The Sri Lankan government's broadcast stranglehold
Nalaka Gunawardene debunks the globally persistent myth that community radio has been thriving in Sri Lanka
Friday, November 17, 2006
Colombo --- The Sri Lankan government's suspension of Raja FM on Nov. 9 has raised more concerns about the absence of transparency and due process in the government's dealings with stations that are not supported by the state. Similar government actions have come to characterise Sri Lanka's broadcast liberalisation process over the last 15 years.
It is also a firm reminder that the once-dreaded cultural police and moral guardians are back, wearing new robes of extreme nationalism and fundamentalism. The ban of the private radio channel is merely the latest in a series of assaults on freedom of expression.
Raja FM is owned by Colombo Communication Private Limited, one of nearly two dozen commercial channels that crowd the FM bandwidth. The government said it shut down the channel because it "broadcast anti social and extremely repulsive and vulgar material that could corrupt the society, specially [sic] the younger generation." The Ministry of Mass Media and Information claimed it "received a large number of complaints from the intellectuals, religious leaders, media personnel and society leaders," and thus banned the radio channel under a 40-year-old law, the Societal Good Conduct Act No. 37 of 1966.
Successive Sri Lankan governments have shared the dubious distinction of cracking down on independent newspapers that have been overly critical of government policies and actions. But this is the first time a privately owned radio or TV channel has been shutdown since broadcast liberalisation started in the early 1990s.
The Free Media Movement (FMM),the country's leading media rights group, expressed serious concerns over the banning of Raja FM: "If Raja FM broadcasts any such programmes, instead of banning the channel, the government should have followed the due process to determine the remedial steps," FMM's convenor Sunanda Deshapriya said.
Sri Lankan media are indeed sailing in rough seas. The Worldwide Press Freedom Index, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), recently ranked Sri Lanka at 141st of the 168 countries assessed for 2006 -- a dramatic drop from its 52nd rank in 2002, when a ceasefire was brokered between government troops and the Tamil Tigers that halted a protracted civil war between the two groups.
But the banning of Raja FM is much more than a media freedom issue. It brings into sharp focus a disturbing trend that now all too often seems to shape public policy and governmental action in Sri Lanka.
First, a handful of private individuals or a hitherto unknown group will protest against a media organisation or a cultural product (FMM says that "extreme nationalist forces" launched and e-mail campaign against Raja FM ahead of government intervention.). The individual or group will make the allegation that the media organization or cultural product is detrimental to cultural norms, insensitive to a particular ethnic or religious group or threatens national security. How vocally these viewpoints are promoted matters more than the logic or coherence of these assertions.
After allegations are made, a public official will begin to champion the agitators' cause, usually without any public debate. Then, the government will impose bans, suspensions or protectionist measures.
In 2006 alone, this cycle has led to the banning of the Hollywood movie The Da Vinci Code, the imposition of unreasonably high taxes on foreign TV programming imported by local broadcasters and the sealing of two local pay-TV channels for alleged threats to national security. This summer, the Cultural Ministry withdrew the initial censor board approval granted for public screening of Aksharaya (Letter of Fire), the latest feature film by internationally acclaimed film-maker Asoka Handagama. A sexually-charged art film exploring incest, it fell foul of Sinhala nationalists who called it a foreign-funded attempt to discredit Sri Lanka.
In each of these cases, bureaucratic action was preceded by a short-lived smear campaign by a small group of angry individuals or business rivals. There was no due process, and some affected individuals and companies were forced to turn to the courts -- which can take months or years to hear cases -- for legal redress. And bans, once imposed, are not easily withdrawn, unless ordered by courts.
When it comes to radio and TV broadcasting, private operators are completely at the government's mercy. The highly discretionary broadcast licensing system has always lacked transparency, accountability and consistency from the time private broadcasting was first permitted in 1992. Since then, several governments have been in office, and while election manifestos regularly promised the creation of a broadcasting authority, such a body has not yet materialised.
By default, broadcasting is still governed by the laws and regulations that were used to set up state-owned radio and TV stations decades ago. These laws allow state-owned stations to regulate their competitors in the private sector.
In practice, Sri Lanka's broadcast liberalisation has been partial and lop-sided. Both the main political parties have given out radio and TV licenses to family members or friends -- licenses that are valuable political IOUs during crises or elections. Some broadcast licenses have changed hands for millions of dollars. But whatever the price, all licenses can be revoked or cancelled by the government at any time without reason. It's the Sword of Damocles that hangs over all privately owned radio and TV stations. No wonder, then, that self censorship is widely practised.
Meanwhile, community groups are not being issued broadcast licenses. Senior officials have privately explained that they fear airwaves will be misused for anti-social or political purposes. They have not, strangely enough, voiced such concerns about profit-making companies, some of whose channels are openly-aligned with political parties.
A globally persistent myth holds that community radio has been thriving in Sri Lanka for two decades. In reality, these broadcasters are nothing more than rural transmissions of the fully state-owned and state-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). Yes, these stations are located in remote areas, involve local people in programme production and broadcast to a predominantly rural audience. But the bureaucracy in Colombo tightly-controls content: nothing remotely critical of the government in office is permitted.
The rest of the world does not recognise this as community radio. The World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC), defines community radio as non-profit with the community having complete control over the content of broadcasts.
Ironically, only armed rebels have defied this stranglehold by successive governments. The Marxist People's Liberation Front ran Rana Handa (Sound of Victory) in the 1980s when it was spearheading a youth insurgency. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ran Voice of Tigers (VOT) for years, making a complete mockery of Colombo's broadcast regulations. In November 2002, as part of a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire arrangement, the government granted a license for the Tamil Tigers to continue its broadcasts legally. That was the first time -- and so far, the only time -- the state has ever conceded a license to a group that is neither part of the state nor a profit-making company. All governments since 1992 have refrained from granting any broadcast licenses to non-profit, non-governmental groups.
Organisations such as Sarvodaya -- the country's largest development NGO -- are keen to use the airwaves for the public good and have the capability to deliver relevant content. But, even as India is beginning to allow genuine community radio, Sri Lanka stubbornly refuses to democratise its the airwaves.
The privileged few companies that hold broadcast licenses should know better than to rock the boat. The banning of Raja FM should make them realise how perilous the situation is for every broadcaster who is unwilling to amplify the voice of government. It is in their interests -- and everybody else's -- to support the long-standing call for an independent broadcasting authority.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 11/17/2006