Media Regulation in Sri Lanka
The media, in Sri Lanka, is governed by several laws dealing with aspects pertaining to registration, licencing, regulation of content, reporting functions and authorities responsible for regulating the various mediums. None of these laws, however, specifically deal with regulation of media ownership or require public disclosure of ownership structures.
In order to assess the regulatory framework, it is necessary to understand the main actors in the sectors and their engagement across various aspects of media. There are two main types of actors in mainstream media of Sri Lanka, namely (i) state controlled; and (ii) private sector.
It is necessary to note at the outset that there is no overarching legislation or independent regulatory body dealing with the overall media sector in Sri Lanka. In general, the media sector is under the purview of the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media. Additionally, there are specific regulatory bodies dealing with the various sources of media. The print and electronic media sources are each governed by their own regulatory bodies and legislation (Refer Table 1 below).
|Media Source||Types||Relevant Institution (s)||Details|
|Newspapers/ Printed publications||Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC)||State regulatory body established through the Sri Lanka Press Council Law No. 05 of 1973|
|Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) & Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL)||The SLPI is an independent self-regulatory body set up by the media industry. The PCCSL functions as an arm of the SLPI as is mandated to receive complaints on press material.|
|Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC)|
The SLBC established by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Act No. 05 of 1974 – functions as a state broadcaster and licensing body for private radio broadcasting stations.
|Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC)||Refer below|
|Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC)||The SLRC established by the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation No. 06 of 1982 is the state television broadcaster, and also functions as a licensing body for private television broadcasting stations.|
|Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC)||Refer below|
|Radio and television broadcasts||Telecommunications Regulatory commission (TRC)||The TRC was established under the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act No. 25 of 1991 – and is the regulatory body for all telecommunication activities in the country. |
Radio and television broadcasters have to obtain licences from the TRC to obtain frequencies and operate apparatuses for these activities.
|Digital||Digitized content transmitted over computer and internet networks||Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC)||The TRC regulates all telecommunication activities, as noted above, and is responsible for issuing licences for internet service providers (ISPs). |
Apart from the TRC, there is no specific legislation dealing with digital media.
For more details refer:
The state has its own print media company titled the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL), more commonly known as ‘Lake House’, established under the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited No. 35 of 1981. The ANCL was initially formed by the Lake House Group, a private entity, and converted to a state institution following a takeover by the government in power in 1974. Apart from the Lakehouse Publications, there are privately owned newspaper houses as well.
Regulation of the print media sector is under the purview of two regulatory bodies, the state mandated Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC), and the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) which is a voluntary self-regulatory entity for the industry.
The SLPC investigates complaints against the print media and imposes penalties. This institution has, in the past, been used as a tool by the government to intimidate the media and has provisions for criminal convictions leading to imprisonment (Secretariat for Media Reforms, 2016). There have been repeated calls to abolish this Council and repeal the enabling law. In 2002, the Parliament rendered the Press Council inoperative through a bipartisan resolution, although the law continued to remain in force. The SLPC continued to function as a body mainly involved in registering newspapers on an annual basis. However, in 2009, the government at the time, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa revived the Council, amidst strong condemnation from the media and activists (Secretariat for Media Reforms, 2016). Following the change in government in January 2015, the work of the Council was halted as the President did not make appointments to the Council as required in the SLPC Act. However, this was revised shortly thereafter in July 2015 when President Sirisena re-activated the Press Council. This move was met with significant disapproval and opposition by the media industry.
The Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) was an initiative of the media industry to introduce an independent body for regulation of the print media sector. The SLPI and Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) were formulated as a result of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility signed in 1998. The PCCSL functions as an arm of the SLPI to settle disputes and complaints between the public and press and implement the Code of Professional Practice.
The SLBC and SLRC have two contrasting roles, as state broadcasters (in radio and television, respectively), while also functioning as licensing bodies for private broadcasters. Prior to the entry of private broadcasting stations in the media industry in Sri Lanka, the state essentially had a monopoly over electronic media, with the SLBC and SLRC functioning as the main broadcasting stations for the country. It is, however, necessary to note that the was actually an attempt to establish a private television station in 1979, i.e. the ‘Independent Television Network’ (ITN), although this was taken over by the state shortly after its initial launch. The monopoly held by the state in radio and television broadcasting was broken up in 1987 and 1992, respectively. Private radio and television stations started to emerge thereafter, although these operators have to obtain licences from the SLBC and SLRC, respectively.
The existence of private commercial stations does not necessarily mean that these broadcasting stations function independently in effect. The existing stations are owned and controlled by large businesses (Refer Secretariat for Media Reforms, 2016, P61-63), and there are concerns as to the political independence of these stations. A Report by the Committee to Advise on Reform of Laws affecting Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression published in 1995 (commonly referred to as the R.K.W.Goonsekera Committee Report), explained that the proliferation of private stations does promote pluralism and prevent media monopolies. However, this does not necessarily mean that pluralism is ensured, as there has been no systematic review of the relationship between media ownership and political interest groups. Thus, commercial stations may be unwilling to criticise government policy due to business considerations or need to earn advertisement revenue. Additionally, most of the traditional media houses have a direct stake in politics of the country, with members participating or having relatives and/or close associates participating in political activities (Refer discussion in Brady L, 2005).
