Before discussing the challenges faced by professional journalists and the problems of the media industry, it is important to gain some understanding of the origins of the media industry in Sri Lanka and its development.
This brief note is compiled to provide a glimpse of the Sri Lanka media industry, its history, and key development relevant to the current day. I believe that this background information will contribute to understanding more effectively and overcoming some of the challenges faced by journalists and the media industry in Sri Lanka today.
A short note of the history of the media industry
Act No. 05, Registration of Newspapers, in Sri Lanka was passed in 1839. The “Lanka Loka”, the first Sinhala newspaper was published in 1862. The “Lakmini Pahana” newspaper was launched in September 1862.
The Tamil newspaper “Idea Atari”, published in 1841, marks the beginning of the Tamil newspaper in Ceylon.
The Observer and Commercial Advertiser, published by the British Government on January 1, 1832, as the “Colombo Journal” and published on February 4, 1834, is the beginning of the English language newspaper.
In 1923, a printing company called the “European Association”, was formed.. The initiative of Mr. D.R Wijewardene marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Sri Lankan media industry with the establishment of the ‘Associated Newspapers of Ceylon’. By purchasing almost all the publications available at that time, the ANCL (Lake House) was able to build a monopoly power in the media industry in Sri Lanka.
By the Special Provisions Act, No. 05 of 1973, the Sirima Bandaranayake Government overthrew Wijewardene and took over the company. Although a gazette notification has been issued by the Act regarding the way Lake House should be maintained as a public institution, no Government in Sri Lanka has implemented the gazette notification for the last almost fifty years ago.
The history of radio in Ceylon dates back to 1925, during British rule. The radio broadcasting service was called Radio Ceylon. It was transformed into the Department of Broadcasting in 1949 and was later designated as the “Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation” by Act No. 37 of 1966 and is still under the control of the Government.
Launched by Shan Wickramasinghe in April 1979, the Independent Television Network, the “Independent Television Network”, was the first television channel in Sri Lanka. The channel was taken over by the JR Jayewardene Government and is still broadcasting as a state-owned company called ITN.
Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation was established as a Government Corporation under Act No. 06 of 1982 and commenced its broadcasting activities on 15th February 1982.
Following the Television Broadcasting Act, the Maharaja group was issued a broadcasting license in 1992. MTV launched as the first private television service. Today a wide range of television and radio channels are spread in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, social media networks are playing a major role in disseminating news and information and play a strong role in challenging the media industry in Sri Lanka.
There are about 70 mainstream newspapers, about 30 radio stations, and 18 television channels operating in the Sri Lankan media industry today.
Despite the widespread presence of both the public and private media institutions in the field of social media, the use of professional media, which pursues quality and media ethics, remains active. However, there is deterioration amongst the people of Sri Lanka in the level of confidence they have in the conduct of the media in Sri Lanka.
The media industry in Sri Lanka
For more than 50 years, the state media has become a haven for all state-owned political parties and the management and media chiefs of these state-owned media have been political allies of the Government.
From time to time, Governments have initiated talks to free the state media from the grip of the state. However, all of the discussions have been mere fraudulent political promises. The active intervention aimed at liberating the state media has been neglected by media organizations, as well as mass movements.
It is the observation of much of the people in the country that most of the private media do not adhere to professional ethics and lack responsibility. Black money laundering seems to be a personal agenda pursued by some media owners. The use of their cronies for political or commercial purposes, and promote racism, instead of ethnic unity.
It is observed that the state or private media community does not engage in responsible and balanced, ethical, independent media practices without the influence and intervention of the Government or various parties.
Regulation of media institutions
Although there is no formal body to regulate media institutions, there are instances where the media is controlled by Acts such as the Press Council of Sri Lanka Act, the Broadcasting Corporation Act, and the Television Corporation Act.
The Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) was established in 1998, with the help of international media owners and several media organizations with international support and media collaboration. Its member organization is the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL). Sri Lanka College of Journalism (SLCJ) has unfortunately failed to provide adequate answers to the problems of the media industry.
Therefore, it is important to understand that the responsibility of organized journalism is paramount in meeting the need for a strong, independent media regulatory mechanism today.
I think the current journalist need to read about the pioneering journalists in the Sri Lankan media industry to revive the media industry in our country.
