Sri Lanka’s “Envelope Journalism”

Shenali Waduge

“In many developing countries, so-called “envelope journalism” (accepting financial benefits for certain action or inaction), is the corruption which destroys the image of our profession, deepening cynicism about the media and making us part of the problem, not the solution”.-Christopher Warren (President of International Federation of Journalists) quotes thus:

The developed world replaces “envelopes’ with trips, gifts or privileged access.

Both examples nevertheless cannot deny that media is not without bias & certainly not without corruption.

It is against this scenario that we need to draw parallels to the very corruptions & violations that the media are trying to promote when they are also included into the equation. Commercialism associated with the media brings pressures to deliver news that “sell” – news that suit advertising & news that suit vested interest groups. For journalists to be “in demand” their “news” must also suit the “readership” or be “tailored so”. This leaves little room for ethics & certainly no room for those journalists whose livelihoods depend on their writing. In this scenario we should empathize – but the world is doomed if everyone ends up sacrificing one’s morals, ethics & conscience for a fat “envelope” & this is where the argument attempts to question media ethics in a balance where their reporting should not be only confined to projecting the “anti” sentiment….this is certainly not to say that the reporting should confine to singing songs of the Government. But there certainly should be some credibility in what is written & what goes on in the bedrooms should not take precedence over policies of the nations. Wrong policies, corrupt deals etc should all be highlighted irrespective in an unbiased manner. This is not to discount that journalists are also human beings & when the public are swayed by emotions it is perhaps unfair that the journalists are likely to be biased themselves. The real problem lies when the “bias” is promoted to satisfy the interest of the media owners or whoever else serves to gain by biased reporting. This is where the “ethics” of journalism comes into question.

Sri Lanka’s media is broadly divided into 2 – State-owned media & the Private media channels. If the State media is accused of channeling only news about the Government then the private media takes on the task of doing just the opposite. So we have a situation of tit-for-tat. If one writes against the Opposition it is bound to appear on the private media while the similar scenario will occur in State media.

Presently, with the SAARC conference there are moves to invigorate the foreign media with overhyped human rights violations by the media channels that did little to argue the UNP Governments involvement in the killing of journalist Richard de Soysa. Does any one talk of human rights violations by the LTTE, do these media channels every depict the atrocities caused by the LTTE, the manner in which it denies children & women the right to education, freedom of movement & even freedom of thought? For the media to call itself “independent” it must show its worthiness & if there are many who feel that there is biased reporting that itself beckons for the international media to actually wonder whether there is any truth into the allegations. Not that foreign media themselves is without bias. In a situation where everyone seems to be biased & corrupt who are we to really believe?

There have been times where supposedly “disappeared” people have actually reappeared. The deputy registrar of the Kelaniya University whose “disappearance’ was pinned upon the Government by the media eventually returned – he had gone to visit relatives up North. There have also been cases of other “disappeared” “appearing” at foreign missions to request asylum citing risks on their lives. There have also been occasions of “disappearances” where the reasons have nothing at all to do with the Government – but due to private business dealings or private feuds & tiffs. Similarly the “free” media must also support Government media personnel who also get attacked as in the case at the UNP headquarters. Silence doesn’t tell much of “unbiased reporting”. It is a challenge to the Government nevertheless to take each case by case example & investigate & provide the public the TRUTH…of course this would require a lot of fund allocation but it is a worthwhile investment to reply to the “blown” out of proportion cases. Instead of satisfying themselves with easy statements of Government involvement the media themselves should apply investigative journalism & find the real culprits….unless of course that the allegations of disappearances & abuses are a smokescreen for a larger drive that the “envelopes’ really translates into depicting a nation bordering a failed state, a country that suffers unprecedented human rights violations & in need of foreign intervention to sought out matters…this was exactly what Morgan Tsangvirai suggested in Zimbabwe & later it was discovered that for the first time the US administration was guilty of funding Zimbabwe media to project Mugabe as a modern Hitler. Are we wrong to wonder what some sections of Sri Lanka’s media are really up to?

Looking a little more critically is the coincidences that bind the surge in members of these “free” media movements during important times… Sri Lanka’s reelection to the Human Rights Council predictably saw them in vigorous lobby to project “human rights violations” “disappearances” etc so much so that they even celebrated the denial of Sri Lanka to the Council. Their anti-Government sentiments sufficed to humiliate the country…likewise they gear themselves no sooner an international event or a foreign dignitary arrives in Sri Lanka….leave aside the Government, are they happy to project their country into such shallow heights. Therefore their actions now that the SAARC conference is in progress should be no surprise especially when their attempts to curtail the arrival of foreign journalists to cover the event failed.

A country whatever its problems should attempt to solve them by themselves. We do not need imported solutions nor should we rely on foreign intervention – after years of colonial rule & a cry for independence we should realize this by now. Those amongst us for “envelopes” or similar selfish reasons attempt to demean our own people should really think twice – is this the legacy we are to leave for our children…is this the circle that we want to build?

The Government claims that victory is near …there are many to argue that the statements of victory are pure election gimmicks & half truths…the LTTE lobby are only to ready to jump at these claims as it boots their drive to ensure the LTTE foreign kitty is not empty & the plan to engage a nation which behind the screen enables many other industries to thrive still continue. Yet, the future of a nation lies in the hands of the people – it is their wish to see peace, the dawn of a country without terrorism & the opportunity to rebuild their lives, rebuild the damaged property & rebuild the friendships that have become isolated & tarnished with every drive to create an “ethnic problem” in our minds.

We do not have an ethnic problem – the importance of tagging our country situation as “ethnic” is bound by the survival of establishments that have set up to enter war torn nations & indulge in “conflict resolution” “peace building”…etc & for institutions like the World Bank the IMF to provide “aid” packages & its “structural adjustment programs”….another means to force privatization when repayments become an arduous task.

If the Government says the war is ending….we can then understand the urgency with which sections are building banding together to ensure that the inevitable end is prolonged. Terrorism has always been the result of the wrong or perhaps the calculated policies of a few. Terrorism transcends borders, religions & even professions & terrorism also guises itself in different forms as well, it has turned into a cash rich enterprise ….therefore terrorists do not reside only in the Tora Bora Caves or the Wanni jungles….this is what makes the task of eliminating terrorism an arduous one.

The media may decry its status but its own corrupt & biased mechanizations need to be first investigated & cured before it can really preach to the world….& in the eyes of the mass public these “free” media personnel become really sorry figures when evaluating the manner in which they conduct their “campaigns”.

Shenali Waduge

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