In addition to obtaining the licence from SLBC and SLRC, radio and television broadcasters are also required to obtain a licence from the TRC to receive a frequency and to operate the apparatus for radio and television broadcasts. The TRC is a state-run institution responsible for provision of telecommunication services in Sri Lanka which includes allocation of frequencies for broadcasting services, and licensing operators for fixed and mobile services, internet services, cable distribution and direct to home satellite broadcasting. According to the report published by the Secretariat for Media Reforms in 2016, the allocation of frequencies for the various services offered by the TRC are according to a frequency allocation plan, although there is no specific mechanism/process for assignment of frequencies and is handed over to individuals and companies without due process.
The concern with the main institutions regulating broadcasting, i.e. the SLBC, SLRC and TRC, are that there is significant political influence in terms of appointments and functioning of the institutions. For instance, in the case of the TRC, appointments to the Commission are made by the Minister, based on stipulated criteria, while the Director General of Telecommunications is also appointed by the Minister of Media without criteria being specified for such appointment and conditions of employment. Similar provisions exist for appointments to the Boards of the SLBC and SLRC as well. There have been calls for regulatory institutions to be more independent and free from state control. In ‘The Determination of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka in the Broadcasting Authority Bill [1997, SD No. 1/97-15/97]’ the Supreme Court asserted the need for a licencing body for the broadcasting industry that is independent and free from state control and cannot treat state broadcasters with special favour.
While there is no specific legislation dealing with digital media, ad hoc attempts have been made to regulate content that would be broadcast over digital media sources. Additionally, the TRC is responsible for issuing licences to ISPs and can regulate the functioning of ISPs through terms and conditions attached to these licences. Existing licences granted to ISPs (as published on the TRC website) include terms and conditions relating to ownership and, mergers and acquisitions, as well as preventing undue preference or discrimination towards particular person(s) in the conduct of its activities.
Measures taken to regulate digital media have been in the form of regulation on websites carrying content on Sri Lanka. In November 2011, the Department of Information issued a notice requiring all ‘websites carrying any content relating
to Sri Lanka or the people of Sri Lanka uploaded from Sri Lanka or elsewhere to “register” for “accreditation”.’ The directive had no basis in any law or regulation. Certain news and current affairs websites did register themselves, while some websites declined to do so, resulting in being blocked from access within the country (Secretariat for Media Reforms, 2016). More recently, efforts have been made to regulate social media. Earlier in 2018, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe announced that news laws would need to be enacted to regulate social media, in the context of dealing with hate speech, and a proposal was approved by the Cabinet in March 2018 in order to deal with activities to create religious, racial and communal disharmony among the general public.
The role played by the state in terms of being a player in the media industry, while being able to influence and regulate the media sector has significant implications in ensuring a fair playing field am and freedom of expression within the industry.
The media industry in Sri Lanka is further constrained through restrictive legislation authorising the state to employ measures to ban newspapers and censor publications and broadcasts and also imposing the need to seek approval to publish certain content. This is despite the right to freedom of speech and expression, including publication being a constitutionally protected right as per Article 14(1)(a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka.
Separate provisions have been effected to limit the potential abuse of state media resources during election periods and provide a fairer system. For instance, the Elections Commission is able to appoint a Competent Authority, under the Competent Authority (Powers and Functions) Act No. 03 of 2002, to manage media institutions and take over management of the SLBC and SLRC, with the power to take measures to ensure a free and fair election. The use of the Competent Authority has, however, not been consistent and has had limited success in regulating state media institutions during elections (World Bank, 2005).
Various declarations and strategies have been proposed over the years to reform the media sector. This includes attempts to establish an independent regulator for broadcasting services, broad base ownership of the state-owned newspaper (i.e. Lake House) and abolish the SLPC. The ‘Report of the Committee to Advise on Reforms of Laws Affecting Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression’ published in 1995 (commonly referred to as the R.K.W.Goonesekere Committee Report) was one of the first initiatives to examine the media sector and propose recommendations, although several key recommendations still remain unimplemented. This report emphasised the need to strengthen constitutional protection on freedom of speech and expression, among other recommendations. The Colombo Declaration of 1998, subsequently revised in 2008 also emphasised the need to strengthen constitutional protection, amend restrictive legislation such as the Sri Lanka Press council Law of 1973, and adopt an independent broadcasting authority to regulate electronic media. The Tholangamuwa Declaration of 2005 sought to adopt a Media Charter which highlights certain ‘Fundamental Principles’ including respect for truth, pluralism, diversity and human rights, and establishes commitments to be taken to promote editorial freedom and media pluralism. However, this campaign lost momentum. The Weligama Declaration on the Role of Media for National Unity in 2006 which was adopted by several media organisations emphasized the crucial role played by the media to foster national unity. Subsequently, in 2008, the government took steps to release a National Media Policy, although this was more focused on issuing instructions or standards for the media, rather than on the government’s role in balancing media freedom.
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