Whither Sri Lanka’s media?


Image courtesy Now Public

Having been through the grind in the field of Sri Lanka’s mainstream print journalism for nearly two decades, what I feel is a growing sense of frustration. Whatever standards and respectability that was maintained by our past peers are deteriorating to the extent that journalists are being looked at, more with ridicule, than with esteem. Today journalists have come to be often identified as so and so’s catcher or hanger on other than men and women of integrity and fair play. The failure to do some serious soul searching by those of us in the media fraternity has led to this situation.

Journalists, who are so good at turning the search light outwards and preaching to all and sundry on what is right and what is wrong, rarely turn the search light inwards. We do a lot of finger pointing but rarely realize that more fingers are being pointed in our direction than ever before.

Most journalists lack understanding of their responsibility towards society and the need to be on the side of the people and not on the side of the high and mighty whose opinions are forced down people’s throats day and night in a media driven frenzy.

If your run through the front page of a newspaper or listen to the radio or watch television news, 70 per cent of its news content will be parroting out what a politician, an official, a businessman or sportsman has said somewhere. It’s true what some of these people say is important but the absurdities that are circulated as “NEWS” today provide only cheap entertainment and contribute zero towards stimulating people’s intellect. The other news that is reported is what is spat out by official spokespersons of different organizations. The end result is that media personnel have been reduced to the level of hangers on of politicians, officials, businessmen etc., hungrily devouring the information they are fed, which they in turn disseminate to the public. The most basic ethics of journalism, the need to do their work impartially, accurately and in a fair manner is forgotten.

Along with these, certain ludicrous trends are being perpetuated that only contribute to falling standards. The editorial in a leading daily newspaper is being written by a person who has barely worked for four years as a journalist. The editorial which occupies pride of place in any newspaper now looks no better than a school essay. So who should bear the blame for this kind of situation? Not the government or opposition, not the business community or the international community but those in the very heart of media organizations.

My question is how many journalists, so should I say so-called journalists are even aware of their responsibilities towards society. We tell politicians, policemen, trade unionists, students etc. all that is wrong with them but how often does the media ask itself how poor its own performance is. The truth is bitter, we say. Yes it sure is where the media in the country is concerned. . Most media personnel who exercise immense power because of the freedom with which they can yield a pen (or microphones or camera) sadly lack objectivity.

Let’s face it. It’s easier to be recruited as a “journalist” to any media organization in the country, be it print or electronic, than get the most menial government or a private sector job. Many of those who end up in the job are barely out of school or have been fiddling their fingers unable to find any other form of employment.

Here I have to say that I too joined the trade after my schooling and learnt most of what I know on the job but a big part of it included discharging my duties with integrity and honesty and also taking the job seriously. What I now find is talk of ethnics and fair play have taken a back seat while it is more important to be seen at the side of a politician or other prominent persons in society, have them call you by your first name and invite you to their parties. These outweigh their responsibilities as journalists towards society.

The media in Sri Lanka likes to cry out loudly from time to time about the lack of media freedom but it is journalist who compromises the most on their own freedom. The lack of unity and the failure to enforce a collective Code of Ethics for the media has only strengthened the hands of those who want to trample media rights. (Read here the Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) of The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka adopted by the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka and decide for yourself how many newspaper organizations abide by them.

Why is it that every time journalists are killed, abducted, threatened and beaten up, it’s only a handful of activists, which unfortunately will have a fair share of politicians joining in, be seen shouting at a street corner while all that those in the hierarchy of the media business in Sri Lanka do is issue a halfhearted statement to condemn such acts but do nothing forceful enough to send a clear message to the perpetrators of such crimes that they should not mess with the media.

Politicians will be politicians, be they from the ruling party, the UNP, JVP or the TNA. They would love the media as long as you tow their line but will all erupt like volcanoes when the media says something they dislike. It’s true that journalists and politicians (and other news makers) need to co-exist as cordially as possible but such a relationship has to be built without the journalists compromising on their professional integrity. There should be mutual respect but what we have here to a large extent is an uneven relationship with the journalists being talked down to.

When MP Mangala Samaraweera (then Media Minister) said “a journalist could be bought for a bottle of arrack”, all hell broke loose. We all condemned him, asked him to withdraw the statement, apologize etc. But he wasn’t exactly saying something incorrect. I don’t need to go into details here because some facts are clear as crystal. It’s an inconvenient truth that the media would rather ignore than address.

The same manner in which politicians try to hoodwink the pubic, the media too is engaged in doing the same thing or worse. We have become partners in all the cover ups perpetrated by those in authority, and sadly, many times, willing accomplices in this game.

