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The Death Of Free Media

For the past few weeks the talk around Colombo has been the end of free media with the buy over of The Sunday Leader and the subsequent resignation of its editor-in-chief Frederica Jansz.

They are right, to an extent; free media in the country is slowly being encroached upon by political figures. Yet the end of this freedom of media, as we know it, has been a long time coming and something which could have been prevented.

I worked at The Sunday Leader for the past two years, and during that time there was a gradual decline both financially and in terms of vocal and physical support from the public towards the paper.

Ever since the death of its founder editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, people have told me that the quality of the newspaper has dropped. In fact some have gone so far as to say that they no longer pick up the newspaper. A rather interesting comment, as it is almost as though those people view the paper as being responsible for his death and they are punishing it.

In hindsight the only people to truly be punished were the readers themselves, who are now left with newspaper who have close links to political circles.

Now with the newspaper having been bought over by a person who allegedly has close links to the government, people cry the end of free media. I personally have been insulted and accused of “selling out”, to those people I always respond with a simple question; “where were you when support was needed?”

I do not for a second defend the sale/purchase of the newspaper, but I do feel that this situation could very well have been avoided had those very people who cried about the death of free media supported that very same notion in the first place.
While not everyone could have given over support in the form of financial backing, they could have picked up the paper every Sunday and shown the public that independent journalism is still supported.

Circulation of the newspaper had dropped significantly and while advertising was never abundant in the newspaper even that had reduced. Rumours were spreading that major businesses had been told they could no longer advertise with us (something that I cannot confirm). I do know for a fact that businesses were not comfortable advertising with a controversial paper. While this may be acceptable, it should be noted that many of those in the business circle privately supported the paper while publicly steering clear.

In fact even the very people, who had stories which they wanted told, did not want their names alongside their comments for fear of repercussions. These repercussions were not the threat of white vans but the loss of business contracts.

No doubt there are numerous situations where people are justified in their want to have their name censored, but similarly those people who support free media needed to take a stand and open themselves to the repercussions.

Unfortunately, in my eyes free media in Sri Lanka is on the decline not because the government is censoring it, but because the people are not willing to support it. While everybody screamed blue murder with the sale of the paper, they were noticeably silent in the months leading up to it.
Ranting and raving aside I do not, despite the headline, believe that free media is over with. Call me an idealist but as long as people are willing to openly support such forms of media, independent journalism will continue.

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  1. October 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Did the Sunday Leader ever consider stopping printing and sticking to online only? Yes that may have cut down the number of readers, but I can imagine it is significantly cheaper, and those who really read the Sunday Leader would be those passionate enough to find a way to get to it online.

    • October 13, 2012 at 11:02 pm

      For mainstream media purely online is not an option. Access to the Internet is too poor. Most people who would have actually looked to make a difference are those who don’t have access to the Internet (i.e. those in the rural areas)

      • October 14, 2012 at 11:44 am

        I understand that, my point is if the main goal was to exist as a free and independent news provider, rather than eventually having to sell to someone who would take down the independent reputation of the paper, wouldn’t the online route have been closer to that original goal?

        Now (if what people say is true) the Sunday Leader is slowly moving towards being just like every other paper, and so instead of going from mainstream to online only while maintaining their independent edge, they’re now heading towards nothing at all.

        Also, just out of curiosity, what percentage of readers of the Sunday Leader are from rural areas?

      • Dino
        October 14, 2012 at 11:49 am

        I do not know what the actual figures are, but the online reader base was mainly overseas. Going online would have reduced the people who we reach here which is not the aim.
        But I do agree that until a new investor could have been found then going purely online would have been the better option.
        And you’re right the paper is now becoming nothing new, it avoid major topics which need to be examined

  2. Chandralal
    October 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    A very sound perspective. It’s time that people stood up for what they believe in. Not cry foul after the event but cry freedom beforehand. Well written Dinouk.

  3. Rukman
    October 14, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Well written! BTW, I only read SL newspapers online and I know this is the same for most of my friends. An online only model, as a previous commenter has suggested, wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

    • October 14, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks. As regards purely an online edition it is not feasible financially. Plus Sri Lanka’s online readership is far too small to make any impact

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