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Media ‘regulation’ is people’s business not Government’s

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Except in Opposition political party leaderships, there is not much interest in the ‘Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act’ the Government plans to present for parliamentary approval. Most vociferous media activists and media organisations are not very conspicuous in protests against this piece of law that reads terribly nasty on democratic life of people and society. In summary, the Act would provide the “commission” the power to act against any broadcaster through its “investigation committee” on its own initiative or on a complaint that claims violation of the act itself, violation of the code of ethics prepared under this Act, violation of conditions laid in the license and in anything that threatens “national security, national economy and ethno-religious amity.”

To consent to these clauses, one should first know what the “code of ethics” contain, what conditions are laid in the license and most importantly definitions and demarcations of “national security.” There can be no justification also in keeping anything labelled as “national economy” outside the scrutiny of the people. Media therefore should have freedom to review, critique and report any protest against economic policy of the Government. Ethno-religious amity in present day Sri Lanka can be anything the law enforcement authorities would wish to understand as, and interpret as they interpret ICCPR provisions. Thus to have them with no clear and precise definitions in the Act would leave massive discretionary space with the authorities in applying the Act as they wish.

That noted with heavy resentment, more disturbing is how the Opposition in parliament avoids the question whether “broadcasting” should be regulated or not. Major concerns raised by Opposition ranks are about provisions of this Act, and not on “regulating broadcasting”. On what was berated in parliament by some Opposition MPs on this proposed regulatory commission, it is quite evident they know nothing about broadcasting and digital frequencies.

Digital frequencies
Quite different to “print media”, all broadcasting that includes telecasting, is solely dependent on “digital frequencies”. It is therefore important to know the difference between “printing paper” used in print media and “digital frequencies” used in broadcasting. In print media, everything from the whole establishment, editorial resources, printing and printing paper to distribution and sales is owned and managed by the investor(s) with the exclusive right to decide what type of a newspaper s/he would publish. The investor(s) also has the right to decide “editorial policy” of his or her newspaper.

Newspapers nevertheless have to be within accepted journalistic ethics and within the law of the land. For instance, when “criminal defamation law” was in force, newspapers had to abide by that law, while they had the freedom to campaign against it. They have the right to decide whatever political party they would wish to support or any social issue they would stand for. But they cannot for instance, contribute to ethno-religious hatred and divisions in their newspapers. That being the theoretical and legal position, what is practised in this Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka is quite the opposite.

In theory, that freedom of a newspaper owner is not allowed for broadcasters. Fundamental reason being “printing paper” used as conveyor of news and information in print media is privately owned, while “digital frequencies” are publicly owned. They are neither owned by the “State” nor can they be sold. The State is only the “custodian” of frequencies on behalf of People. The Government as the political leadership that manages the State becomes decision makers in how frequencies could be used for public good and benefit. It is for that reason the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) was legally established.

Yet, the TRC cannot sell licenses outright for use of “permitted frequencies” or issue on long-term lease. Nor can licenses be transferred, leased or sold to others by license holders. Licenses issued therefore have to be slapped with “terms and conditions” on use of the license and on conditions for broadcasting. As property of the people, everything about licenses including conditions, should be made public no sooner they are issued.

Once again this being Sri Lanka, nothing regarding issuing of frequencies and license holders are being published. Everything about issuing of frequencies are held secret by the TRC itself. Reality being, people nor the parliament is aware how many licenses have been issued for what frequency bundles, who holds them and on what conditions. Thus broadcasters have come to treat frequencies as owned by them and use them as they wish. This has led to a pathetic breakdown of rights and ethics within media itself, including the State owned.

As with every State owned entity, State owned media institutions are treated as political property of the government in power. Neither the minister in charge nor the personnel placed for management of State owned media know, frequencies in use are public property and they are bound to respect social impartiality and independence of broadcasting.

All private broadcasting owned by the filthy rich in this nauseatingly corrupt free market economy, are far worse than even the State. No private broadcaster allows his/her employees the fundamental right of forming a trade union and becoming a member of a trade union as guaranteed under Article 14.1(d) and ILO Conventions 87 and 98 ratified by the GoSL. Worst is the role of the Labour Department that behaves as if they are not aware of such violations of fundamental rights.