Believing the media is above reproach is the greatest stupidity of journalists. We need more scrutiny than ever because the lack of it has led to deterioration of standards and the media is becoming more and more a subject of ridicule, malice and cynicism of the public at large. So far what you have read is a lot of media bashing but getting to the part about “a bottle of arrack is enough to buy a journalist,” remark. But why is it this way? Isn’t it because journalists continue to be paid poor salaries, lack facilities and are economically worse off than people in many other sectors? Unless you come into the industry with a big inheritance tucked away somewhere, for those who have to depend on their income as journalists to sustain themselves and their families, it is a tough call. Some of the “well off “ in the media will tell you that you have to become a journalist because you are passionate about the job and not for the money but realistically speaking, such idealism doesn’t put bread (or should I say rice) on the table. It’s true, many of us started off with the same sort of idealism but reality bites when one is exposed to the sordid goings on inside the media world itself. Good journalism, like everything else comes at a price.

It is where journalists are not financially empowered that they are open to temptation and such temptations can be either financial or come in other forms of gratifications. A trip overseas may become reality only because you “plug” someone one or some organization. A block of land or vehicle too may be the benefits of pandering to the whims and fancies of the influential. Getting a child into a school or a job for a relative maybe among other attractions.

There are many people who have been journalists for more than 40 years now living in abject poverty; there are many who are forced to work well past their retirement age because even the small income they can get is better than no income at all. Past their prime and in ill health, their former glories are long forgotten and they come to be looked on more as a nuisance than people who once contributed meaningfully to the media in the country.

Why cannot journalists in Sri Lanka work in dignity, with their heads held high, not bending before politicians and other influential persons and not take up the job only because they are attracted to it because of the access it will give them to the influential quarters in society and help them to gain personal benefits?

For these both the lack of a collective effort by the media to improve their status as well as the indifference of those who own and manage media institutions are equally responsible. Those of us in the media have to agree to disagree on issues because each media institution will work according to its own agenda. (Here let me emphasize that each and every organization has its own agenda and pursue it very forcefully but not always visibly). When it comes to the welfare, safety and dignity of media personnel, we need to put our differences aside and speak in one voice. United we stand, divided we fall is true of the media as it is of any other group of persons.

We have seen plenty of media rights groups protest against the state apparatus but how many of these organizations take up welfare issues of media personnel. We only have to look to our neighboring country India where issues ranging from wages to housing and other facilities for journalist are well regulated so that they are provided for in a way that the media personnel can work in dignity and without compromising on their independence. It’s towards these goals that media institutions in that country have worked for and continue to work. The unity in the media fraternity also helps to wade off any attempts to bully and intimidate them and thus ensures the safety of media workers.

Journalism is not recognized as a profession in Sri Lanka to this day, that too with good reason. Raising standards would entail better academic qualifications, training and of course better wages for media personnel.

Let me start with the wage issue. Wages stipulated for the “Journalist Trade” comes under the Wages Board Ordinance and is categorized into four groups. As per the Gazette notification of 2005 (this is the latest amended version available I believe) , the starting salaries in the first year for those in the Special Grade which includes Deputy Editors, Associate Editors, Special Grade Editors and Editors is Rs. 10,925.00 while this rates increase by the 10th year to Rs. 12,725. Those in Grade One which includes Business Editors, Chief Sub Editor, Desk Heads,, Foreign News Editors, Feature Editors, Local News Editors, News Editors, Sports Editors, Woman’s Page Editors and Pictures Editors start in the first year at Rs. 8,970 and each Rs. 10,370 by the 15th year in service. Those in Grade Two of the Journalist trade which includes Assistant Editors, Chief Photographers, Deputy Desk Heads, Features Writers, Editorial Assistants, Librarians, Sub Editors, Cartoonist, Translators, Senior Photographers and Artists start at Rs8,395 and at the end of 15 years in service end up with Rs 9,235. Those in the Grade Three category start at Rs 7,935 in the first year and can reach Rs 8,635 in 15 years of service.

While these amounts are appallingly low, I must state that most employers are better pay masters and pay more than what is stipulated as the minimum wages by the Wages Board. But what salary scale to put a journalist on is usually based more on the whims and fancies of those who are the decision makers in such organizations and not always based on qualifications, ability and suitability.

Another great bias is the disparity in salaries for journalists working for the vernacular press (here I can only talk for print) who are paid far less than those who are in the English newspapers. Most times those with the better academic qualifications and ability are in the vernacular press but they are the most discriminated.

