‘Watchdogs’ with dubious agendas | Sunday Observer

‘Watchdogs’ with dubious agendas

Even as the country gets back on an even keel after last month’s narrow avoidance of a return to autocracy, at least some elements of the news media seem to be straying from their ostensible commitment to defend democracy. If the bogey of cruel and corrupt family rule has been effectively thwarted for now, these sections of the national news media seem to have forgotten who had subjected them to terror and who have been voted to power to check that terror.

The news media as a whole likes to claim the status of a pillar of modern democracy – the famous ‘Fourth Estate’. While there are globally renowned examples of news media powerfully acting to expose corruption and resist autocracy, in Sri Lanka too, we have our heroes and heroines of the media who have risked life and limb for that noble cause.

But some sections of the media seem not to care about such lofty goals. The irony is that even a political scoundrel notorious for leading attacks on the news media seems to have adopted certain news organisations as his pets and is striving to defend their current tactics of political reportage. In fact, this pseudo ‘Dutugemunu’ recently stood up to defend the very same news channels he had once threatened and harassed.

Is this strange political about-turn reflecting a similar about-turn in news reportage strategy by those news channels? Have some news channels which postured earlier as defenders of ‘the truth’ now changed their posture to one that reports only partial truths in defense of the one-time media oppressors?

At the same time there are other parallel news channels who consistently angled towards autocratic rule, especially, the poisonous mix of authoritarianism, ethno-supremacism and corrupt nepotism personified by the previous regime.

These news channels still do so today. These channels, both television and radio, are happy to not only politically uphold that regime but also to industriously produce and purvey a culture steeped in such dangerous ingredients.

Only a culture that equates a news channel with lucre (as one local channel’s slogan goes) will enable the gullibility of citizens to ideological miasmas and crafty innuendo that promote a society based on narcissistic ethnic supremacy on the one hand, and, on the other, a crass greed that legitimises corruption and nepotism. When news channels with a nationwide audience footprint emphasise one ethnicity over another, one political-ideological tendency over all others and even promote some political personalities to the detriment of others, such broadcast strategies only serve to stifle genuine pluralism of viewpoints and overwhelm the dynamics of social co-existence.

Such divisive media stewardship will only serve to push even further apart a nation already divided.

What is needed today, as we strive to move forward to social harmony and stability in the wake of war, is the promotion of inter-group understanding and empathy and not more suspicion and mistrust.

What the all-powerful audio-visual channels must present is an aesthetic content that promotes citizens’ full appreciation of each other in the richness of our island nation’s mix of cultures. News must reflect the totality of our national life rather than aspects that only spark uncertainties and fear. Entertainment must mirror desired realities and not just dangerous desires.

Even if specific political movements and parties are not explicitly espoused, the toxic agendas of these parties have become central to some news channels’ broadcasting strategies.

TV debates are packaged to favour only one viewpoint and not a range of perspectives. Left with only one side of a controversy, how can citizens then weigh the pros and cons of serious issues and solutions? It is only when many viewpoints are vigorously debated that society can move towards consensus or greater agreement that becomes the basis for problem-solving and collaborative endeavour.

The Government is now forging ahead with a national discussion of constitutional reform. The most sensitive aspect of Sri Lankan constitutional reform is the accommodation of multiculturalism and inter-ethnic equality.

But how do some news media channels present the structural reform process to national audiences? Is it presented through a set of programs that enable careful debate and stimulating controversy that, in turn, enable sober and moderate understanding of the vital issues at stake? Or, do some channels prefer to spark emotive and inflammatory argumentation that is clearly aimed at closing off some options for reform and a resort to a restricted choice of options.

How often is the concept of devolution presented as a threat to national unity? And how often do we learn of the exciting possibilities that emerge from a strongly institutionalised multiculturalism - from the coordination of diverse energies and diverse interest groups?

The audio-visual media utilises radio frequencies that are finite in number and extent and, are public property meant to be equally shared for the public good. Even more than the press, precisely because they share in the use of a finite frequency spectrum, the audio-visual media have a greater public accountability.

At present such accountability is yet to be properly and systematically regulated or supervised. Since the frequency spectrum is a public resource, it is imperative that an effective framework that governs spectrum utilisation is put in place. At the same time the audio-visual electronic media should build its own internal industry mechanisms that ensure proper standard-setting, best practices and continuous industry improvements.

It is only then that the watchdog role performed by the media in support of genuine and advancing democracy can be sustained in a manner that ensures social harmony and wellbeing and will keep out the dogs of war.