In the aftermath of an election that saw the naked abuse of the government-owned media, the question of reform has risen in the agenda. But it is unfortunate to see the substantive discussion get side-tracked by emotional debates about the disqualifications of the various new appointees to head these malfunctioning organizations.
First, let me get the appointments out of the way. It is clear that this is a transitional time. The power balance will settle only after the Constitutional reforms are completed and the elections for the new Parliament are held, in whichever order allowed by the political dynamics at play.
At this time, those who have got their hands on the levers of power are focused on the resources needed for these two actions. In their minds, the government media are critical tools. The appointments suggest that the SLFP faction of the National Government is intending to maintain control over the propaganda machinery.
The focus of civil-society organizations should be on the long game of including media reforms in the Constitutional amendments that are to be discussed and debated. But this will not be easy because too many in the “third sector” are still blindly attached to the concept of “public broadcasting” that has been tried and failed in Sri Lankan conditions.
Public broadcasting versus public broadcasters
In Sri Lanka, we imagine that we had public broadcasting though that was never the case. We confuse our wishes with what actually exists.
The SLBC, the sole electronic medium until 1978 which was modeled on the paternalistic BBC, was never fair in its coverage of the opposition parties or of those who opposed the government in the streets.
The Japanese Government gave aid to Sri Lanka to build an educational television service. Very quickly, it turned into something else, the highly politicized Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation that we all know and (do not) love.
The Independent Television Network was established by two partners, one being Shan Wickremesinghe who later founded TNL. When the partners fell out, the government took it over. It never became broadly owned or returned to the private sector.It continued as an oxymoron.
Despite complaining against the abuse of government media for partisan propaganda while in opposition, not even the UNP which has been responsible for many privatizations has acted to either privatize these government media organizations. Once in power, it’s difficult for politicians to surrender control over instruments that they believe will help consolidate power. The Nandalochana and Goonesekera reports on the ownership of the ANCL and on media reforms, respectively, were never implemented by the Kumaratunge government that commissioned them.
Yet, my idealistic friends from civil society organizations insist we need public broadcasters. When I propose privatizing the lot (SLRC, ITN, SLBC, LakHanda, ANCL), they are shocked. Who will make children’s programs they ask; who will develop educational content? When it is pointed out that most of the resources of the government media are not devoted to these meritorious activities, they respond saying it should.
Why would this happen, after all these years of money being spent on everything demeritorious, I ask. The new statutory provisions that we will set in place will ensure it, the idealists say. Statutory provisions could not stop the assault on the independence of the judiciary by assorted politicians and Sarath Nanda Silva. How can they protect government media organizations?
The evidence shows that we in Sri Lanka are incapable of sustaining ‘independent’ public media like the BBC. We should accept that fact and try something else, namely, a fund for public media content. Here, meritorious content that is unlikely to be produced by private producers under commercial considerations would be carefully defined and subsidized.
A fund and a management structure would be established to responsibly, fairly and transparently disburse subsidies to any media producer wishing to create meritorious content. The money will have to come from Treasury because any kind of levy on private producers will then result in them wanting protection from web-based competition. If the content is necessary for a decent society and we value it, we should pay for it.
I already hear the objections. If we cannot shield government media organizations from political influence, how can we ensure that the fund will be operated fairly?
We can make an effort to make undue influence difficult, but it will not be possible to guarantee success. The difference is that the bad things that can happen in a politically-influenced public media content fund are limited. It is unlikely that this money will be spent on propaganda per se. The worst that can happen is that crony producers will get more money than independent ones.
How can the government communicate?
If government is deprived of the current means by which they communicate to the public, will that not be a problem? It is one thing to take away the ability to engage in illegal and unethical election propaganda, but surely, government must be able to communicate their policies and achievements? Or to pull at the heartstrings, government must be able to communicate messages regarding vaccination so that the lives of children can be saved.
There is a way. Advertising. What the government did ever since the 2015 Budget was debated in Parliament a few months back. This did verge on publicly funded partisan propaganda, but guidelines and safeguards can be set in place. Since all media get a piece of the action, there will be incentive for them to expose abuse.
Again, possibilities of abuse cannot be ruled out. But the damage is easier to contain than with government owning and operating media organizations.
Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.