This is why media rights groups and others in the media hierarchy need to take up issues such as ensuring that the minimum wages for media personnel is substantially increased and is uniform whether they work in English, Sinhala or Tamil. Improving standards in journalism to the level so that it can be recognized as a profession will obviously entail better educational levels for those entering the industry and for those who are already in it. This would entail media organizations providing financial assistance to its members to pursue higher education while on the job, encouraging employees to enhance in their academic standards by way of increments or promotions etc.

If journalists and journalism in Sri Lanka are to be taken seriously, economic empowerment is a must as are better education levels and training. They have to be recognized for the unique and important role they play in society .To attract and retain better qualified and able people in the job, they have to be paid well while better welfare measures too should be put in place.

A joke among many seniors who have decided to stay on as journalist is that media houses have become just a stopover for those looking for work in more lucrative trades. A few months in a media organization is a stepping stone, a place where one can build contacts, flaunt a media accreditation card around, see his/her name in print or be heard on radio or seen on television, gain access to places and faces otherwise not easily accessible and make an exist once more lucrative offers come around. That trend will continue as long as journalism is not taken seriously by the very people who engage in it.

I will conclude by saluting all my many colleagues in the media who try to be the exception and not the rule, who despite all the odds stacked against them, do their work independently and fearlessly and maintain the dignity of their profession. . Some have had to pay a heavy price for their “indiscretions” but they have helped to keep people’s faith in the media alive. A lot more needs to be done to put our own house in order, which is actually a lot harder than telling others to tidy up their businesses.

  • Sharnelle

    What a fantastic piece. Very intriguing to see the wage rates of journalists in Sri Lanka. We all do the job because we love it but as some point the wage is the decision maker on many fronts. There is a strong need for quality journalism in Sri Lanka and those who choose to take the job for the ‘societal perks’ are not only diminishing the reputation of those who wish to undertake their roles seriously – they hinder the archival role of journalism for future generations. That is what journalists in Sri Lanka need to remember. If they don’t take it on themselves to accurately record the events of today for the future of tomorrow. Who will?

  • Walter

    Discussing the Media can be the most controversial and intriguing topics.
    I am not a statistician nor an academic, but I have decades of reading experience and have seen, initially a gradual, and now a steep decline of the standards of journalism.

    THE REASONS ARE A COMMON FACTOR, A FACTOR THAT HAS SPREAD ITS TENTACLES INTO THE FABRIC OF THE SRI LANKAN SOCIETY. THE FOUNDATION WAS CREATED BY THE POLITICIANS, AND NOW SPREAD LIKE WILD FIRE, SADLY OUT OF CONTROL.

    1) The standards and criteria of recruitment from what I have seen has declined for a variety of reasons in all fields,Journalism is just one.
    ( In the good old days, the family background, the School, extra curricular activities and character certificates formed the basis for recruitment. Now making money by media institutions and Political PATRONAGE for survival seems to be the one and only criteria)
    This has obliterated quality Journalists, dedicated to the cause of rightousness and freedom of speech.
    I have noticed that all English Newspapers do not encourage dissenting views from readers.
    They have their standard writers whose views are propagated all the time. I admit that some of them are a class unto themselves, writing without fear nor favour.they are few and can be named.
    A few veteran journalists some writing from overseas only touch on the fringes of controversial subjects, they are either paid or frightened.
    I give one example, Got’s outburst.
    Who are the other journalists other than Fredrica who have dared to touch this volatile subject yet touching the core of civilization.
    SO GENTLEMEN YOU CAN DEBATE TILL ALL THE COWS COME HOME BUT THE SCENARIO IN SRI LANKA IS STINKING TO HIGH HEAVEN, AND THERE IS NO GARBAGE DUMP THAT CAN ACCOMADATE IT.

  • Imalka

    This is a very interesting article, a good criticism coming from an experienced journalist about his/her colleagues. Gives a good perspective for the ordinary citizen as well about what happens on the ‘other’ side of the curtain.

    This kind of constructive criticisms are necessary to make the journalism field, that plays such an important role in the lives of the people, a better one. The impartiality, independence and other qualities that we expect from journalists are mentioned in the article and it would be good if all personnel in media take a minute to look into their conscience and see whether they truly practice them.

    Understandably, life must be touch, especially with the low wages but I think the profession comes with a certain power and that power comes with responsibility. Something everyone should remember.

