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Making future sense

why it is time to revisit media reforms:



Wijayananda Jayaweera

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 economic efficiency.

Source: ZoneAsia-PK

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 the media.

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 concern.

Hence any re-conception of the democratic role of the media and changes require ensuring it, needing to think through the implication of this transformation.

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 market.”

Public purpose

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’ reporting.

This demanded detachment, nonpartisanship, reverence for facts and fair balance.

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 recent past.

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 questions:

??How to ensure editorial independence of news media and its public service orientation?

???How to make the media system an inclusive one than the one we have now?

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 facts.

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 public interest.

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 disputes.

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 accountability
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 advertisements
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 diversity.

Spectrum management

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 ownership

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 complementary roles.

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 disadvantaged communities

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 participatory democracy. 

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 sources.

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 representative pluralism

* 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 quality programmes

* 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.

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