Slavish mentality
To make everything bad in media far worse, no media organisation, no media activist group demands the right to form trade unions and be members of a trade union of their choice. This timid acceptance of a grave suppression of rights, has turned media personnel into caged parakeets of colour. They are definitely not aware they are also bound by social responsibility in using frequencies owned by the people. Instead they believe their role is to serve the owner of the media company and may be achieve some popularity as a “screen face.” This slavish mentality especially in electronic media has denied professionalism in our media.

Media workers with no professional ethics sitting in front of cameras and microphones owned by private dealers cannot in any society contribute to social awareness and to decent entertainment with aesthetic and educational value. The result is quite evident. All “stations” compete with each other in broadcasting cheap and primitive programs; on astrology, feudal traditions and primitive values, bull fights like political brawls, fancy imitations of reality shows and the like with racist campaigns in between. Over decades of such broadcasting has left a selfish society with warped attitudes and devalued mentalities. In brief, media, especially the broadcasting media that is exceptionally penetrating is part responsible for the political and social rut this country is in.

That is ample reason for “regulating media”. Especially “content” regulation in Sri Lanka. Regulating does not mean “controlling, suppressing or throttling dissent.” It only means laying down specially demarcated areas the media, especially the broadcasting media should be cautious in handling “content” with responsibility. Lest they trespass forbidden ground as ethno-religious frictions, ignore or being negative towards marginalised and vulnerable social groups, social ethics and such.

In the UK and in France with far more advanced societies not only economically but culturally too, “regulating media” is in practice. In France, even commercial advertising comes under strict regulation with media owners required to publish their charges; “global price of advertising campaigns and the unitary price charged for each advertising space.” Copyright regulation is another with provisions for far more regional access allowed within the EU.

In the UK to quote Article XIX, “The print media is entirely self-regulating in the United Kingdom and operates free of any specific statutory rules. The profession has established the Press Complaints Commission on its own initiative, and this body has developed a code against which to measure journalistic standards. For the broadcast media, two broadcasting acts set out broad categories of material which should be covered by codes of conduct but leave detailed elaboration of these categories to regulatory bodies. These acts provide for the establishment of various independent regulatory bodies which undertake a variety of roles visà-vis broadcasters, including monitoring and applying the codes.” (Article XIX – Media Regulation in the United Kingdom)

Here lies the difference. Deciding parameters for media regulation is not the responsibility of the Government and the State. If the Government and the State is allowed to decide “regulation of media” as they wish, the important active presence of the media as social “Watchdog” over governance would be completely lost. Why “regulation” of media is necessary is to guarantee its independence in playing such a role.

Moreover, as frequency owners the public has the right to decide how frequencies should be used by those who obtain a license for broadcasting. Conditions and restrictions relevant for monitoring and regulating especially broadcast media has to be therefore agreed upon in a healthy social discourse. That should be the ownership all media activists and organisations must work for, instead of demanding amendments to what the Government has proposed in draft form. What it means in short is, the proposed Act for establishing a “Broadcasting Regulatory Commission” should be rejected in whole with media activists and organisations taking over the responsibility of drafting a new “media regulatory” statute through social dialogue including all social partners, accepting the fact digital frequencies are owned by the people, and therefore have to be “leased” in an open process.

– Kusal Perera
(ft.lk)

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Backlash builds against Sri Lanka’s $3 Billion clean energy push 

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Utility scale wind, solar and battery projects draw CEB’s ire as they march to take away their vested interests.

The government has ignited a green energy investment spree that’s expected to reach as high as $ 3 billion over the next 3 years. The road to bringing this money in the economy, though, is increasingly hitting speed bumps from the likes of the so called ‘mafia’ CEB officials. 

Country’s ambitious vision aims to make the nation’s electric grid greener with 70% of the electricity demand to be met through renewable energy by 2030. 

