The new constitution that may never be

Gramsci spoke of the pessimism of intellect and the optimism of will. How does this relate to Sri Lanka today? The deafening silence around the process of constitution making, justified by key architects as inevitable in order for progress around tenacious issues to be made, indicates to all but the most delusional the reform process has little to no traction in the public imagination. This is a problem. Basic intelligence suggests a process as vexed as writing a new constitution, without public traction or debate, dumped by government elites for approval just before a referendum risks confusion at best and opposition or rejection at worst. And yet, Sri Lanka really needs a new constitution. If the constitution expresses the will of the people, it needs to be one that guides us away from the structures of power and identity that led to what we are still hostage to – a violent, racist State, largely unable as a first step to even recognise the degree to which it excludes and discriminates. The optimism of will, when embodied in a constitution, is what can guarantee to the extent possible a better future for all citizens, independent of what government, Executive or Prime Minister are, say and do.

Disturbingly though, things are not going well. And that is an understatement.

An islandwide poll conducted by Social Indicator, the polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (to which I am attached as a Senior Researcher) on perceptions around and attitudes towards the new constitution makes for very depressing reading. The official topline report will be released to the public this week. Some of the key findings bear mention.

Contrary to what the President, Prime Minister and the whole of government may believe, a quarter of Sri Lankans have no clue that a constitutional reform process is taking place at present. 34.1% know a reform process is taking place, but have no idea about the details or where the process is currently at. The twenty-member Public Representations Committee (PRC), appointed by the PM, held public sittings in all districts of the island earlier this year. Just the written representations to the PRC numbered in the thousands. And yet, echoing concerns made at the time around publicity and awareness raising, the Social Indicator poll brings out that over 70% of Sri Lankans hadn’t heard of the PRC or its activities. It gets worse. A staggering 76.8% hadn’t heard of the Constitutional Assembly, which held its first sitting on the 5th of April 2016 in the Parliament Chamber. Even amongst those who had heard of it, there was no awareness around what it was doing. Unsurprisingly, nearly 60% of Sri Lankans said that the Government hadn’t been successful in communicating the constitutional reform process – such as its importance or progress – to citizens.

Fundamentally, this means that the majority of Sri Lankans today don’t know about the constitution making process, haven’t heard about the PRC much less its final report and are clueless, even if they have a vague idea of what’s going on in government regarding the reform process, around key outcomes and output. There is simply no other way to interpret the data. It is a slow onset catastrophe. The public or political communications aspect is worth flagging. Television remains the single most important vector for news and information, with private channels consumed more than state owned media. This isn’t surprising. What however the data also confirms is, I would argue, an irreversible, growing trend around the importance of Facebook in particular and Internet based sources in general as vectors of news and information. 15.7% from the Southern Province and 11.1% from the Eastern Province said that Facebook is one of their main news sources while 29.5% from the Northern Province and 15.8% from Sabaragamuwa said that emails from friends or family is a main news source for them. Pegged to an earlier social poll conducted in the Western Province by Social Indicator late-2015, what this suggests is that there is increasing opportunity to engage directly a demographic between 18 – 34 through social, web and mobile media and, importantly, that investments in engaging this demographic can in fact also influence an older age group, because of the nature of sharing and forwarding content. Given this data, the tragedy is in the fact that the government is doing nothing at all around an opportunity to proactively define the contours of the new constitution amongst those whose votes placed the President and this government in power.

Flowing from last week’s column, reservoirs of goodwill still run wide and deep for this government. The majority of Sri Lankans believe it is good that the two main political parties have come together in a National Unity Government and also think the two parties should remain together. The challenge is leveraging this enduring appeal to address what can only be politely put as a deeply conservative socio-political outlook by Sinhalese, and the South. Take for instance Article 2 of the present constitution which marks the country as a unitary state. 77.7% of Sinhalese want to retain the phrase ‘unitary state’. Only 14.3% of Tamils, 18.1% of Up-Country Tamils and 28.8% of Muslims concur. There are clear, perhaps growing ethnic divides which are very likely to be the contours of constitutional contestation in the near future. On the question of giving Buddhism a special place in the Constitution, 77% of Sinhalese strongly agree. 73.3% of Tamils strongly disagree. Almost 90% of Tamils and Muslims strongly agree that the new constitution should give all religions equal status. Yet, less than 64% of Sinhalese concur.

