MEDIA REFORM LANKA – AN INTRODUCTION TO THE RESEARCH & ARTICLES

This section of the Media Reform Lanka website presents the outcome of a research project started in 2009 by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London University with the support of the Ford Foundation. The principal project objective has been to work with educational institutions in Sri Lanka to develop new curricula in Media Policy, Regulation and Law. The aim has been both to provide an accessible guide to the issues and to promote greater understanding of problems specific to Sri Lanka and in some cases common to other South Asian countries.
 
The project built on an earlier scoping research exercise completed in 2008, which identified common issues in the approach of four South Asian countries – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - to devising a new framework for the media. (The research report is available on www.mediasouthasia.org )  As we saw it, the common challenge was to take account of new technologies at different levels of public communication; to allow scope for diversity; and to promote the use of the media to advance the public interest and promote economic development across South Asia.
 
We felt that the most important aspects of the regulatory regimes in the south Asian region concerned the relation of domestic broadcasting to regional and international programming and the conditions and means of access to them. The nature of regulation varies across the region. The perception of the requirements for national security varies between the different South Asian countries, as do the regulations for platforms for satellite services, and the conditions of access to them. There are differences in the responsibilities of national regulatory agencies and the training of their personnel. Cultural issues associated with broadcasting services in national and regional languages, and their role in the development and enrichment of those languages, are specific to the countries concerned.
 
Principal research papers
The research papers, essays and other documentation prepared for the Media Reform Lanka project and published on this website focus on the specifics of the Sri Lankan media environment, but the authors draw comparisons where relevant with India and other South Asian countries.  The two core research papers are 1) Legal, Industry and Educational Reforms Pertaining to the Print Media written by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, (Attorney-at-Law, Sri Lanka, and Senior Associate for the Media Reform Lanka initiative), in association with Gehan Gunatilleke (Attorney-at-Law, Sri Lanka, and co-researcher); and 2) The Political Economy of the Electronic Media In Sri Lanka, by Tilak Jayaratne (former Director of Educational Services for the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation), and Sarath Kellapotha, senior researcher and broadcaster.
 
Pinto-Jayawardena and Gunetilleke’s paper analyses issues of media policy from a legal, institutional and educational perspective with a view to identifying where reform might be needed or possible, both in protecting the rights of individuals and in the operation of the media industry and relevant social and legal institutions.  The paper also examines the teaching of media policy and law at university level in Sri Lanka and puts forward a framework for a better understanding of the subject for university students and professors engaged in a study of the media.
 
The authors stress the high literacy rate and strong traditions of professional journalism practised in Sri Lanka in the early years of the country’s independence, but argue that a number of factors have weakened independent journalism in recent decades. High among these is the impact of two major insurgencies, mainly among Sinhalese youth, and the long civil war against the LTTE to prevent Tamil separatism.
 
As a result of the war and persistent reliance on emergency regulations, there has been growing hostility between the state and the private media, accompanied by intimidation and in some case assassination of local journalists and editors. The constitutional and legal framework has been turned against media institutions and contributed to the erosion of media freedoms.  Issues of media regulation and media law reform in Sri Lanka reflect a debate in many other countries and the authors explore comparisons both with India and with countries outside the South Asian region.  Formal censorship imposed by tight security laws has been reinforced by self- censorship in the face of extra judicial killings, violence and real personal threats against media personnel, for which no authority would take responsibility or even investigate.
 
The ending of the war against the LTTE in 2009 brought hope of a fresh start. Pinto-Jayawardena and Gunetilleke write that ‘ideally, Sri Lanka’s post-war years should have heralded the opening up of a vibrant media culture with all its potential to aid reconciliation between communities’.  In reality, the Sri Lankan media has struggled to re-establish its integrity and independence in the face of a ‘an over-mighty state’ and the weakening of traditional checks and balances. 
 
State policy relating to media law reform in Sri Lanka has often been dictated by expediency. There is a process of bargaining between the media industry bodies and the government in power at the time. Outdated laws and regulations are an obstacle to media professionalism. Criminal defamation has been one area where a measure of reform has succeeded. But there are other areas of reform in which there has been little progress.  These include Contempt of Court, the creation of an independent broadcasting regulator and the passing of Right to Information legislation. 
 