Companies have already announced plans for committing $25 billion investment up to 2030 in the renewable energy sector in the Country, according to the Board of Investment. 

With potential Private investments over the next 3-4 years through FDI could include $3 billion in utility scale wind, solar and battery storage projects – Sun Power leading with $1.5 billion, followed by Adani Green with $900 million, by Orbital energy with $200 million, by WindForce PLC with $150 million and balance by a consortium of private developers. However, the opposition to projects has mounted for myriad reasons. 

Increasingly, the few so called ‘mafia’ CEB officials, who have strangled the Country’s power sector by delaying the approval process, seems to be more concerned that the rapidly expanding utility scale size of wind, solar and battery projects will irreparably alter their powers and thus their vested interests in earning a share out of the pie. 

Despite this backlash, many projects will eventually get built, say developers and analysts, but they could take longer and cost more than expected. 

At the government level, there is ample support for speeding up the implementation of the projects, but its only CEB who is pushing back on their own self-motivated agenda, not know at large.

– Harendra Kuruppu

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Personal agenda of CEB officials delaying renewable energy projects

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The central government & their policies are responsible for most of the hardships we face today. But when it comes to implementing investments and projects in the renewable energy sector, surprisingly the central government has good policies and intent but have failed to implement them due to bureaucracy, corruption and personal agenda of few CEB officials.

The present problem is having too much capacity in the wrong types of power plants and too little in the right types. It’s an open secret that few of the CEB officials are not fond of utility scale renewable energy. They like non-renewable sources of energy but hate utility scale wind, solar and battery storage projects.

Despite renewable energy being clean and cheap, the utility scale RE projects have not been implemented in Sri Lanka on a large scale. Sri Lanka still has plenty of room for Solar and Wind. We only have around 12% of RE in the grid (excluding hydro). We are far from the critical limit that could possibly considerably impact the grid from the fluctuating nature of renewable sources.

CEB wants to convince people that the unreliable nature of RE is the reason why they oppose it. But the real reason is, they can’t maintain their infamous mafia power and pursue their personal agenda when there is an abundance of RE power in the system. The proposal of RE investors won’t get accepted even though the offered rate was lower.

While purchasing non-renewable energy power at a rate of over Rs.45 per unit, the CEB is blocking over 1,500 MW of new utility scale solar, wind and battery storage projects. Had these projects been approved by CEB and put to built in this year, they would be ready to supply electricity at the Rs.24 to 30 per kWh tariff within one and a half years’ time period, with lower than prevailing solar and wind energy tariffs and also far less than the cost of non-renewable electricity.

Few CEB Engineers suddenly come to realize that if the trend of implementing such utility scale re-projects continues in the country, this is going to be a threat to their business and their vested interests. 

So, they have resorted to delaying tactics in the approval process of utility scale RE projects not favorable to them, effectively blocking large scale investments and investors who have plans to invest in the country.

On analysis, with the delay in these 1500 MW RE projects, the country will lose annually ~3200 GWh of clean and cheap energy resulting in the country’s economy spending additional Rs. 20 billion per year on account of the higher cost of non- renewable electricity.

It’s hard to fathom the unbelievable level of bureaucracy, corruption & personal agenda of CEB.

– Harendra Kuruppu

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Why you may not get Kashmir’s famed apples easily

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A series of challenges has thrown Kashmir's once flourishing apple trade into crisis

On a chilly and foggy winter day, hundreds of apple farmers in Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir stored their harvest in a temporary tin shelter installed at the fruit market, anticipating the arrival of traders who would purchase their produce.

The farmers were anxious as the quality of apples this year had not been the best and would affect the price they’d get.

Kashmir is known in India for its variety of apples. But a series of challenges – from the onslaught of fungal scab, the impact of climate change, and a range of economic hurdles – has thrown the flourishing industry into a state of crisis.

Apples are classified into A, B and C categories based on their size, colour and quality. A is the premium category while B and C are those infected with scab (venturia inaequalis) - B being less infected than C.

“Around 40% of the apple production [this year] has been C-grade,” says Ghulam Nabi Mir, an orchardist from Pulwama. 