  • Bedrock Barney

    A journalist, starts off full of idealism and integrity. He then gets married and has a child. In an era where the cost of living, is rising faster than lady gaga’s skirts, he decides to trade-in “idealism and integrity, for any advantage that aids in giving his child the best shot at life.
    In Lanka, politicians control the media, in India conglomerates control the media, in the US political parties control the media, in China ….. we all know about China. Global mainstream media lost it’s independance decades ago. Sri Lankan jurnos have just started to cash- in. Media has gone corporate. Corporations are built on incentive and profit.
    Expecting journos to be unaffected, when all other institutions like the police, the judiciary, the legisleture, the excecutive, the education system, the heath sector etc etc, is unrealistic. ‘News Entertainment’ like ‘Sports Entertainment’are here to stay.
    So get with the programme. Be a discerning reader. That is the key. Don’t flip to the channel if you don’t like the programme.

  • Reader

    Just as in the case of all the professions, journalist are the net result of our social and educational systems. When most professionals are mediocre and tend to submit and follow the corrupt system, we cannot expect much more from journalist who face the full brunt of the govt, security apparatus and vested interest in suppressing and hiding the truth from the public.
    Moreover when the job entails personal risk to life and family as exemplified by the killings and abductions of many, it is no wonder that this profession is an endangered species and will not attract the cream of society. The few who engage in it with sincerity do so at their own risk due to their passion to uphold truth and justice. Many do it just for a fistful and to curry favour with the powers that be, by showering praise and platitudes on ungodly beasts, sacrificing the principles of truth and justice.

  • Keynes!

    Pukka piece of writing. The fact that the writer does not mention names, however, turns it into a damp squib at the end. It’s time to list the suckers:

    [Edited out]

  • Don Quixote

    This should be considered (a very gentle) start to the reform process that journalism requires in this Country.

    I sincerely hope others take up the baton and proceed to name names and take steps to “excommunicate” those who have compromised the 4th estate in this country.

  • raza

    Well said. I do not blame journalisst alone, but also top professionals in other field compromising the ethos/values of their profession for personal gains. These are the root causes for the malady in the society.The journalists and top professionals misleading the masses of the country,who are mostly innocent,cant last long.

  • Noor Nizam – Canada.

    From the comments made by a reader, I begin my contribution of thoughts to this wonder presentation of the reality of the plight of Journalism in Sri Lanka. In fact, there is nothing more to indulge, because the “message” has been unraveled in the content and there cannot be any scrutiny of the facts, yet as a freelance journalist, I wish to add some comments that may be worthwhile to present under this glare of facts about Sri Lankan journalism that has been published. The comments made by a reader, I quote below – “A few veteran journalists some writing from overseas only touch on the fringes of controversial subjects, they are either paid or frightened”. The simplest form of definition of Journalism is – the discipline of gathering, writing and reporting news and broadly it includes the process of editing and presenting the news articles (Wikiquote). Journalism applies to various media, but is not limited to newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. A simpler definition is – Journalism is a form of writing that tells people about things that really happened, but that they might not have known about already. Such category of writers emerged too as the “Freelance Journalists”.
    Looking back at the history of Sri Lankan journalism, journalists have evolved since the publication of the Colombo Journal on the 1st., of January 1832 as a government publication. After the closure of the Colombo Journal, The Observer and the Commercial Advertiser”, were published on 4th February 1834. This was the commencement of the Observer newspaper which is still published in Sri Lanka. With the need for more news to be disseminated among the British and the English educated elite, the English publications increased to 13 publications. The power of newspapers emerged in the political horizon of Ceylon then. With the winds of nationalism growing among the locals and the need for a change of the British rule and better governance in Ceylon, the dedicated writers to the papers increased. They were the Freelance writers who contributed their thoughts in moulding the Nation to the call of Independence of the country. In the aftermath of the formation of a new nationalist government in 1956, the 1972 constitutional change and the July riots of 1983, Journalism began to polarize as government and anti-government journalism grouping ethnic writers to support their causes. All norms of journalistic codes and ethics were violated in the struggle to drive their “message” to their interest groups. Yet, the “Freelance Journalists” from the beginning, continued their yeoman services, especially at times of need to defend the integrity and sovereignty of the country from where ever they were domiciled, living in Sri Lanka or abroad, respecting the journalistic code and ethics. Indeed they were not paid or were they frightened. I quote a paragraph from this wonderful article “There are many people who have been journalists for more than 40 years now living in abject poverty ( some doing well too); there are many who are forced to work well past their retirement age because even the small income they can get is better than no income at all. Past their prime and in ill health, their former glories are long forgotten and they come to be looked on more as a nuisance than people who once contributed meaningfully to the media in the country.“ This is REAL. Many “Freelance Journalists” belong to this group in the present generation. In the last two decades, “Freelance Journalists” played a major role in countering the on-slaughter of the foreign and international media against the Sri Lanka government’s war against the LTTE. They burnt their night lamps and instantly produced rebuttals and content with truth and facts that were published in a very few print media, many in the popular internet news domains. They had a passion for writing and they were the “Soldiers of the Pen” who fought back barrage of false information and anti-government lobbies. They were not given space in the media in their own motherland. The local Editors and Media gatekeepers did not respect their commitment in the defence of their Motherland. Not even their comments were given a chance for publication. But they were the “Soldiers of the Pen” who stood the heat and faced the challenges because they were “Freelance Journalists”. They were not writing for money or a bottle of arrack. They were writing because they were true sons and daughters of Mother Sri Lanka. When the courageous security forces were fighting the brutal ruthless LTTE war machinery in Sri Lanka, it was these “Freelance Journalists” who were fighting the anti-Sri Lanka mass media abroad. It was a very few internet news domains that gave all the support to publish the content that was written by these men and women, not the national newspapers or internet publications of these so-called leading news publications, because, the so-called journalists belonged to a creed that lack the understanding of their responsibility towards society and the need to be on the side of the people and not on the side of high and mighty whose opinions are forced down the people’s throats day and night in a media driven frenzy, side lined them totally. Believing the media is above reproach (as the writer has mentioned) is the greatest stupidity of these Editors, News Editors, Features Editors, Senior reporters and Media Directors of our Newspapers and the electronic Media. In the aftermath of the victory over the LTTE, in May 2009, these “Freelance Journalist” should have indeed a place in Sri Lanka Journalism and their rights should be respected accordingly.
    Noor Nizam.
    Canada.

