beating news coverage will vanish and other broadcasters will suffer as the quality staff and techniques stop being available. If MP’s are unable to explain the license fee, I think we need better MP’s not a different BBC. The BBC needs adequate funding that is not dependent upon the whim of the current government. A more modern funding model is fine, underfunding is not. If anything would make me man the barricades, it is an attack on the BBC. Long may the BBC continue.”

Transformation of the SLBC and Rupavahini into an independent public service broadcasting may need careful considerations of the resource needs. This task could be launched by establishing an expert committee to make suitable recommendations, including innovative public funding. The knowledge of how other countries (e.g. Poland) made such transformations, will shed light on the issues involved. The task is not merely to assure editorial and intuitional independence from the government of the day, but also to see that adequate resources are available to enrich viewer experience , serve the cultural and educational dimensions. The members of the PSB governing board/s could be appointed through a suitable mechanism such as the Constitutional Council with a mandate to act as independent trustees of the public interest in broadcasting, and not as representatives of the government of the day.The public service broadcaster’s task should be to facilitate constant negotiation of consent between all segments of the citizenry and the government in the exercise of concentrated state power. In fact, Independent public service broadcasting should be an indispensable constitutional requirement in our democracy.

The primary functions of the public service broadcaster could include the following:

• Satisfy peoples right to receive quality information
• nourish representative pluralism;
• serve educational and cultural dimensions;
• editorial purpose should consistently show the ability to become the society’s voice;
• to elevate cultural levels of the society;
• to set programme standards for all broadcasters by providing quality programmes;
• to cater to special interests which may not have a large audiences;
• the staff should have a highly motivated public interest minded professional attitude devoted to promote democracy and to foster educational and cultural dimensions of a civilized society.

In the past many liberal advocates have argued for minimal state interference in the media as the necessary condition for an environment that can support democracy. This argument has particular currency in the United State with its first amendment statement that Congress shall make no law……abridging freedom of the speech or the press. Others have argued that the construction of a modern media environment capable of supporting democracy and good governance may require a proactive role by the state – in providing enabling policies conducive to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, transforming state broadcasting services to independent public service broadcasting, and ensuring right kind of regulatory environment to foster free independent and pluralistic media.

The suggestions, I mentioned here cannot be implemented without the state’s intervention. Thus, intensive policy advocacy is needed to realize them. Nevertheless, I wish to reiterate that it would be much important to identify appropriate media sector reforms through inclusive public deliberations. The most engaging way to achieve it is to appoint an independent commission empowered to investigate into media deficiencies we have experienced in the recent past.

Many thanks for your attention.

03 May 2015 – World Press Freedom Day.

Wijayananda Jayaweera is a former director of the UNESCO program for developments communications .


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