There are other interesting insights. 49.3% of Sri Lankan said that for them, a unitary state means one united, indivisible country. The realisation of precisely this is independent of labels given to the architecture of power and its precise configuration between or within centre and periphery. But labels matter, to some more than others. The Sinhalese (55.7%) want labels – they want the new constitution to be identified with markers like ‘unitary state’. Just 15.2% of Tamils, 11.9% of Up-Country Tamils and 22.2% of Muslims concur. Minorities in Sri Lanka want meaningful, systemic reform no matter what the label is. The majority community can’t see beyond what specific arrangements are called. This is a playground for spoilers in the South.

The final section of the report is anchored to the Provincial Council system and its future. One figure stands out, given the current tensions in the North and within the NPC. 69.2% of Tamils believe powers of the Provincial Councils should be increased. Just 37.8% of Sinhalese concur. Support is highest in the Northern (77.8%) Province. In comparison, only 29.5% in the Southern Province agree.

Should we be pessimistic about the potential for change or optimistic around what may happen, despite government? Damningly, there is clearly no real political leadership to what is ostensibly a priority for government. Will publication of this data inspire, even at the 11th hour, action, vision and direction? Gramsci wrote what he did from prison. We are in a prison too, called the ’77 constitution.

Time for a historic jail-break.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 October 2016.

Shape South Asia 2016 & ‘Corridors of Power’

I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.

The first video went into the background of the exhibition.

The second was anchored to the 3D renderings of each of the models.

My note on the concept, research and evolution of the project can be read below.

Asanga Welikala’s background research into and overview of the project can be read below.

Channa Daswatte’s take on the project can be read below.

Asia Foundation LankaCorps Fellows Presentation

The Asia Foundation’s LankaCorps Fellowship programme is one I’ve been associated with and supported from its inception. It’s described on the TAF website site,

…a unique opportunity for young leaders of Sri Lankan heritage to professionally engage in social, cultural, and economic development activities in Sri Lanka. The program aims to foster the involvement and understanding of young members of the expatriate Sri Lankan community who have limited in-depth experience with the country of their heritage. Each year, The Asia Foundation selects an outstanding group of LankaCorps Fellows to live and work for six months in Sri Lanka, granting them the unique chance to “explore their roots while giving back.

Every year and for each cohort, I am invited by TAF to give an overview of Sri Lanka’s political, social and media landscape as well as to cover in some detail the work of Groundviews in particular, and civic media in general.

In this year’s presentation done earlier this month, I looked at the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government a year on, with the euphoria and expectations from 2015 markedly changed. I looked at the mega-development projects, a quick scorecard of governance, undergraduate tensions from around the country with racial overtones, the passage of the Right to Information Act, the passage of the Office for Missing Persons Act, more generally the issue of transitional justice and the work of the Consultation Task Force (plus the plethora of other entities involved in reconciliation), the politics and optics of memorialization and the tryst with a new constitution, which most in Sri Lanka are completely in the dark about. I also talked about the dire macro-economic situation Sri Lanka finds itself in.

I then talked about the work I’ve spearheaded with Groundviews, and the media terrain in Sri Lanka post-8th January 2015 in particular.

A deeper state of mind

So he was glad the war was finished. But as for the notion of Eelam itself, “that will never be gone”, he said, looking suddenly intense, old and bitter. “But we can’t speak of it; we have not the power. Those that have the power can say. What can we say? We can’t say. But it will never be gone.”

Mr. Arayappan, quoted by Mark Whitaker in his essay featured in Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War, edited by Amarnath Amarasingam and Daniel Bass

The convenience, or perhaps trappings of power, position and privilege often result in sanguine predictions for Sri Lanka’s post-war future. Last week, Cabinet approved the purchase of new fighter jets, apparently to replace the country’s ageing existing fleet. Following the approval given to the import of luxury SUVs for MPs, this is at a time when news reports suggest 95.4% of all government revenue is going towards debt repayment. And though incredible in the fullest sense of the word, fighter planes, creature comforts and cruise control clearly trump education, health and public utilities for our policymakers. There is clearly a rot at our core the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe democratic cred seeks to gloss over. It is a rot out of sight and out of mind for many, and conveniently so, in light of attention anchored to glistening computer renderings of urban spaces, the adulation of government by the international community and high-level engagements with bi-laterals and multi-laterals.

