The changing media landscape | Daily News

The changing media landscape

The 20th Anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility which was signed by The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka together with the Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and the Free Media Movement is now being celebrated with a series of events and seminars. Among the international organisations that supported the Declaration were the World Association of Newspapers, the International Press Institute and the Commonwealth Press Union.

This document, revised in 2008 on its 10th anniversary, was a landmark achievement for the media in Sri Lanka that contained a series of proposals, suggestions and recommendations for uplifting the media and the profession of journalism. The developments arising out of the Colombo Declaration also paved the way for self-regulation of the media and the establishment of several industry bodies including the Sri Lanka Press Institute, the Sri Lanka College of Journalism and the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka. The Declaration created wider awareness on the importance of media freedom in democratic societies.

The media landscape here and abroad has changed drastically over the last 20 years. The local media, both print and electronic, have faced many trials and tribulations in these two decades. There have been many positive developments as well. The 10th anniversary of the Colombo Declaration coincided with the beginning of one of the darkest chapters for the media in Sri Lanka, with killings of several journalists including Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga and physical assaults on many other journalists recorded. Some journalists who were “white vanned” have never been seen again, including Prageeth Ekneligoda. Speaking at a Colombo Declaration event in Colombo on Thursday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, alluding to these events, said the media must keep the debate alive on such horrific attacks on journalists and attempts to stifle media freedom.

Media freedom cannot be considered in isolation. It is part of a bigger picture that encompasses freedom of expression, human rights, independence of the Judiciary, law and order and the right to information. The media can thrive as an independent entity only if these basic tenets of good governance are ensured. This is exactly what the present administration has done. To its eternal credit, there have been no attacks on journalists in any part of the country since January 2015 and media freedom has been recognized as a key component of Governance. In fact, Sri Lanka has climbed up rapidly in Press Freedom indices announced last year. The Right to Information (RTI) laws too are among the most progressive measures ever taken by any post-independence Government.

But press freedom is only one part of the equation. The media today operate in an extremely challenging environment. The print newspaper industry is hampered by the high cost of newsprint, dwindling advertising revenues and readers switching over to alternative forms of media consumption such as the Web. Many newspapers around the world have either closed down or downsized (sometimes literally from broadsheet to tabloid).

However, some newspapers have managed to defy these trends and managed to improve their circulation on both print and digital platforms thanks to quality output and reader engagement. Every newspaper is now available digitally, but most readers will keep away if there is a pay wall, unless the content is exceptionally good.

The electronic media’s main problem seems to be the relentless rise of the Web as a news medium. There is no longer any need to sit in front of the TV set as news is streamed live to one’s smartphone 24/7. The likes of Facebook and Twitter have become de facto news providers to many people who now shun newspapers, TV and radio altogether.

But herein lies another danger. The social media have given rise to the phenomenon of “Fake News” – falsehoods (text, pictures and videos) that look like the real thing. It is rather easy for anyone to publish false information on Facebook, which can then be shared by thousands almost instantly. This can even lead to social disorder and communal disharmony, as seen in the incidents at Digana a few months back. Facebook and other social platforms have since agreed to vet the posts for any incendiary content, but it is very difficult to impose any kind of censorship or control on a sprawling medium that has no physical or virtual boundaries.

It is very difficult to spot the truth in an era of “alternative facts” and “truth isn’t truth”, but the mainstream media must fight back by being incisive, in-depth and inclusive. The truth often becomes a casualty in the fight for “breaking news” in the heat of the moment but newspapers still do have a major role to play. People still want insightful and truthful analysis of news, which is the forte of print media.

There is a healthy debate on whether the print media can survive the digital onslaught at least for the next 50 years. But one thing is clear: the thirst for accurate news and quality journalism will not disappear. In other words, it is not the medium of delivery that matters – what matters now and in the future is good journalism.


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