My first choice for that was D. B. Dhanapala. Born in rural Tissamaharama, he was educated at Mahinda College, Galle, and graduated from Allahabad University, India.
His writing career was revolutionized when he first joined the Daily News. His revolutionary “Blue Page” page in the newspaper, Janus (Greek nickname), was able to stir up society at the time. Farewell to the media profession due to disagreements with the administration, his chosen teaching profession.
He often struggled with his mind about the social push that had succeeded in his media mission. Eventually, he joined the ‘Lankadeepa’ newspaper published by the then ‘Times of Ceylon’ to use the pen as a weapon. In fact, the latest Sinhala language newspaper at that time was ‘Lankadeepa’. The name of the journalist (by line) was first added by D. B. It is said that by the bourgeois champions.
Not only did he introduce a unique art of journalism to Sri Lanka, but it became clear to anyone observing how he handled the media that he had become a spokesman for the common people of the country, not bowing before politicians and the aristocracy. He is also the founder of the publishing group of the leading independent newspaper company ‘Dawasa’.
B. A. Siriwardena Editor of ‘Eththa’ newspaper. Siriwardena’s character is a character that current journalists should study. His own writing style is a replica of the claim that Sri Lankan journalists should behave with a backbone.
Dayasena Gunasinghe can be introduced as one of the most prestigious media biographies that should be read by contemporary journalists. Using their pens as a powerful weapon, people chased after civilians where they should be attacked, regardless of rank.
These are just a few of the many memorable, idealistic journalists to help you find out if there is a leader in holistic journalism today with such a journalistic biography and similarly powerful media practices.
Today’s Sri Lankan journalist is not recognized as a professional. There are many reasons for that. Those who enter the profession of journalism do not have the proper training or understanding of the subject of journalism. This is the case from most of the heads of the media institutions, to the editors, down to the journalists themselves. There does not seem to be such a need. There is a need but there is no opportunity for it.
It should be noted that there have been instances where media organizations with the help of NGOs have from time to time tried to provide training on media subjects, but these opportunities are often utilized only by journalists working at the local level. Mainstream journalists are also not allowed to participate by their employers. Many media chiefs and journalists are actively proving that they are not professionals.
Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions (FMETU), Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), and Free Media Movement (FMM) are member organizations of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
In the 1960s, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd (ANCL) had a branch office at the Ceylon Mercantile Industrial & General Workers Union (CMU) during the period when it was privately owned. The Upali Newspapers’ Employees’ Trade Union, which was formed in the 1990s with the intervention of the Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions. This union is also now defunct.
Attempts to build a trade union unity in the media sector by forming the ‘Lake House Employees Union’, which started in the late 1980s at Lake House, have not been entirely successful due to various obstacles.
Media organizations have sprung up, even on a racial basis, and there are many other types of media organizations today. It should be noted, however, that most of the existing media organizations are nominal organizations. That is why journalists have little faith in these organizations. It does not appear that media organizations are working to win that trust.
Has the journalist achieved any achievements that can be enjoyed by working separately as a distinctive media organization? Has it contributed to the success of the industry?
What is the solution? at least, can be proposed could unite the FMETU, FMM< SLWJA, member organizations of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) into one collective organization.
Most Sri Lankan journalists are not organized. They are not even interested in organizing themselves into a collective body, Media owners have the advantage of their employees not being organized.
The first challenge facing journalists face today is that they function without an understanding of the value of the organization.
The majority of journalists in Sri Lanka have lost the basic gratuity of the Employees Provident Fund, the Employees’ Trust Fund, the pension gratuity, which is a mandatory part of any professional service, whether it be on a daily or even on a contract basis. It is no secret that journalists are a group of employees who have lost even such basic rights.
The responsibility of rescuing the media industry from this tragic crisis rests with the journalist himself.
If there is a developed media industry in the world today, it is only in countries where those journalists are strongly organized.
For us in Sri Lanka too, the only way to overcome the challenges facing the journalist is to end all existing divisions and organize as one family. This is essential not only to safeguard the rights of that journalists but also to motivate the media owners to create a public service media tradition that can meet the aspirations of the people with the challenges they face as an industry.
General Secretary, Federation of Media Employees Trade Unions.
An article prepared 2020 at the request of Comrade Shalika Wimalasena of the “Young Journalists’ Association”.