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Time for an independent press?

[Hindu, Saturday, 30 January 2010 17:28 No Comment]

by Sevanti Ninan

Angry voices: Media activists protesting the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga. Photo: AP Will Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President of Sri Lanka usher in a more liberal attitude towards private channels and newspapers?

With the re-election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, many will be watching to see what his next term will mean for the government’s policy towards private media. The persecution of the Sri Lankan media has been a long-running international story, particularly after the killing in January last year of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader. Several journalists fled to seek asylum in the West, and an expatriate group called Journalists for Democracy has helped to keep Western media attention focused on the vulnerability of journalists in Sri Lanka. Organisations such as Reporters Without Borders have been putting out releases in the run-up to election day, alleging on the day of the polls that news websites were being blocked. Even though one managed to access an allegedly blocked website, the story was that the servers were blocked so that further material could not be uploaded.

Propagandist programmes

The elections saw State-owned media, both print and television, run news favouring the incumbent, and devote most of the coverage to him. When the State media runs propagandist programmes in that country, it seems to be a real issue, because they are more watched than our State media are. And in the subcontinent, Sri Lanka is possibly the only country to have State-owned newspapers.

Al Jazeera’s Listening Post reported in its last programme before the Sri Lankan elections that President Rajapaksa had greeting the country’s entire population on New Year’s Day through an sms. The State’s communication commission had apparently ordered telecom companies to send out that message free. The programme also reported what it suggested was extended misuse of the State media during the poll campaign. It did not quote anybody in government on what they thought of the media’s reporting in Sri Lanka, whereas Indian observers, both here and in Colombo, say that there is also a real problem of partisan media in Sri Lanka. J.S. Tissainayagam, who was sentenced to a 20-year jail term on charges of “supporting terrorism and inciting racial hatred in his articles”, became an international cause celebre, but was let out on bail a few days ago. Like him, several other Tamil journalists have been accused by the government of being pro-LTTE, over the years. But it is not only Tamil journalists that the government has targeted. As many as 34 scribes and media workers, both Tamil and Sinhala, have been killed in recent years.

What sort of climate for media coverage will be created during the President’s next tenure? Will those who fled be able to come back and practise their profession? Or will Sri Lanka continue to remain a media hot spot for some time to come, is what we have to wait and see.

(This column is being written on the afternoon of January 27.)

To have film stars, directors, and producers walk all over newscasts in the run up to the Friday release of a movie seems to have become accepted practice on both English and Hindi news channels. Is such promotion for free, a compact entered into willingly because it will attract viewers? Or is there an advertising or footage related deal? The practice began almost 10 years ago with the advent of public relations and its growing influence on the news industry. But it now grabs an amazing proportion of prime time. When there is an Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan involved, the newscasters, reporters and others sound so gratified to get these personages aboard that it seems the film’s makers are doing the channels a favour, not the other way around.

Rann overdose

In the run up to the release of “Rann” which has a media-related theme, Amitabh Bachchan has been the subject of a long, earnest interview by Barkha Dutt on how the media impacted his family; he has done the same sort of an interview on Zoom with the film’s director Ram Gopal Varma (!), and has graced a couple of programmes on one day alone on Star News. On Republic Day morning Bachchan visited the Star News studio presumably as a run-up to his presenting a special bulletin that evening on the channel. He went from desk to desk escorted by Deepak Chaurasia, everybody looked highly gratified, and he memorably asked a news anchor if they just read the news as it came in, or did they rehearse it or what. Seeing that he plays a newscaster in “Rann” you would have thought he would know the answer to that one by now. One does not know long this special on Star News went on but that evening Bachchan was back on the screen reading a special bulletin on the highlights of 60 years of the Indian Republic, read very much like an actor. And yes, on the morning visit to the Star News studio we watched Chaurasia explain to Bachchan how they were setting up a “Rann” studio setting for his bulletin that night!

Issues of legitimacy

Given that the film is to be distributed internationally by Studio 18 we are likely to see promotional programming on the the Network 18 channels too. Rajdeep Sardesai recently referred to “legitimate advertorial” as not being the same as paid news. Sardesai has been one of those in the forefront of the recent battle against paid news and was seeking to differentiate between the two, in his Hindustan Times column. His own channel CNN-IBN had been running last year this amazing ‘Shave India’ programme on which anchors did interviews on why people preferred clean shaven men, a feature in association with Gillette. It ran a few times before the channel began labelling it a sponsored feature.

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