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.
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.
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