The horticulture department of Jammu and Kashmir says apple, walnut and almond farming provide direct and indirect employment to about 2.3 million people in the region. 

Exports from the Himalayan region’s orchards amount to over two million tonnes annually, generating approximately 120bn rupees ($1.44 bn, £1.14bn) in revenue – which is almost twice as much as the region’s tourism sector, Ejaz Ayoub, an independent Srinagar-based economist, told the BBC.

But unusual weather patterns are beginning to take a toll.

“Unseasonal rainfall in April-May led to scab affecting the crop,” says Abdula Gaffar Qazi, 50. ”Even when some farmers sprayed pesticides, the rain washed it away.”  

Extreme weather patterns impact the size, quality and quantity of the crop, says Dr Tariq Rasool Rather, a senior scientist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences. 

Depending on whether scab affects the crop during the summer or spring season, apple quality can decline to a B or C grade.

Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, 58, a farmer from the Chadoora area of Kashmir’s Budgam district, says he has never witnessed such unusual weather patterns in the region before. 

“Hailstorm in May damaged my crop,” he says, adding that a prolonged dry spell in August and September caused water scarcity, leading to diminished colour in the apples.

Mr Bhat’s apple orchard is spread over five acres but more than half of the trees are infected with scab. 

Data from Jammu and Kashmir’s meteorology department shows the frequency of severe weather occurrences in the ecologically sensitive Kashmir Valley has increased over the past seven years.

Over 550 people have been killed in extreme weather events in Jammu and Kashmir between 2010 and 2022, it says.

On 18 July 2021, Kashmir witnessed the hottest July in eight years with a record temperature of 35C (95F). Earlier that year in January, the valley had also recorded the coldest night in 30 years.

According to Faizan Arif Keng, an independent weather forecaster in Kashmir, the region witnessed dry weather with temperatures approximately 12C above normal from March to mid-April this year, resulting in early flowering of apple crops. But the weather then changed abruptly and temperatures remained below normal until June. 

“This ‘false spring’ damaged the crop,” he says. 

Extreme weather makes crop transportation also a major challenge for farmers. 

Harvest starts in autumn season. But the valley remains cut off from the rest of the world in winters because of the landslides on the treacherous Srinagar-Jammu national highway, the only road that connects the region to the other states of the country. 

It’s common to see hundreds of trucks carrying apples stranded for days if landslides block the highway. 

Vijay Taira, vice-president of the Kashmir Apple Merchants Association in the Azadpur fruit market in Delhi, says there’s been an influx of Iranian apples in India’s fruit markets.

This, growers say, affects the Kashmiri apple’s market share and its price

“Only two weeks ago, a box of Kashmiri apples would sell at 1,000-1,300 rupees in India’s fruit markets,” says Ahmad Bashir, president of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers Cum Dealer Union (KVFG). ”Now, it is being sold at 800 rupees a box, which does not even cover the cost of production.”

The Indian government’s decision to waive off a 20% tariff on apples imported from the United States has also left farmers in distress over drop in prices, he says.

In November, KVFG wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking his intervention in resolving the crisis.

The region’s horticulture department says these issues can only be resolved at the federal level.

“We have raised these concerns with the government,” says Manzoor Ahmad Mir, deputy director of the department. “Only they can take a call [on it].” 

Kashmiri apple farmers also worry the government is not cracking down on dealers selling spurious or sub-standard pesticides. 

“If the pesticides were of reliable quality, the scab in our orchards would be less,” Mr Bhat says.

Shafiqa Khalid, also a deputy director at the region’s horticulture department, says strong action has been taken against accused dealers and criminal cases have been filed against them.

Problems arise when farmers don’t heed advisories regarding pesticide spray schedule, she says.

When apple farmers don’t make good income, the “consumption which drives the domestic economy” is directly impacted, Mr Ayoub, the economist, explains. 

“The money flows in the market and reaches many people associated with different kinds of trade,” he says. “So, if the money stops, people from all walks of life will be impacted.”

(BBC)

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