Arguably, a lot that is positive is taking place. The debate around the setting up of a permanent office to look into missing persons and enforced disappearances. The OMP bill, debated last week in Parliament, covers individuals who are missing (1) as a consequence of the conflict in the North and East, including soldiers who are missing in action; (2) in connection with political unrest or civil disturbances; and (3) from an enforced disappearance as defined by international law. This alone would never have been even remotely contemplated by the former regime. Earlier this year, a twenty member Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms, appointed by the PM held sittings across the country and came out with a substantive report. There is an Office for National Unity and Reconciliation. There is a Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms. There is currently a Consultation Task Force seeking public opinion across the country. These are all unprecedented moves. Though not always clear or coherent, there is open debate around the nature and constitution of investigative mechanisms around transitional justice, with the PM, President and other members of Parliament expressing views candidly, playing to respective constituencies. The Right to Information Act is now reality. Measures to give back land in the North are going on apace, as well as the demilitarisation of administrative structures through the appointment of civilians. We have a President who commands the respect and indeed, patience of the Tamil National Alliance. We have a PM who often now recognises in public what civil society under the Rajapaksa regime were called terrorists for advocating. Individually and collectively, the seemingly chaotic nature of pronouncements and policies aside, all this is generally positive and very welcome.

Revealingly though, there are however things we have not moved away from. The genuflection by every single political leader in front of a deeply conservative, risk-averse sangha primarily interested in maintaining the status quo. The near total lack of any introspection by the sangha of its own, and in particular the hate speech generation of the Bodu Bala Sena and its saffron-robed leaders. The revered status of ‘war heroes’, to the extent that any critical questioning on command responsibility around allegations of war crimes, or indeed, any wrongdoing, is still met with the greatest hostility. The conflation of separatism with the devolution of power from centre to periphery, and the enduring violent resistance of any kind of asymmetrical configuration for the North and East. The symbolic role of Buddhism in particular, and religion in general, in matters of the State. Proponents of reform calls for sequencing and patience – that just the ten years of democracy’s evisceration under the Rajapaksa regime will take time and effort to address, leave aside the legacy of decades of majoritarian policymaking post-independence. There is merit to this argument, and those of us not in government have the luxury of criticising inaction, without adequately appreciating the monumental difficulties of negotiating compromise amidst competing political interests.

And yet, this is where Mr. Arayappan’s sentiments, quoted by Mark Whitaker, comes into play. It speaks of a state of mind, real, not imagined. And mirroring the deep or dark state in the South – almost entirely invisible to average citizens yet omni-present and violently opposed to any radical restructuring of the state or the questioning of its agents – this state of mind if unaddressed will undermine every single thing the government says or does in the months and years to come. The violent deep state in the South is the result of incubation by successive governments for achieve partisan, parochial ends. The post-war imagination of Tamils is the result of alienation, wistfulness and desolation – the burden of grief in a landscape no longer reflecting the loss and trauma they carry within, the strain of a public persona that needs to engage with positive developments and a silent, inner voice that still yearns for recognition, respect and dignity. It is a condition of yearning too, for what the ‘boys’ stood for, even by those who lost the most to them. If the State is unable to capture the vacuum left behind by the defeat of the LTTE in mental spaces, and sees its victory and peace in primarily material or geo-spatial terms, we risk believing in the same fiction that disastrously drove the Rajapaksas in their pursuit of development-led reconciliation. Capturing hearts and minds is difficult, especially when successive governments and even Tamil political leaders have promised so much and yet delivered and done so little. And yet, it is essential.

A dark state embedded deep in the South, no longer politically expedient, can be controlled and curtailed by executive directives, judicial oversight, security sector reform and the sunlight of public scrutiny. Addressing a state of mind that remains only cosmetically attached to post-war governance poses a much harder challenge. You can’t force anyone to believe something, and the more you try, the less inclined they will be. OMP, TJ, SCRM, CTF, ONUR, RTI remain empty acronyms to those who continue to feel outside the fabric of democracy. A political leadership insensitive to this – how people who have been most affected by war feel – risks believing a self-spun fiction entirely removed from ground realities.

Rude awakenings will invariably follow.

Right to Information: All hype with no bite?

