FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

Telling the messenger what to say

Editorial – The Island,  June 24, 2012,
The Opposition, or a section thereof, has taken exception to what it calls inadequate press coverage of parliamentary proceedings. It is of the view that backbenchers’ contribution to vital debates does not get conveyed, the way they should be, to the public as a result.

There may appear to be some lapses on the part of the national press as regards the manner in which the parliamentary proceedings––or those of other political institutions for that matter––are reported. But, in reality, what politicians may consider important and worthy of media attention may not look so to the press faced with space and time constraints. There’s also no accounting for taste.

In Parliament, journalists cannot be expected to perform stenographic functions that are best left to the staff of Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings. Media personnel are given to picking and choosing what they print. In fact, their right to do so should be respected and protected. Their preference is always for material that they think is of interest to their readers and will help sell their publications, which is the be-all and end-all of newspaper publishing as is common knowledge. That is the name of the game, whether one likes it or not. This is akin to politicians’ habit of looking at everything in terms of votes at elections. An unsold publication, journalists know, is a lot of paper and a little ink! Politicians the world over are not well disposed towards this practice. US President Barack Obama has taken a swipe at the international media over their coverage of the Summit of Americas. He has blamed the media for often ignoring progress made at international summits in favour of more ‘flashy’ news, as the summit was overshadowed by allegations of misconduct by his Secret Service agents.

It is said that a scribe, in gathering and disseminating news, must desist from acting like a crow, which gathers food indiscriminately heedless of taste, quality etc and regurgitates garbage so gobbled up into the mouths of its offspring straightaway. Instead, he or she is expected to do as a nursing mother, who carefully picks and chooses the food she consumes, absorbs its nutrients and then breastfeeds her baby. What would happen if the press were to report everything that transpires in Parliament or Provincial Councils or Local Government institutions? People will realise that it is an utter waste of their funds to maintain their representatives!

If the press is losing interest in parliamentary proceedings, which, we suppose, is the case, lawmakers have no one to blame but themselves. Standards of debates have deteriorated over the years. Backbenchers make a lot of noise but little sense. Ministers give yanne-koheda-malle-pol (irrelevant) answers to important questions. Intellectual thrusting and parrying have given way to insult and assault. Once, a group of schoolchildren in the public gallery, frightened by a rowdy scene in the august assembly, happened to run helter-skelter, screaming. During budget debates everything but the national budget gets discussed. The Speaker, more often than not, has to ring the quorum bell incessantly as MPs go missing and there have been instances where even Opposition parliamentarians slated to open crucial debates were absent in the House. Only a few parliamentarians have something sensible to say and it is only natural that the press highlights their speeches and remarks which fortunately or unfortunately eclipse others’.

There is no way a newspaper could afford to leave out anything interesting said in Parliament either by a senior or a backbencher given the highly competitive environment it operates in with the whole caboodle of media jostling for news in a bid to beat each other and be the first even at the expense of accuracy and ethics.

Time was when newspapers liberally devoted pages to parliamentary proceedings but owing to competition from web publications and the electronic media, coupled with the ever decreasing time people have for reading newspapers, the press has had to opt for shorter pieces to retain readers’ interest and keep itself afloat. If MPs, especially backbenchers, make an effort to enhance the quality of their contribution to parliamentary debates they will receive media attention. They should hone their debating skills and do their homework before taking part in debates so that they will stand out from the rest and get space in the press.

No one is doing the press any favour by giving it access to political institutions maintained with public funds and therefore no one has a right to teach it how to tell its story. It must be free to decide its priorities and any move by politicians to tell it what to do and how to do it amount to a serious curtailment of press freedom, which media rights groups should take serious note of.

If lawmakers are not happy with the coverage they receive, let them consider turning Hansard into a newspaper, daily or weekly, so that all their utterances will get printed regardless of their value or significance. That may not be too difficult a task for them, we reckon. They have already reduced the country’s Constitution to a periodical of sorts with changes effected thereto so frequently!
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This entry was posted on June 25, 2012 by in features and tagged , , .
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