Media Freedom, Responsibilities and Professionalism

Sri Lanka, since January 2015 change of government is undergoing significant changes in polity and society. The steps towards establishment of good governance i.e. 19th Amendment, Right to Information Act, establishment of commissions have laid the required foundation for these transformations.

At this crucial time, an onerous responsibility has been placed on media. While all requirements for media freedom are in place now, it is essential to strengthen media professionalism so the media personnel could properly understand how to use the given freedom without abusing it and play its responsible role as a watch dog.

The dynamics of the current transformation requires a sensitivity to the historical moment, a commitment to reporting the truth and an imagination that refuses to be bogged down in the problems of the present. The current process of economic revival, reconciliation and constitutional changes require media to play a larger role, not confined merely to report facts and just inform the public. It has to go beyond facts and incidents to critically and creatively explore avenues for social awareness of reconciliation and economic progress. This may not be saleable like sensational news making, but it is up to journalists to understand their responsibilities.

Post-conflict reconciliation process

Within the context of the present post-conflict reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, it is certainly the role of media to act as watchdogs to report any possible attempts to revive secessionist violent forces and other developments in the country, especially in the North and East, and report it to the public once their factual accuracy has been suitably determined. However, sensitive journalism should not be misconstrued as an attempt to mystify the truth or to hide it. Responsible journalism at the end of the day is nothing more than the practice of good journalism, which is journalism that critically examines and also looks beyond the problems of any given context.

The responsibilities of journalism in post conflict reconciliation process is nothing more than the practice of a journalism that adheres rigidly to a set of ethics and principles that are predicated on professionalism and a commitment to the truth. Truth however has many facets, and any one of them alone is a lie. The media must strive to present facts mindful of a larger context where single incidents are part of a larger whole where individuals and groups are part of a complex matrix that is in constant flux. Hence, the given media freedom must be used with extreme care.

One of the serious problems of Sri Lankan media is the declining standards of professionalism.

Ideally, the news media should serve as a forum in which proponents and opponents are encouraged to express their views in an open and reasoned fashion. First of all, there should be awareness about a potential conflict between the freedom of expression, speech and information and the protection and advancement of the process of reconciliation and development. The question arises, how critical should one be of the process? Can one be first with the news and also be impartial, accurate and reliable? How can media maintain the balance between transparency of the reconciliation process and the need for confidentiality? Can the media meet the imperatives of market forces sensationalism and commercialization? To understand and examine these issues, there is requirement of educational debates, seminars and workshops for media personnel. In all this what must not be forgotten is that the media has a very important role to play. The media is a pivotal catalyst in the success of the process of ethnic harmony, reconciliation and sustainable peace as the citizens heavily dependent on the media for information. It is true that absolute media freedom is a myth and in any country one could find some media restrictions, controls, vested interests and manipulations. The problem facing journalists in Sri Lanka is how to protect their freedom when the world around them asks them to follow strategies and ethics which bind them to a certain ideology. The imperatives of journalism, i.e. accuracy, fairness, impartiality and reliability bolstered by the freedom of expression speech and information and open government provide the backbone of democratic pluralism and in Sri Lanka, the media is fortunate to find above conditions are well in place.

Newspaper establishments

The media in Sri Lanka can be broadly placed into two categories- those which are owned and controlled by the State and those which are privately owned and controlled. In addition to the state-owned Lake House, of ANCL, there are five large private establishments that print a number of daily newspapers in national languages, as well as some more private establishments that publish several weekend newspapers. There are few dozens of privately owned establishments of broadcasting and television stations.

Although the conflict ended eight years ago, at least a section of the media in Sri Lanka exacerbates existing communal and ethnic tensions by continuously playing on the nationalist and religious emotions of the people. While it is natural that any media has to keep its language readership in mind it is also the case that impartiality and accuracy suffer as a result of this inherent requirement. Newspaper establishments owned by Sinhalese show a majoritarian bias regardless of their language medium. Similarly, the Tamil media establishments always give a pro Tamil bias. Meanwhile, the Tamil speaking Muslim community also complains that the mainstream Tamil media ignores their concerns.

To rectify the media issues such as professionalism, broad awareness and ability to inform, the institutions as well as the state bodies should chip in with practical steps to train, regular updating and internal review of editing and style handbooks, in-house workshops and training, cooperation between personnel in Colombo and grass roots level correspondents, building the capacity of provincial and grass roots level correspondents and increasing the interaction and last but not the least, the recognition by media organisations of the need for voluntary self-regulation and maintenance of professional standards codes of ethics and conduct.

Nobody can find fault with the media demand that the press complaints commission should be handled by media itself and it should be strengthened to suit present day requirements. However, it should not be done at the cost of the existing Press Council which has served the public as well as media institutions for a long period. Though there were few criticisms about the functioning of the Council, it has not faced any major complaints. Hence, it should be allowed to function without undue interference.

Journalists in Sri Lank have to realize the pivotal importance of the media in the process of strengthening of democracy, reconciliation and economic development. The media must refrain from spewing out half truths, propaganda and poor information and act with responsibility play the role of the watch dog.

– Sugeeswara Senadhira

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