Right to Information (RTI) legislation was unanimously passed in Sri Lanka’s Parliament last week without a vote. It sounds easy and inevitable when framed thus, but that one sentence masks decades of activism and advocacy to pass RTI to no avail, and strong pushback from government predominantly based around national security issues. It was unlikely that during war, Sri Lanka would have passed this legislation. Yet even today, seven years after the war ended, the default mode of operation for government is to hoard, retain, hide and obscure information. The law will invariably engineer great resistance at all levels of government and state administration. RTI is progressive because it places the onus on public institutions to respond to queries by the public, opening them up to a degree of legal scrutiny hitherto unprecedented. The law is disruptive precisely because of this. Decades of a culture of secrecy, of hoarding information, of not releasing information in the public interest is now turned on its head. Public institutions will have to proactively disclose information to the public, and also disclose when requested by the public. To do this, information officers will be appointed – and they will face the gargantuan task of dealing with requests from the public for information there may not even be official records around. Our bureaucracy is based on who knows whom, and what one knows about another. It is based on clientalism and nepotism, with systemic record keeping more to thwart and stifle genuine accountability, over any interest in efficiency and effectiveness. RTI turns this on its head too. Comprehensive records management now trumps favour, personal relations and convenient amnesia. And it is not just the hoarding of files in gunny bags in a dark basement. RTI emphasis that records must be kept in an easily and effectively retrievable manner that is systematic, without being hostage to the often mercurial and entirely subjective “filing systems” of individuals who happen to inhabit a particular office over a period of time.

Beyond all this is how RTI can strengthen and support civic media as well as investigative reporting. In a regular column to the newspapers, I wrote that RTI comes to Sri Lanka at a time when we are on the cusp of almost ubiquitous connectivity – from continued upgrades of existing telecommunications infrastructure to the advent of new technologies like Google Loon which promise high speed wireless connectivity from all corners of the country. I argued that the implementation of RTI in Sri Lanka needs to be digital and mobile first, enabling citizens to interact with and ask questions from government, using the provisions in the law, through their mobile phones, tablets and desktop browsers instead of resorting to paper, pen and post. It is here that I foresee the greatest challenges around RTI’s implementation, which I frame as a crisis of the imagination.

Used to being in the opposition, and stuck in survival mode, civil society now needs to use RTI to frame requests from government in support of their work. This means understanding the law, and using it, instead of fighting against unjust laws, which has largely defined the work of rights-based civil society advocacy and activism in Sri Lanka. The emergence of ‘solutions based journalism’ is a school of practice and thought that holds great promise for the practice of journalism under RTI, which is anchored to generating ideas to solve key issues, rather than just flag what’s going terribly wrong. The generation of new ideas and innovation, it stands to reason, can only gain from information around what decisions have been taken in the past and why, which is where RTI comes into play. Questions that interrogate structures, decisions, mechanisms, institutional history, purchases, the hiring and firing of individuals, the non-disclosure of interests and the under-utilisation of assets, the awarding of tenders to the selection of service providers, measuring key performance indicators around promises made and asking information that impacts the families of the disappeared – this is in the future all possible in Sri Lanka because of provisions in our RTI legislation.

At least, it is in theory. Information in the public domain does not automatically engender the political will to address official wrongdoing or maladministration. Oftentimes, information secured by RTI will require more requests to be made possibly from other public institutions, cross-verification, some translation and finally, contextualisation. Ordinary citizens may demand information, but government is not bound to provide the information in a manner that is easily comprehended. This is why it is so important to strengthen civil society and independent media to use RTI to transformation information to knowledge, and raw data into context. This is where journalists, including citizen journalists, step in. While RTI’s importance extend far beyond media and journalism, journalists and acts of journalism by citizens can showcase the power and potential of RTI to prise open official mechanisms. Accountability is not a given today, and will never be. Just like the decades of activism and advocacy, against the most determined adversity that was required before RTI was passed in Sri Lanka, the litmus test of legislation will be in its fullest implementation. Else, all this hype and hoopla would have been for nothing.

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First published in SAMSN Digital Hub

Home

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

Maya Angelou

‘Sampur’, a new and compelling short documentary by filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam released last week, is now freely available online and over social media. The film deals with displacement. Seven years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, that so many in Sri Lanka can’t go back to their homes may come as a surprise to some readers. The documentary centres around internally displaced individuals from Sampur – a town located about thirty kilometres South-East of Trincomalee. The hellish conditions those displaced had to endure for over nine years was, in part, highlighted by the enervating heat we’ve endured for so many weeks across Sri Lanka. If from the relative comfort and security of our own homes we often complain about the withering weather, it is hard – even when their lives and living conditions are projected in high definition – to truly imagine the lives of entire families confined to small shelters, tin roofs over their heads, with no electricity or running water. The film showcased the struggle of seven individuals to return home. There are many more in similar conditions, also waiting to go back home.

