We have made headway amid challenges - Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella | Daily News

We have made headway amid challenges - Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella

Pictures by Saman Sri Wedage
Pictures by Saman Sri Wedage

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency will be written down in a future chronicle as one abundant with hurdles. An uncooperative Parliament at the outset, followed by a least-expected pandemic, the path was not smooth at all. But all that paled into insignificance, as President Rajapaksa’s Government took measures to fulfil the pledges promised in Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour manifesto. Mass media is one such field taken care of under the direction of Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella. The Daily News meets with Minister Rambukwella to take stock of the progress within one year of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: You chaired the committee that formulated the extensive section allocated to mass media in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto presented last year. As the incumbent minister holding that portfolio, how do you assess the progress?

A: One of our foremost plans is to establish media colleges in all 25 districts. It is to ensure that mass media should be treated on par with arts and welfare. We have already initiated the project in certain districts. In the endeavour, we have found that students mostly from Grade Six and Seven are interested in taking up roles as mass communicators. There is a burgeoning interest in photography. As a Government, it is our responsibility to provide the necessary equipment. That is already being done. Every district will now have one media hub providing access for communication. Schoolchildren of that district can reach the hub. We have commenced the project in the North and the East. We will commence in the Central Province soon. The next few weeks will see it progress towards the Southern Province.

Q: The 2010-2015 Rajapaksa Government took certain measures to uplift the professionalism of mass media practitioners. How would it continue?

A: When the previous Rajapaksa Government provided laptops, it changed the media sphere. There was a time when provincial journalists had no other means but to send the video or audio cassette through someone to the office in Colombo. The said period witnessed the surge of technological advancement. Technology made everything possible. But practically speaking, most provincial journalists had no access to technology. Our measure to provide laptops was to fulfil that vacuum.

The laptop makes everything possible and convenient, especially for a communicator. We are also taking certain steps to materialise digitalization. During the previous Rajapaksa Government, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to Sri Lanka solely to sign that agreement to the tune of US$ 162 million as a whole expenditure. The whole amount was agreed to be given by the Japanese Government to be resettled gradually. After the first 10 years, the interest rate will be 0.02 percent. This is a rare opportunity.

Technological equipment and digitalization aside, we also consider professionalism on a serious scale. On that note, the Mass Media Ministry offers a grant to any journalist with a first degree to pursue the postgraduate path. This is not a loan. The Ministry pays the sum directly to the university.

Q: Social Media has triggered a serious discourse on the global platform. Though severely criticised for accuracy and credibility issues, social media has taken over the mainstream media role in certain instances. What is your opinion?

A: First and foremost, let me assure you that we have no plan to impose any censorship on social media. But we need to register social media pages and sites that provide information to the public.

There is this discourse of freedom of expression and other elements. It is a challenge to strike a balance. Anyone is entitled to freedom of expression. At the same time, we all must be mindful that all of us citizens have the right to claim freedom of conscience. Any libel or defamation in the name of freedom of expression must be therefore condemned. That is where we try to strike a balance. It is a challenge.

We introduce registration because that will give some responsibility to any social media page or site that provides information. They cannot just publish some hearsay and later deny it. We need to document it all. In Sri Lanka’s National media policy, freedom of expression is given prominence. Our Government has never attacked that right. But we must be vigilant about the limits of that freedom.

How can it be achieved? Legally, agreement, or consensus? We must come to a conclusion about ethical media. A rich discourse must ensue. We hope to shoulder that effort.

We initiated that move of registering social media sites in 2014. The fee at the outset was Rs. 100,000 for registration with an annual fee of Rs. 25,000. But we agreed later that the sum is unbearable for small scale media institutes. We brought it down to Rs. 25,000 for registration with an annual fee of Rs. 5,000. It is not the amount that matters, but what we need was documentation. That’s good for anyone. No one can deny after publishing something in their pages.

Q: The advancement of mass media such as television, press, radio and ultimately the internet has contributed in no small measure to global economic development. What is the impact of mass media on Sri Lanka’s economic growth and development?

A: I strongly believe in Mass media’s role in informing the public about what happens in the country. In itself, mass media cannot shoulder a direct contribution to development. But in its role, mass media bridges people with the Government, especially in its development projects.

For instance, the pandemic takes centre stage on and off in our discussions and discourses. Naturally, the people would aim the question at us: what have we done as a Government within one year? Rs. 90 billion has been spent on public welfare. This is in addition to PCR and other health concerns. Rs. 6 billion has been allocated to around 1.4 million families. That is a tough situation while controlling the pandemic. But we are working on the development drive as well. Steps are being taken to revive the Central Expressway construction. Rs. 4 billion has been passed to initiate construction of the Ambepussa-Warakapola bypass.

