There is no other industry in Sri Lanka which has suffered at the hands of the Government more than the media industry. Media freedom is enshrined in our Constitution, but it cannot just be exercised unless the right to gather news and information is also guaranteed.
Media freedom is enshrined in our Constitution, but it cannot just be exercised unless the right to gather news and information is also guaranteed
When there are no news stories, newspaper publishing would cease to exist. In order for it to exist, it must gather news by various means. One of the salient characteristics of news gathering is the confidentiality of the source.
There are certain categories of employment in government where employees have been subjected to a code of secrecy. This effectively veils the public duty of whistle blowing. The press has always been considered the “watchdog of democracy” as freedom of expression and speech is quintessential to a healthy democracy.
It is also the responsibility of the media to report accurately so that the public at large could repose confidence in the news media. There has been a spate of cases filed against journalists demanding the revelation of the confidential sources.
Many Governments have been brought down overnight by a mere few words of an investigative reporter. The scandals such as Pentagon Papers, Watergate and Rainbow Warrior have caused huge public outcries.
Governments too are sensitive to media reports, especially in Western democracies, whereas in Sri Lanka, State terror is brought to bear upon the journalist or the media institution. This is an alarming trend, which would lead to one-party authoritarian rule forever.
Exposition of corruption, extravagance, waste and nepotism
The nature of the functions of some Government institutions are veiled in absolute secrecy and corruption and nepotism tend to infiltrate these institutions. Public money could well be used and misused and no one would be able to know the real facts and circumstances under which certain payments have been disbursed.
Let’s take this example: The US National Security Council would task the CIA with a huge budget with the task of recruiting moles and thereby infiltrating terrorist organisations in Pakistan. This money will be secretly expended by the CIA operatives on the ground. Which Government agency could undertake audit of this money? Could an auditor verify the signature of a CIA recruit by undertaking a trip to Pakistan? This is beyond the realm of possibility.
In order to avoid this type of irregularity the Government must rely on the absolute integrity and honesty of its employees. Would a journalist do a public duty by exposing a story that public money spent for hunting terrorists has been squandered by the operatives? Would it then be an eye-opener for the Government that its policy objectives have been rendered dysfunctional due to corrupt motives of a handful of public service officials? When it comes to national security, such corrupt officials could put the country at risk.
This example amply demonstrates the noble duty a journalist or the free media could play in a vibrant democracy. Should the Government kill the journalist because its credibility has been hurt by the report? Or should the Government reward the journalist for the story? Or should the public support such a role played by a journalist because people keep paying taxes and a handful of individuals are enriching themselves through sordid deals?
The Government, if it comes to know about a scandal, could even sweep the matter under the carpet. It is therefore absolutely clear that investigative journalism provides yet another front on Government integrity. The Government and the individuals could be held responsible. This would also provide an opportunity for the people to decide the fate of Government at the next election. The Pentagon Papers case is one such case in point. The journalists made public some US Government documents critical of its Vietnam policy.
Media mafia and editorial independence
Most of the media institutions are run by either political activists who have partisan bias in relation to one’s close associates, political parties and political ideologies or to please the organisations and individuals who provide advertising revenue and these are essential resources to run the newspapers.
This situation demands that media personnel employed under its payroll would have to toe the editorial policy of the newspaper. Most journalists work under a self-imposed code of conduct so that neither the masters nor the funders are hurt by their stories. Under these conditions free media cannot exist. Neither can it play its vital role of educating and enlightening the public but it could only confuse the electorate and brainwash the masses thus making a mockery of the very foundation of democracy.
Private media institutions are governed by private capital and cannot expect to play the role of the watchdog all the time and it has its functional tactical manoeuvres and would have to resort to the role of a lapdog whether willing or unwillingly, otherwise it would be catapulted into obscurity as has been the fate of a number of newspaper in our contemporary media history. An all-powerful Government could send the entire management of a newspaper to obscurity under various pretexts.
Media story in Sri Lanka is painted in blood
The media story in Sri Lanka is painted in blood and every word of those who died for media freedom must never be begotten. The journalists who died for the cause of freedom are the real heroes of democracy. Unfortunately none of perpetrators of crimes against journalists have been brought to justice.
There is a popular belief that there is ‘a culture of impunity’ in Sri Lanka. It is the style of each journalist who demonstrates his or her integrity in his or her chosen profession. No one can point a finger at any one and say he or she is a bad journalist simply because the contents of the story might not have been palatable to a political party or the Government in power.
If a journalist pursues objectivity in reporting, he or she must first ensure that fairness, factuality and non-partisanship is maintained. These are the cardinal principles that govern news reporting.
The media bias is a very disturbing phenomenon not only in Sri Lanka but in other countries. There are various types of media bias which occurs when the media supports or attacks a particular political party, candidate or ideology, but other common forms of bias include advertising bias, when stories are selected or slanted to please advertisers, corporate bias, when stories are selected or slanted to please corporate owners of media, mainstream bias, when tendency to report what everyone else is reporting and to avoid stories that will offend anyone, sensational bias in favour of the exceptional over the ordinary, giving the impression that rare events, such as airplane crashes, are more common than common events, such as automobile crashes.
Media bias also hinges on favours or attacks towards a particular race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation or ethnic group. In order to avoid media bias it is also important that journalists too are trained, educated and licensed so that the rigours of news reporting would be in line with the norms of the industry and public morality.
(The writer is a freelance journalist and a political lobbying and Government relations consultant.)