For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
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.