The Government also intends to boost foreign investment in a bid to enhance the economy. Just a few weeks ago, we signed an agreement for a Tyre factory. That will be the biggest tyre factory in Asia with an investment of US$ 300 million. It will create jobs. We have also initiated an apartment scheme in Anuradhapura. This is our plan to have one apartment in every seat. At least 100 houses. The renovation of the paper company in Valaichchenai has started. The State Printing Corporation purchased its products at a competitive price. Then there is the 100,000-job programme. We have aimed at personal development and social development. At least 50,000 graduates will receive job opportunities. We have executed many such programmes during this period.

Mass media plays a pivotal role in communicating the messages of this type to the public.

Q: However, do you think mass media communicates the proper message to the public all the time? For instance, certain media picture Sri Lankan Government’s foreign policy as being aligned and biased.

A: Sri Lanka’s Mass media is doing a great service. Unfortunately, certain parties try to gain political mileage. It is a pathetic situation. We believe that they would discontinue that practice and act fairly.

Our foreign policy is non-aligned. We are friends with all countries. We have no enmity towards any particular country. When it comes to commercial agreements, we turn to commercially viable partners. For instance, when building the Hambantota Port, we first approached India. They are neighbours. We are friends. But they were not keen. So we turned to China. If India was keen, we would have stuck with them. Japan is the all-time friend. Our basic policy is non-aligned and friendly.

Q: The division of media as State-run and private-owned has resulted in a latent cold war. Do you see them as warring parties? Or can they co-exist?

A: The State-run media of course have challenges in terms of bias. However, during the 2010-2015 Rajapaksa Government, ITN was rated number 1 in the country. The public wanted the state version of current affairs. That said, however, the problem lies in attitude. There is a generally mistaken belief that the state media tends to give more space and air time for the Government party. Our Government does not want such cheap tricks.

During our time 2010-2015, ITN was rated number 1 in the country. It means that the people watched the channel. We will gradually change the mistaken attitude. The Government television, radio and press have offered equal air time and space for Government, Opposition and other alternative parties. We understand the fact that the Government media should be more competitive in the industry. It will free the Government media especially Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation from the pressure of financial competition and they would be able to function as model institutions in the mass media field.

Q: You have previous experience in this ministry. How would you plan to steer this ministry ahead?

A: Unlike other subjects and fields, mass media is a field that progresses with time. Take the Sri Lanka Press Council for instance. It is a statutory institution established under the Sri Lanka Press Council Act No. 05 of 1973 in order to safeguard the freedom of publishing true statements on facts as news in newspapers and the freedom of publishing views based on true statements and facts. Basically, it focuses on the print medium. But today, mass media has expanded into other horizons. We need to view the Press Council in a different manner.

Mass media we see today essentially runs on an electronic medium. Therefore, we intend to introduce a modernization programme to cover all aspects mainly visual, audio and print which is an omnibus experience in the digital sphere.

A Transparent Mass Media Policy

A sign of any healthy democratic society is the availability of opportunities for its people to practice freedom of speech and publication as per international conventions. People are able to take correct political and economic decisions only when they are armed with the correct news and information. As such, we accept that there should be unhindered opportunities for the communication of information, knowledge and opinions.

•• In order to create a society suited for the 21st century, we wholeheartedly accept the need for the freedom of speech and publication and shall do our utmost to protect these rights. Accordingly, we shall consider it our bounden duty to create the necessary free and unhindered environment for media professionals to carry out their duties.

•• Having understood the relationship between Sri Lankan mass media and contemporary global developments in this field, special attention will be given to national and international regulations for upholding media standards, the operation of national and international media institutions and the role of media in promoting social and cultural identities.

•• Guidelines for the mass media will be formulated with an understanding that works within the framework of journalists’ associations, the culture of mass media organisations, accepted societal norms for family and human interrelationship and values.

A “Higher Education Institute for Mass-media” on par with international standards will be set up under Government patronage in order to produce media professionals with high professional skills.

•• Having recognised the problems encountered due to chaotic conditions prevalent in the fields of mass media and communication, a committee of experts will be appointed to develop mass media education conforming to high academic standards. As per guidelines set by them, mass media education will be completely restructured.

Opportunities for mass media professionals to obtain training at international levels will be enhanced.

•• Government attention will be focused on how financial investments are obtained to set up newspaper, radio and television institutions. Direct foreign investments in this field will be supervised by the Government and will be regulated by new rules and regulations.

•• In order to free Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation from the pressure of financial competition so that they can function as model institutions in the mass media field, they will be brought under a Commission that is accountable to the Parliament.

•• The Press Council will be re-structured to cover electronic, print and other new media and made to adjudicate on matters relating to journalists and media institutions. It will also act as a centre to promote media education.

•• A housing complex for mass media professionals will be set up in the city and a concessionary vehicle loan scheme will be introduced for them.

•• Press Clubs will be set up provincially in order to provide extensive facilities for all journalists.

•• Necessary steps will be taken to provide education to the society on the use, handling and the adoption of communication strategies with regard to new forms of media including social media.