Initiatives for media reform in Sri Lanka owe a great deal to what is usually known as “the R.K.W. Goonesekere Committee Report” of 1996. This Government-appointed parliamentary committee drew up a ‘Legislative and Regulatory Framework for the Media’ using a ‘bipartisan approach’ and identified areas where reform was necessary. After sixteen years many of its recommendation are still not implemented. But they constitute a landmark in progressive consideration of media reform, and (as Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha note) they have remained relevant in a political environment in which despite occasional periods of attempted relaxation, restrictions on the media have been tightened.  The Committee argued that the constitution on its own was not adequate to protect freedom of speech and expression. The principle of open government would be best protected by a Freedom of Information Act. Pinto-Jayawardena and Gunetilleke’s paper examines these recommendations and the initiatives to respond to them in the years since the Committee reported.
 
The paper on the electronic media takes a practical perspective based on Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha’s own experience as senior broadcasters in the state controlled electronic media. They review the history of the electronic media in Sri Lanka, its colonial origins and the post-independence political context which has underpinned and in some cases distorted its development. They provide a theoretical framework to their discussion of media practice but give less weight to legal issues, which are covered extensively in the paper on the print media. Since 1971, insurgency and conflict have had a major impact on the development of the media, drawing attention to the potential power of the media both as an instrument for government and as a threat to the stability of the state if it were to fall under insurgent influence or control. It is argued that political parties took advantage of this dilemma. In opposition they would agitate for media rights and promise reform. In power, the same parties changed their position.
 
The authors examine the changes in the media landscape of the 1980s and 1990s, some positive and some negative. The case of the New Education Service set up by the SLBC in 1994 is examined in detail as an initiative which set out to extend the best traditions and practice of Sri Lankan broadcasting but was abruptly cancelled when it appeared to be too critical of aspects of government policy. One of the authors of the paper was closely involved in setting up the NES and the account brings out a strong personal perspective on what went wrong and why. The staff of the state broadcaster was strongly unionised and the authors argue that there was competition between the unions and management as to who should exercise the role of gatekeeper of the public interest. A subsequent  ‘See-Saw phase’ in relations between the government and the media showed that the pressures for media control and media liberalisation were not all one way, and that even in a time of conflict there was significant support for media freedoms in society at large which governments were in part willing to recognise. 
 
The authors compare the record of two heads of government in protecting or restricting media freedoms. Ranil Wickremasinghe, under the unprecedented but short lived ‘co-habitation’ government of 2002-4 in which the President and Prime Minister were of rival parties, took some significant steps towards enhancing media freedoms, notably with the repeal of the Criminal Defamation Act, though the authors argue that he was motivated as much by political rivalry as by a commitment to media freedom.  
 
The record of the current President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has been one of consolidating his authority by an appeal to the very different constituency of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist opinion, for which it seems a liberal and open media as an ideal indicated in Sri Lanka’s constitutional and legal system has less attraction. The continuance of tough media restrictions even after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the end of the long running Tamil separatist insurgency has incurred special international and domestic criticism. For the time being, the reporting environment remains insecure to the extent that activists argue that journalists can report only what those closely affiliated with the ruling party wish to make public.
 
The authors argue that media-ownership is crucial to the way in which society is organized and economic decisions are taken. The private electronic media in Sri Lanka are owned by people, whose wider business networks are vulnerable and who are not focused on serving the public interest. They argue that a fresh look at the entire media ownership framework is required to encourage more diversity of ideas and voices.  
 
Civil Society and the media
The emergency laws and restrictions that operated in Sri Lanka during the long years of conflict have not stifled debate about media reform. Over the years, there have been times when support for media reform has been articulated vigorously by media lawyers and a wide spectrum of civil society, for whom liberal institutions have been seen not as an alien ideology but as one rooted in the independence movement and supported by advocates of political and cultural autonomy.
 
The symposium held in 1998 which led to the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility marked a high point of public assertion of  support for media freedoms. This was the first of three so called Colombo declarations which have continued to provide a framework for long term policies for ensuring media freedoms.  It was primarily a media initiative which showed that even while government was tightening its grip on the media, the media could take a strong stand to assert its independence. For the electronic media it was a time when the case for an autonomous status for the state broadcasters seemed to be most urgently demonstrated. But it never happened. In normal times, these might have been be accepted and enforced by governments. Currently, however, the prospect of achieving a more liberal policy framework looks bleak.
 