The end of the war was a ripe moment for those displaced to return to their homes. This did not happen. Instead they spent years in IDP camps before returning to find their land still occupied, and were forced to live in temporary, makeshift housing. The opening up of the North and East to journalists provided new frames and opportunities to capture stories that for decades were marginal, or even violently erased. And yet, their stories are still not meaningfully documented or reported. The filmmaker highlighted another ironical development, post-war. During war, he noted, an intrepid filmmaker was able to capture footage from the North and East under the radar of the military and other officials. Since 2015, he noted that while filmmakers can move around freely, the military continued to block or ban the filming of tracts of land, festivals, or specific locations, despite official requests from government authorities to allow filming. So while Sri Lanka’s post-war “success story” continues to generate kudos from the international community, thousands continue to be traumatised by the presence of the military. This is not hyperbole. A character in ‘Sampur’ speaks of how humiliating it is to have to ask permission from the military weeks in advance to just visit a temple, only to be turned down with no reason given. Another says how scared she was of being shot by the military when returning to her own home. It’s just one line amongst many others that are equally poignant, and points to an enduring fear years after the end of war in Sri Lanka that can’t be laughed off or somehow wished away.

A rough analogy would be to have armed, resident and State-sponsored burglars in your home, who on a logic entirely distinct from and independent of you or your family, opened and closed the front door, oversaw what you did and said, used your home as they saw fit. Further, they also saw you you and your family as annoyingly occupying property that belonged to the State, even though it really is your own land to which you have a legal entitlement to.

This is Sampur in a nutshell. The absurdity of it all is in fact what so many endure, with no recourse to the law, no savings to start anew elsewhere, and in fact, no desire to leave their homes. The indignity is what is most disturbing. Long after you’ve forgotten what was said by someone, you remember how you felt. Successive governments have promised equality and freedom for Tamils. Few have made them feel at home. The excuse for what is essentially systemic racism on multiple levels can no longer be that political change takes time. It’s really quite basic – allowing someone to go back to their homes in lands privately owned and occupied by generations, cultivate their land, sleep without fear of being shot at. Being spoken to in a language they can communicate in. Being treated with dignity, or at the very least, with nothing more than the same rudeness and maddening inefficiency that all of us face when dealing with government. There are various theories about winning hearts and minds as integral to a just and lasting peace. Intellectual exercises around power sharing, electoral reform and transitional justice have no traction with displaced people eking out a living. Symbolic gestures matter perhaps far more? The restoration of a title deed. Even a simple hut in one’s own land, constructed by oneself, contrary to the government’s recent attempts at resettlement with recipients having no say over the type of house with little or no room for modification according to individual needs. Symbolic gestures can over time, and in the aggregate, invariably strengthen more complex institutional, constitutional and political reform agendas. No matter what genius guides a top-level political reform process, if communities and individuals like those depicted in ‘Sampur’ continue to live the way they have since 2006, we risk more violent conflict – and there is no sugar-coating this.

This would be such a tragedy, for all of us.

This is why ‘Sampur’ as a film, Sampur as a location, and Sampur as a frame of reference cuts across party political, communal, ethnic, economic and other identity markers. The film will be broadcast on TV and will hopefully resonate amongst those in other parts of the country who have also been displaced, or forcefully evicted. Those in Colombo need not look as far East as Trincomalee – the relatively invisible yet sustained evisceration of entire neighbourhoods and inter-ethnic, inter-religious communities who have lived together for decades, under the ‘beautification’ drive of the previous government and the megapolis plans of the present government, strongly mirrors the violence of those featured in the film. And while we may debate the scale and scope of the violence, the point of ‘Sampur’ is that we never lose sight of an essential, shared humanity.

This Sunday it’s very likely that you have this newspaper in your hands, or are reading this article on your palm or desktop, at home. Whatever form home takes and wherever it is, you are the custodian of a small piece of Earth’s crust to open out to others, to grow trees or bonsai, to build or break down, sell or rent out, walk in and out whenever you please and with whoever you please. To sing in the shower, or hog the loo. To run away from, or return gratefully to. To show off to others, or just admire privately. To party or rest. Pause to think about everything home means to you and your family. Where you are now. Where you grew up. Is it really too much to ask the same freedom, the same contentment, security and dignity for everyone in our country – especially for those who have lost so much?

