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DateLine Sunday, 23 March 2008

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Present and past Ministers on media freedom...

This is a time where media freedom and independency have become the key topics of all levels of the society. Hence, Face 2 Face this time sought the independent views of past and the present Ministers of the media. These are their views.

What is your point of view on 'independent media'?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: There are several meanings to it. In the Sri Lankan context I would say that people do enjoy absolute right to find the truth.

I think that is media freedom. People receive information from the State. controlled media as well as from the private media. There are several privately owned media compared to few State media institutions. Compared with other countries, we have an absolute media freedom.

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar
Pic by: Chinthaka Kumarasinghe

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: There are many definitions. Media that would report the truth nothing but the truth, being unbiased from any agenda or power can be identified as independent. But in practical situations we may find such media - neither in the world nor locally.

At times we see that some of the journalists when they become senior they will be the greatest cause obstructing the path of new comers. Where the rights of the journalists in both electronic and print media do not get crushed by the powers of the authorities and where the trust the readers' or the viewers' have placed on media is not destroyed, independent media would exist, in my opinion.

What is your impression of the current situation in the media field in our country?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: Actually the media is expanding. Many youngsters are joining in. We see number of radio stations, TV stations, newspapers and websites emerging.

So now we have everything in our country. It is moving forward. We see new people and new talents in many of these institutions. Along with all these, the technology is getting up-dated. And on the other hand, media can write, express and criticise anything and everything. We have only cautioned them on their responsibility.

We are still facing a more than twenty five years of civil conflict.In this backdrop taking the responsibility of deciding on what should be reported, is essential. We are not talking about anything else but responsibility.

The freedom is there. Even the USA has secrecy laws where no one can divulge these information until they are released by the Authorities - it may take even 20 or 30 years. The best example is the trial reports on John F. Kennedy's assassination, which was released very recently. We do not have such laws or regulations, barring the media from reporting.

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: Comparatively it is challenging. In one side the existing war situation affects. Abductions, taking ransom money etc may take place as a result.

On the other hand there are extreme racist ideas that go against the 'one Sri Lankan nation' concept. This is the tragedy. Thirdly, I think, interference of politics with narrow minded ideas affects. And, I see that media blindly refers to certain news coming from international media without trying to identify the agenda behind.

We need to be broader minded and wise before presenting it to the public. And the conflicts that arise as a result of the clashes between the Government and certain media make the media environment challenging. Parties concerned must take steps to bring such situations under control. And it is an urgent requirement.

During the time when I held the ministerial position we made an environment where the professionals of the field created a self imposed censorship without any sort of interferences and removed the line that governed media under criminal law. But I do not dispute the fact that the media freedom needs to exercise a sense of responsibility. It is essential.

It is widely believed that media could contribute a great deal towards the development process of a country, if used positively. Where would you place the media in this development process of the country?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: Media plays a very important role in the development of a country.

It can act to motivate the people towards the development goals. Media can build up constructive criticism on development issues on par with the motivation. Yes definitely media can play a major role in the development process. Motivating people towards the development process is very much important. All should be for the benefit of the people.

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: In the development process media has high priority. It does not mean that media should be used for propaganda.

Media should build up constructive criticism paying attention to problems we face in a country such as poverty, education, bribery and corruption etc. We need direct and brave criticism from the media.

To get a positive contribution media should be used not merely as a propaganda tool but one that motivates people towards development and that can also criticise when necessary. Motivating people towards the development process is equally important. All should be for the betterment of the people.

Though media in its ideal state should give priority to reveal the truth, in reality it is not so. What is being carried to the public is the mere voice of those so called (media) ownership. What is your comment on this?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: Though we disagree or agree with this fact it is the reality. It happens even in the global arena. This is evident by the information we receive on different perspectives.

It is clear that at certain points these strong international media report according to the agenda(s) of powerful sources. Emerge of Al Jazeera channel is a consequence of this trend. It emerged to challenge the international media that was carrying the agendas of those powerful sources.

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: Yes, we have seen certain instances where the media acts according to the owner's agenda. Even globally it is the same. If we logically analyze the news that spread throughout the world are created by sources with political or other agendas.

I can not see that Sri Lanka is separated from this trend. But let us not forget that in our small country there are owners who never ever look at the page proofs. This is very important.

This refers to both Government and Private media. Yet even with these tight limitations there are true senior journalists, both in print and electronic media, who keep their heads up and carry on with their work unbiased. I respect them and have high regards. They protect the self esteem of all the journalists.

How do you think the media should behave to bring about a positive outcome?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: They must take the responsibility of carrying a perfect message to the people. I think finding the exact source is important. The message should not be distorted.

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: I am a degree holder on Media, yet I do not think I am at an advisory position. Let the professionals decide on these matters. A journalist's behaviour should always be independent. I strongly believe in that. I am saying this with my experience I got during my ministerial post in the media field.

Do you think journalists can be super heroes?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: Yes definitely. But it should be purely on a professional manner.

The Journalists should act without malice or ill will. It is their responsibility to do so.

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: Definitely yes. And there have been such instances in the past. But most importantly their revelation should be solely for the betterment of the people.

If this is met with strong determination then yes super heroes can be created. Such journalists should not be discouraged due to the obstacles they will encounter on their way.

In the name of free media, do you think it is ethical for a journalist to divulge very sensitive issues affecting national security?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: No. We, as a country, are in a unique position in that way. We were facing a Guerilla war for over two decades. We need to make sure that all citizens are living in a free and fair society and find venues where democracy flourishes.

It is legitimate on our part to protect the country and make sure that it continues to be one country. This is what the military is doing at the moment. Journalists must take the responsibility not to report issues or divulge information that would benefit the terrorists.

Such a move will affect the democratic traditions of our country. It is important as the society should not suffer because of these reports.

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: I do not agree if someone's revelations badly affect the national security. It is disloyalty towards the motherland.

That can not be accepted. But what is important is who decides that certain issues affect the national security. Such decisions should not be taken to achieve political and personal goals. It should be independent.

What comes first - media freedom or national security?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: To preserve media freedom, protecting national security has to be taken very seriously. Why did the USA restrict certain web search engines that were showing their military strategic points?

So there are restrictions and no doubt about it. Media freedom is governed by certain principles. The moment these principles are violated, media freedom will not survive.

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: It is something like trying to decide whether the hen or the egg came first. I think both go parallel.

Responsible reporting can never harm the national security. Both are essential for the betterment of the nation.

How do you foresee the future in media of our country?

Media and Mass-communication Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa: As I visualize many television stations will amalgamate. I feel we will have three to four TV stations in the future. Because in reality organizations can not run without profit.

With the advancement of technology, in future information will reach and individual through the PC and the mobile phones . As I visualize along with the current trends the entire media business will change in the future.

Former Minister of Mass Communication Imthiaz Bakeer Markar: I believe there is no turn back in this journey the media field has come so far, both technically and professionally. There will be never ending threats and challenges in the future. Yet, the field will not turn back.

That is for sure. This is the trend in the world as well. We saw that when certain international media embraces narrow minded goals and agenda of powerful sources, institutes like Al jazeera emerged.

It challenged the powerful sources who are in the struggles for power, money etc. The field will definitely grow forward successfully facing any challenge that will come across.

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