Though the state has been slow to respond to the main concerns of the media industry, both the papers attach considerable importance to what is known as the “Tholangamuwa Declaration”. This was the outcome of an initiative of key Sri Lankan media institutions in adopting a Media Charter in September 2005. The Charter asserted that “a professional media with a responsibility to the public interest, independent of government or partisan influence and interference, is a vital part of the series of checks and balances central to democracy”.
 
In the following year, another media industry initiative produced a ground breaking policy document on the Role of Media for National Unity. This Weligama Declaration adopted an uncharacteristically self-critical approach to media reform. There was a consensus that the media played a crucial role in fostering national unity. But the declaration also stated that constructive criticism of the media by the intellectual community would facilitate a more positive role for the media profession.
 
Media Education
Both the papers on the print and on the electronic media address the state of media education in Sri Lanka, and examine how media teaching and training in university institutions has shaped an understanding of the media.  The paper by Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha analyses the course content and approach of different universities in Sri Lanka from the first development of media training and media studies outside the media profession itself at the University of Kelaniya in 1973. The impetus for journalism education in Sri Lanka came from the Government's desire to start job oriented courses. The pioneer university teachers designed the courses to teach the use of language in writing and attached less value to media and communication. Previously training was provided either within the print media houses or from the late 1960s by the state radio, which started broadcast media training with the establishment of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Training Institute (SLBCTI).
 
Both papers address the content and method of teaching journalism and media studies in Sri Lankan university and professional training institutions. Pinto-Jayawardena and Gunetilleke examine the curricula of different Sri Lankan universities and highlight a serious lack of attention to media policy and law.  As a vibrant new generation seeks to enter the profession, they argue there is a real need for more effective professional training and more course content on media freedom and contemporary issues.
 
In a separate section, Pinto-Jayawardena and Gunetilleke compare the teaching of media law and policy in Sri Lanka, to that of colleges in India, based on her discussions during the project with colleagues in media teaching institutions in south India. They argue that the expansion of the Indian media during the last two decades has transformed media education. But they find that efforts to reform curricula have met with obstacles. While the laws governing the internet now occupy an important part of the curriculum, constitutional aspects of the courses have become less important. The linking of human rights with the teaching of media law and policy has a lower priority.
 

The authors discuss the sequencing of content in university courses and the difficulty of finding the right balance between theory and practice. Case studies are often taken from foreign examples, which are neither contemporary nor relevant to the local media. The approach to media law in these courses lacks an interdisciplinary dimension and a critical study regarding the role and impact of the media is often seen as missing.
 
In their discussion of media education in Sri Lanka, Tilak Jayaratne and Sarath Kellapotha put forward their view that media education lacks a national policy, and reflects the needs of the industry rather than the country as a whole.  Media issues are not much discussed in the media itself, which focuses more on entertainment .than on the real issues facing society.  Media education needs to be less about professional training and more about encouraging a reflective, critical approach to the media and society.  They argue that media literacy is critically important to media freedom, to human rights activists, legal affairs professionals, and to a wide range of stakeholders in Sri Lankan civil society.
 
Other articles by practitioners and observers
Beyond these two core papers on media policy affecting the print and electronic media, we asked contributors with wide experience of the media as practitioners and analysts to share their perceptions of the current issues that face the Sri Lankan media
 
In his article, the veteran journalist and editor Sinha Ratnatunga reflects on the development of the Sri Lankan media over more than two hundred years, the battles of the print media with successive governments to preserve its autonomy and the wider issues of freedom for the electronic media and new online sites. He argues that media freedoms are a sine qua non of a modern liberal democracy, but that patience is required in convincing a sceptical and increasingly powerful government of the need to promote and protect them.
 