The new old media

Growing up close to the Ratmalana airport during the 80’s, the noise from the pressurisation of large turbo-prop planes pierced the air at night and into the early hours of the morning. It was a sound we got used to. The other sound was of sirens, from ambulances. Endless streams of wailing sirens followed a few minutes after we heard a plane land. The ambulances didn’t stop. But after a while, the sirens did. Every morning, after one of these convoys of ambulances ruptured the night, the media – my father used to buy a government owned newspaper at the time – heralded some great victory for the Sri Lankan armed forces. Casualties, and ultimate defeat were on the side of the LTTE. Advances, and imminent victory, were on the side of the Sri Lankan military. And so the fiction went on – headlines in the media suggesting a narrative violently countered by the bodies of the dead and grievously injured airlifted from the North of the country to Ratmalana almost every night.

My distrust of media – electronic, print, mainstream, even new and social – is anchored to these nights, and the content published the day after. Over three decades later, the foundations of what gave life to blatant lies in the media remain firm and indeed, even more entrenched. New and social media on the web, and through our mobiles, do two things – they democratise narratives, allowing the discriminated, marginal or weak to take centre-stage. Two, for little to no expense or effort, the consumer can potentially go to a plethora of sources in order to find out more, determine the veracity of, counter or confirm a story. Has this helped media literacy? The jury’s out on this score, and what’s evident already is that access to greater choice, or the opportunities to interrogate more what one consumes, hasn’t translated into better journalism.

Readers of this newspaper may not fall into a demographic that takes for granted ‘news’ in the form of an infinitely scrolling section featuring video, text, photos and audio, conflating the private and personal with the public and official, on a single social media network. And yet many of my readers, at least in print, may have subscribed to one or two SMS news services. Others may get articles via email, sent by family, friends or colleagues. A few may still buy more than one newspaper – one State, one Private – in order to get a ‘balanced’ view. Rarer still are the readers who will go to a public library in order to read newsprint. Much has changed in three decades in the generation and consumption of news. Much remains unchanged.

Open for example a leading daily newspaper owned by one of the largest media groups in Sri Lanka. On most days, on the front page and continued within, there is a column dedicated to gossip. There is no effort to disguise this – the very title of the section makes it clear the content featured in it is as far removed from journalism as bulto toffee (remember those?) from an After Eight mint chocolate. This bears repeating – in our daily news media staple, idle-talk, unconfirmed stories, sexist bunk, unverified incidents from unnamed sources, the personal lives of individuals punctured with insinuations, innuendo and inanity – find their way on to a front page. Often, this content is published with scabrous graphics. We pay to read gossip. It gets worse. The media itself reports, without a hint of irony, various government schemes to help journalists purchase laptops, broadband connections, cars or motorcycles. To my knowledge, not a single journalist who has been the recipient of or benefitted from these easy payment and gift schemes has self-disclosed what they received. Some would argue that the majority of individuals who have benefited from these schemes are in fact worthy of supporting – journalism they will point out, isn’t a profession that is well paid or regarded in this country. And yet, the non-disclosure is deeply problematic. There is a clear conflict of interest, and an understandable barrier against independent reporting, if a journalist indebted to government is asked to critically examine governance. During Aluthgama’s communal riots – the worst Sri Lanka had seen in many years – official mainstream media output from both Private and State media chose to ignore the violence. This is excused by some who point out the awful political context at the time. Yet, how can we understand the hesitation to take on a leading multi-national soft-drink corporation after it polluted Colombo’s drinking water supply? Why is it that heads of mainstream media, summoned to the Prime Minister’s or President’s office, fail to disclose what was discussed?

In early January 2015, a leading media rights group – the Free Media Movement – approached a candidate standing for the Presidential election to uphold a five-point agenda on media pluralism. Maithripala Siresena was that candidate. As President, the change promised is more symbolic than systemic. Outmoded, outdated institutional structures and cultures remain intact across the media.

And so it continues. Instead of media that engages, helps imagine, sees laterally, visualises complexity, discloses, with reasons, its location on the political spectrum, innovates and really inspires, we pay for unadulterated gossip, atrocious design, poor writing, bad journalism and advertorials. Journalism as a start-up, married to civic media models – encouraging young, raw talent to write or produce what they want through digital tools, finding space for them to be featured in the mainstream – offers a way forward from the suffocating banality of the mainstream. In Sinhala, Tamil and English, creative productions and writing is blossoming. Careful curation and aggregation can help expand audiences. Digital tools are democratising the production of compelling stories. Old media is investing heavily in new technologies. Young voices are going back to long-form journalism, which is seeing a global revival. Data driven journalism is not just for economists anymore.

It is harder to hide ambulances at night carrying the dead and injured today, than it was in the 80’s. Much remains to be done.  It’s our media now. Let’s write its future together.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 17 January 2016.