A fillip for the media | Daily News

A fillip for the media

Journalism and the media industry in Sri Lanka had ups and downs, but in all probability, they never ever faced a period like 2005-2014. From the daylight assassination of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge to the forced disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, this was one of the bleakest periods for journalists and journalism in Sri Lanka. Indeed, several other journalists escaped death or disappearance by a mere whisker. The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was known for its open hostility to the media and journalists who wielded their pens to expose corruption, misuse of power and nepotism associated with that regime. Many other journalists fled the country.

The Government led by President Maithripala Sirisena promised to end this dire situation. In fact, this was one of the main election planks of the Rainbow Coalition that propelled him to power. Today, anyone – not only journalists – can harshly criticize the President, the Prime Minister, Ministers and also Government projects without any fear of retaliation and retribution on the mainstream or social media. This alone is an achievement worthy of recognition.

Apart from ending the practice of intimidating journalists simply for doing their job, the Good Governance Government has taken many other steps to restore media freedom. The Right to Information legislation (RTI) was passed, which compels Government institutions to disclose details of their work, tenders etc. to journalists or ordinary citizens who make a request. This has led to greater transparency in Government business. The Government has also taken steps to improve training facilities for journalists and also provide financial assistance for buying laptops, cameras and other equipment.

The latest such move is the establishment of the Presidential Media Awards, which will be presented for the very first time in December this year. We have Presidential Awards in many other sectors including film, literature and drama, but this is the first time that journalists will be honoured in a similar fashion.

A total of 54 awards will be handed over to outstanding journalists working in all three languages in print, television, radio and web media at this ceremony. The awards covering a variety of categories will be decided upon by independent and impartial panels of judges. Applicants can nominate themselves or another person such as a colleague or editor can nominate an applicant.

The awards have been named Presidential Awards to impart the highest possible recognition to talented journalists and President Maithripala Sirisena has given his fullest backing to the project, along with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This is a very laudable initiative that will encourage journalists working across different media to perform better. Those who do not win awards this year will naturally strive to get one next year.

The inclusion of web media shows how the media landscape has changed in our country in the last decade or so when the Internet went mainstream. Today, almost everyone has a smartphone through which news can be accessed 24/7. It is no longer possible to “kill” or ignore news stories as someone else will publish it somewhere on the web. In fact, social media such as Facebook and Twitter have made inroads into the traditional media set up to the point where some people get their “news fix” exclusively from them.

But here they risk falling for “fake news”, a social media phenomenon where false narratives pass off as seemingly true stories that people enthusiastically share. If one shares a fake news post at this moment, it would have gone around the world in the next five minutes. This is exacerbated by the fact that anyone with a smartphone can become a “journalist” broadcasting to the entire world by posting material or videos to Facebook Live or other such services. It is impossible to control or censor the social media in any case.

But the traditional media still has a role to play by vigorously defending the truth, facts, ethics and high reporting standards. Despite the intense competition among media houses to get the news out first, their journalists must not lose sight of these basic tenets of good journalism.

The electronic and social media often give only a fleeting glance at a news story and it is up to the traditional print media to probe the relevant issues in-depth. This role will perhaps not go away as people still rely on the newspapers to give them more than just headlines.

All media are converging – all newspapers have websites and apps that have audio and video content and the reverse has also happened in some countries – web magazines now turn out print editions. Technology is so advanced today that one person can audio-visually record an entire event and post it to the newspaper’s website and then write an account of it in-depth. Yes, there is a fear that the traditional “print” newspaper may not survive the next century in its present form, but the one thing that will not disappear is good journalism. There will always be a place for incisive, insightful and informative reporting, the like of which will be recognized by the first-ever Presidential Media Awards in December. 


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