Making future sense
why it is time to revisit media reforms:
Keynote address by the former Director of Communication Development
Division, UNESCO, Wijayananda Jayaweera at the World Press Freedom Day
2015 at Hotel Janaki, Colombo
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
We have passed an unfortunate period in which seeking ‘journalistic
truth’ became really 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 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.
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
Often it appears that the gratification media users seek from media
is more to entertain than to inform. In such circumstances it is more
likely that the efforts to attract largest audiences to satisfy the
market needs compel media to put serving the public good as a secondary
Hence any re-conception of the democratic role of the media and
changes require ensuring it, needing to think through the implication of
Learning from the Hutchins Commission
In early 1940s, the functions expected from the media in a democracy
became a debatable issue in the US due to the undue influence media
owners could exert on the press. The prevailing argument 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,
President of University of Chicago, was established, with the financial
support from the Time magazine, to look into this issue.
After nearly 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 have also a duty, it argued, to serve the public good “something
that cannot be fulfilled automatically through the free play of the
Nonetheless, the Hutchins Commission did not moot the idea of
advocating more laws and government action to arrest this threat, since
that would endanger the 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.
The reform movement that came out through the deliberation of
Hutchins Commission had not only public support but also more
importantly from the editors, leading journalists and also journalism
educators. Its championship of journalistic autonomy, editorial
independence, ethical standards and public service orientation was
anchored by adherence to the codes and procedures of ‘objective’
This demanded detachment, nonpartisanship, reverence for facts and
A Media Truth Commission
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.
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.
A similar idea was mooted recently by veteran editor Victor Ivan, who
emphasized the need to establish Presidential Commission to investigate
into the difficulties faced by our media and media professionals in the
It is important for society to have an open discussion on various
pressures exerted on media by political authorities, business concerns
or from partisan groups promoting social divisiveness. Such an
investigation led by public intellectuals would enable the society to
discuss the measures needed to prevent threats to freedom of the press,
and its editorial independence.
This Media Truth Commission should have the power to call upon anyone
and obtain information regarding the pressures media were subjected
touring 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
Not being prescriptive, I suggest that we focus on two basic
??How to ensure editorial independence of news media and its public
???How to make the media system an inclusive one than the one we have
Any media sector reforms should be able to eliminate those obstacles
which disempowered 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
Then the journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of
their meaning underlining different viewpoints, valid for now, subject
to further investigation. In a democracy the people expect the
journalists to provide verified information in a meaningful context for
them to make sense, consequently enabling to take decisions.
If the public service is the mission of news media, the editorial
independence remains as an absolute must. The partisan media has no such
obligation of public service. Therefore, editorial independence of
partisan media depends on the whims and fancies of its paymasters.
An Independent Media Council
It is 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
Media are business ventures, which survive on credibility they can
establish among their users. Thus, in addition to managing a commercial
enterprise, editors have a decisive relation to the public interest,
unlike that of any other enterprise perused for profits.
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 the outsiders.
One such mechanism could be an Independent Media Council, empowered
to protect press freedom and safeguard the editorial independence.
Similarly, an 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
Linked to editorial independence and the public service orientation,
there are a number of other important tasks the Independent Media
Council can perform, such as:
1.Taking measures to protect press freedom and promote media
2. Ensuring the enforcement of news ethics and the right to reply by
respective media organisations
3. Taking measures to prevent media ownership concentration
4. Defending editorial independence from interferences by the
government and by the powerful people with vested interests
5. Auditing newspaper circulation
6. Monitoring/adjudicating on fare distribution of government
7. Providing financial support for local newspapers in need
8. Dvising the government on media development and related issues
9. Fostering media literacy among people
There are other measures we could consider, such as the provision
included in the Croatian media law requiring media owners to obtain
prior consent from the journalists in the appointment of their editors.
It prevents media owners making arbitrary decisions in the choice of
media editors, thus making the editors more loyal to their professional
role scrutinised by the peers than to the desires of the media owner.
Provisions fostering editorial independence could require media
organizations to develop and implement media accountability systems
based on professional values. Editorial statutes could be adopted to
ensure a separation of business and editorial activities.
Beyond this, necessary measures should be taken to increase media
pluralism and diversity. The audience’s capacity to demand media to
reflect plural values of society depends not only on the degree of media
pluralism but also on the measures available to increase media ownership
In this connection, our broadcasting sector needs a complete
reassessment. We need to establish a transparent licensing system based
on is enabling policy of diversity of sources and types, beyond mere
plurality of channels. Two main requirements need to be addressed.
a) An independent regulatory mechanism to foster the diversity in
broadcasting sector. Linked to this requirement is the introduction of
community broadcasting to foster inclusiveness and diverse media
b) Transformation of the state own broadcasting system into an
independent public service broadcasting system.
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. Therefore the function of the
independent regulator should be to develop a fair, pluralistic and
efficient public interest- minded broadcasting sector, comprising
private, public and community broadcasting institutions fulfilling
The tasks of the independent regulator could include:
1. 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
2. Issuance of licences to public, private and community broadcasters
in a transparent, open and fare manner; review the current ownership of
licences and take necessary measures to address the anomalies which
could undermine the pluralism in broadcasting sector
3. Fostering pluralism in the broadcasting sector by preventing
ownership concentration and cross media ownership
4. Safeguarding editorial independence of the broadcasters from
vested interest groups
5. Function as a oversight body during the election on implementing
the media guidelines
6. Take measures to promote local media content in the broadcasting
sector by maintaining and administering of a fund to foster quality
documentary productions by independent audio-visual media producers. The
fund could be maintained by imposing a levy on licence fee, commercial
advertisements and broadcast of foreign productions
7. Provide start-up financial support to establish community radio by
8. Actively monitor broadcast frequency use, to ensure that actual
usage conforms to license conditions
A special task of this regulatory body would be to foster independent
community radio. Community radio is considered to be affordable,
accessible media established to promote democratic participation,
transparency and accountability at local level.
Accountable to people
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
A community radio, which caters to a limited geographical community
is owned and controlled by a not for profit organisation whose structure
allows members of the community to participate in the management,
operation and programming of the radio station.
The transformation of the government- managed, State broadcasting
service into a truly independent public service broadcasting system,
cannot be substituted with governments 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. A democratic public sphere
depends on the quality of informed discourse derived from multiple
With limited advertising revenue and the motive to generate more
profits, commercial concerns put constrains on private media to spend on
high quality programmes, which are not necessarily attractive to larger
audiences. Transformation of the SLBC and SLRC into 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 made such transformations will shed
light on the issues involved.
The task is not merely to assure editorial and intuitional
independence from the government of the day, but also to see that
adequate resources are available to enrich viewer experience, serve the
cultural and educational dimensions.
The members of the PSB governing board/s could be appointed through a
suitable mechanism such as the Constitutional Council with a mandate to
act as independent trustees of the public interest in broadcasting, and
not as representatives of the government of the day.
The primary functions of the public
service broadcaster could include the following:
*Satisfy people’s right to receive quality information nourish
* Serve educational and cultural dimensions
* Editorial purpose should consistently show the ability to become
the societys voice
* To elevate cultural levels of the society
* To set programme standards for all broadcasters by providing
* To cater to special interests which may not have a large audiences
* The staff should have a highly motivated public interest minded
professional attitude devoted to promote democracy and to foster
educational and cultural dimensions of a civilized society
These suggestions cannot be implemented without the State’s
intervention. Thus, intensive policy advocacy is needed to realize them
and strong public deliberations.