  • RogerG

    Are you talking about SINHALA and TAMIL newspapers as well or are you basing your comments on English newspapers with very limited circulation? Are you fluent and able to read Sinhalese or Tamil? Just curious.

  • Walter

    To Nizam
    You have laboured quite a bit to elucidate about Journalists and Journalism. Your observations are honest and academic.
    My contention is away from many of the Academics and Professionals and Researchers who are contributing to GV

    We are all talking and talking, writing and writing.
    I am a new entrant to GV and my humble observation is that some eminent contributors, eminent by Sri Lankan yardstick, write as if the whole world should accept their views.
    Of Course their names are known because they were Ambassadors etc.
    You can see the Tint in their writing. They are still protecting their masters who gave them their ambassadorship.
    In the good old days of over fifty years ago, Editors and Journalists were one of the highest the most respectable clans.
    They were fearless, educated, and enjoyed their profession with the highest respect. They stood their ground without favour nor fear.
    Today specially after the takeover of Lake House the Killing of the Sun Newspaper all by Politicians this Country has broken the backbone of the Journalists.
    They have killed all the “whistle blowers” and now any Government that comes into power is having a “field day”
    When Lake House was taken over the Government said it was to protect Democracy and not allow Newspapers or its owners to dictate policies.
    Well and Good, But see what has happened, you cannot get one ounce of truth from Lake House.
    Today’s Sunday Leader’s Editorial says what I have said 95% of the Media have lost their credibility.
    Mani Dixit said here in Sri Lanka that Media must stand up no matter what.
    The Tv station which says WE REPORT YOU DECIDE was originally a channel with charisma, but after it was attacked it is loosing its credibility. I do not think that this forum will allow me to elucidate my claim, I knew the origins of this Company 60 years ago.
    Finally I just say this Country and almost all its subjects have sold their credibility their charisma and that includes Jornalists.

  • Walter

    The Press Complaints Commission has published several notices in the press calling for views that will help to improve journalistic standards and ethics.
    I wrote to them asking them to rename the P C C as The Media complaints Commission.
    The news that is broadcast by some TV stations is aghast, aghast because they are hell bent on promoting some individuals against some others. They have a great impact as all the households of this Country watch TV right through the night. This station is similar to the Government controlled Media.
    One TV station in particular keeps on attacking the Opposition leader producing all sorts of video clips to slander him. They are promoting an individual whose father helped this Institution in the in the yester years.
    My view is that the Media the Press or Electronic are there only as “whistle Blowers ” to protect the Country and its People.
    No TV station has the moral or ethical right to promote or demote any person or Institution.
    During news their job is only to broadcast news, news that is of general interest to the Community.
    Just watch Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Russia Today, VOA, Channel News Asia, Ari rung, NHK etc, etc,
    These are professional not gallery like many media institutions of this Country.
    Even some of the so called vibrant Media institutions are frightened of the Governments in power.
    Very unfortunately this Country will never evolve out of this tragic situation, media Institutions talk of media suppression, Politicians talk of being patriots, business establishments talk of improving the economic status.

    We are all “talkers” full of rhetoric but not prepared to take one step forward to salvage this Country.