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‘Media can be a national voice’

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Media organizations are business ventures which survive on credibility Media organizations are business ventures which survive on credibility (Picture -AFP)

Wijayananda Jayaweera says in a speech on Press Freedom Day that a truly independent  public service broadcasting system could be  a defining change to our media system. 

Former Director of UNESCO Wijayanada Jayaweera made a speech on media freedom at the Press Freedom Day event held recently at Hotel Janaki in Colombo. The event was organized by the Movement and Sri Lanka Press Institute. The speech highlighted vital points in the topic ‘Structural Changes for Media Freedom’. The following are excerpts of his speech translated into English.
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 thereby 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.

Media as a system may potentially fulfill all of these functions or none of them. Not very long ago we experienced 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 really a 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 neighbors have made significant reforms 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. 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.

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 presided over by Prof. Robert M. Hutchins, the president of University of Chicago, was established. 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 also have a duty, it argued, to serve the public good – something that cannot be fulfilled automatically through the free paly of the market.

Nonetheless, the Hutchins Commission did not moot the idea of advocating more laws and government action to arrest this threat, since that would endanger 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.

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 realize the pertinent issues involved and  thereby to reassess the role attributed to media in a democracy.

Vital  need
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 be based on evidence gathered through a public hearing. A Media Truth Commission, something 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.

This Media Truth Commission should have the power to call upon anyone and obtain information regarding the pressures media were subjected to during 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 focus on two basic questions.

• 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 disempower 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. This is the expert role attributed to journalists, which also justifies their own claim of being public service minded professionals.

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. 

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 or outsiders. 

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.

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.

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 licenses to public, private and community broadcasters in a transparent, open and fare manner; review the current ownership of licenses and take necessary measures to address the anomalies which could undermine the pluralism in broadcasting sector;

• safeguarding editorial independence  of the broadcasters from vested interest groups;

• Function as a oversight body during the election on implementing the media guidelines

• provide start-up financial support to establish community radio by disadvantaged communities

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 .
Transforming state broadcasting services
The transformation of the government managed state 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. 

Transformation of 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.

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. 

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 deficiencieswe have experienced in the recent past. Many thanks for your attention.

Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 17:29
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