Sri Lankan journalist Amal Jayasinghe writes of his personal experience reporting for an international news agency on different stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka over the past thirty years. He describes the impact of physical threats to Sri Lankan journalists, and the effect of emergency laws and other legal instruments in controlling and restricting the media. He assesses the sensitivity of the government and sections of the Sri Lankan media to foreign reporting on the conflict in Sri Lanka and the extent to which it assists or handicaps the local assertion of media freedoms and practice of independent journalism. He writes of the need for professional standards and the cooperation of media institutions in providing training, and the challenges ahead for the Sri Lankan media following the end of the war against the LTTE and Tamil separatism.
 
Namini Wijedasa writes on the contribution that women make to journalism and the media in Sri Lanka and the particular difficulties that they face in the profession. She observes that while there are fewer women in journalism than men, they are gradually taking on more influential roles. Women journalists face many of the same constraints that their male counterparts do, though there are additional issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. But she says the breakdown of law and order in Sri Lanka is all-encompassing; and the control or suppression of rights is not restricted to the media industry.
 
Ameen Izzadeen analyses the behaviour of the minority media in different phases of the country’s history and the challenges they face today. The term minority media refers to the print and electronic media catering to the minority communities – the Tamils who make up 17 per cent of the country’s 20 million population and the Muslims, who are 8.5 percent of the population. He concentrates mainly on the Tamil media, which is further divided into three categories – independent Tamil media owned by Tamils, independent Tamil media owned by Sinhalese, and Tamil media run by the state. The development of the minority media in Sri Lanka is examined in three phases: 1): The early history of the minority media   2) The minority media during the civil war   3) The minority media after the civil war.  The paper looks at the challenges the sector has faced and the threats to journalists from state and non-state actors. It also explores the concept of embedded journalism in Sri Lanka and the development of the modern media.
 
The distinguished practitioner in public law, Jayantha de Almeida Guneratne, assesses the concept of judicial activism as an influence on the practical workings of the Sri Lankan legal system, and in particular on the implementation and protection of media freedoms. Though Sri Lankan courts have the power to enforce Fundamental Rights as defined in the Sri Lankan constitution, he argues that this power is in practice limited. From a detailed review of the relevant case law and judicial observations on issues of media freedom, he concludes that a Right to Information Act is essential to support the country’s committed to basic democratic values.
 
In a short and challenging essay, Professor Sasanka Perera, former Professor of Sociology in the University of Colombo, discusses issues of media training and media education in Sri Lanka from the  perspective of what he calls  his ‘double-life’ as an academic and irregular journalist. He describes Sri Lanka’s National Media Policy (2007) as a ‘finely nuanced democratic text’, but questions its value in the present political climate when many of its ideals are being violated by the government itself. He says that much media training is rooted in ‘a highly utilitarian and technical paradigm’ which he argues is fundamentally flawed and ultimately detrimental to democratic politics.
 
The science journalist and commentator Nalaka Gunawardene in an essay entitled ‘New media: Old mindsets’ looks at the constraints that the new media face in the present regulatory context in Sri Lanka.  He argues that the idea of the media being used to promote the public interest has been ‘under siege’ for thirty years. Policy makers, law reformers, researchers and activists operate in a difficult environment. The public in Sri Lanka is suspicious of new forms of communication, distrusts new technologies and is poorly informed about the dynamics of the new media landscape. He points out that while the providers of information work hard to protect and reinforce basic freedoms, not enough attention has been paid as to whether people really want them. The demand cannot be assumed. Advocates of media freedoms have to make the case for them. But he concludes on a note of optimism, that there are many new opportunities in the modern networked world to promote the public interest and to aspire to strengthen an understanding and appreciation in Sri Lanka of the issues involved.
 
This website aims to present an authoritative analysis by Sri Lankan writers of the legal and regulatory environment affecting the Sri Lankan print and electronic media. The authors have varied and complementary experience and perspectives on the media and an awareness which this project has aimed to promote of the value of a comparative view of media development and media education in neighbouring countries of south Asian and outside the south Asian region. The analysis and documentation is intended to provide source material which illustrates the range and importance of the professional and civic issues involved and the principles at stake.
 
The support provided by the Colombo based Law & Society Trust in facilitating this initiative is much appreciated.
 
 
David Page and William Crawley, Senior Fellows, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University, U.K. &  Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Attorney at Law, Sri Lanka; Columnist and Editorial (Legal) Consultant, The Sunday Times; Senior Associate, Media Reform Lanka Initiative.   
 
September 2012