6th May 2001
Appeal to Unesco et al
Thank you for this opportunity to say a few words on the economics of press freedom.
I should at the outset explain that I am speaking for myself as a publisher and not as a representative for the Newspaper Society as we were short on time to put some collective thoughts together.
Before I proceed any further, may I please make reference to what Hon. Minister Batty Weerakoon had to say about journalists and publishers during his opening address at the commencement of this seminar. If I understood him correctly he felt that publishers inhibited journalists' freedom by virtue of their links to big business and their own political agendas. If this is indeed the case then I would like to ask, mischievously but with respect, what makes us so different from some powerful politicians who lean on big business houses for their support and if politicians had no political agenda is there a reason for their existence?
Speaking personally, my sinister hand has been seen by politicians behind many reportings, and yet at other times they complain that "Ranjit cannot control his fellows." Politicians want as usual to have their cake and eat it as well. Nor have they been unknown to use their power to strike at the very heart of newspaper publishing. Mrs. Bandaranaike removed all government advertising from Lake House within days of coming to power in 1970. Its newsprint quota was ruthlessly slashed. President Jayewardene wanted bank facilities to Upali Newspapers to be stopped, as did President Premadasa for Wijeya Newspapers. Whether such measures were warranted or not was a matter of opinion dependent on which side of the political spectrum one was at the time.
To be a publisher it is always bad news.
To get back to the economics of publishing...
I will not take long. My proposition is quite simple. If Editors are to have their say, publishers have to find a way to cheaper sources of newsprint. In this county the situation is an acute one, and I do not doubt that it has caused similar difficulties but not, perhaps to the same extent, in the region.
Let us leave newsprint aside for the moment. Other costs have risen locally, which contribute to making the newsprint issue a critical one.
If we take the period from August 2000, finance costs have risen by 30%.
Fuel costs which impinge on a day to day, effective, islandwide, distribution have increased by 41%
With the recent power cuts, fuel has to be purchased on a day to day basis to feed hungry generators, whereas earlier we could wait till the end of the month to settle our electricity bills, so it is a more serious cash flow item now.
The cost of electricity is up by 25%.
Staff salaries have risen by 7.5%. Even the "taken for granted" telephone bill has shot up by 18% and is now a factor to be reckoned with in COP.
To get back to newsprint. Here we have at least 70% of our costs. The cost of newsprint in May 2000 was US $510, it now sells at 615 US$ p.m.t. Together with this very large increase has come the floating of the Rupee against the Dollar - from Rs. 79 in August floating up to Rs. 93, today. The effective increase in newsprint at the Port now is 20%. We then pay our GST (admittedly recoverable) and our increased NSL plus customs duty and a 40% surcharge thereof on that increased rate. The total effective increase of newsprint since August last year is 24.4%.
Newsprint suppliers speak earnestly of a fair return for their shareholders. But I suspect, subject to correction that the big mills in the West have mopped up the mills in Asia during the Asian recession and are in a much stronger position now to dictate prices.
It is a sad litany of ever increasing outflow. How do we try to balance this? There is a limit to pushing up cover prices. The Madras Hindu is cheaper in Colombo than our Sunday Times. A regular subscriber to the Lankadeepa spends Rs. 397 per month on his newspaper, a tidy sum in terms of his monthly budget.
Inevitably circulation flakes off. If there is more sharing of newspapers this is better than a total switch off of the reading habit.
Advertising rates have necessarily been raised, but our economy is not exactly flourishing. Print advertising has moved up 12% since last year. Core advertising remains, but again flakes off at the periphery.
The subject of inflow is not complete without a word on the increasing difficulty of collection of dues, from the humblest newspaper agency to some prosperous advertising agencies. Stopping credit is not good for sales.
We have, I venture to suggest, reached again the classic situation where smaller newspapers and smaller circulations help publishers to keep a float. This is a high risk operation. Those lost sales can vanish forever. Clawing them back will need even more investment.
So news and views are less accessible now to more people. With surplus dwindling daily, our dependence on financial institutions are far more. Gone is the time, when in the '50s there was serious shareholder dissension at Lake House, when the directors wanted to raise a first loan from the Bank of Ceylon. As for big advertising accounts, what alternative do we have to declaring them a protected species?
Editors will say that this long moan is nothing new, and publishers are adept at painting the picture of gloom and doom at any given time.
I concede that this is not untrue. I ask myself where are the surpluses of the better years and I find them sunk in iron and steel, the interminable wires of networks, in software and hardware which die on you as you wait, and in new technology and yet we cannot do without people, because in Sri Lanka new technology does not necessarily mean less people. The industry here is both capital and human resource intensive.
Finally, we have international opinion and organizations ever vigilant
on individual freedom and the erosion of democracy around the world. I
would like to ask of organizations and countries seriously interested in
fostering democracy in the developing world to pause to think of how they
can encourage in any way possible, a greater competitiveness in the sources
of newsprint. A small country like ours is an inconsequential speck in
the markets of the big mills. They can pass us by like the idle wind which
they need not heed. That leaves us only regional cooperation to find and
bring about alternative supply sources, or perhaps even to improve existing
ones. Some Indian newsprint mills come to mind. If UNESCO can prod some
international thinking in this direction, that would be a significant start,
and that I think is all we can hope for the moment.
Well done, Ghana
Today the struggle of journalists to maintain the freedom of the press is commendable, Justice Minister Batty Weerakoon said this week.
Addressing a seminar to mark World Press Freedom Day organised by the Editors' Guild at the BMICH, Minister Weerakoon stressed that the distinction between the freedom of the press and the freedom of the individual journalist should be clearly defined since the satisfaction and the rights of the individual journalist should also be guaranteed through his right of publication.
Questioning the ownership of the independent media whom he termed as "businessmen with vested political interest", Minister Weerakoon said the functioning of the state newspapers were well known but the case was not so where private media institutions were concerned. "Owners of private media organisations are mostly businessmen who want to have an influence on the politics of the country," he added.
Stressing that this ownership pervaded into all spheres, he said "I would like to add that it dominates the content of the paper."
However, the minister mentioned instances where the independent newspapers had fearlessly acted during the recent past and specially commended The Island and its editor Gamini Weerakoon for the manner it reported the proceeding of the Richard de Soysa case by drawing public attention to certain individuals connected with the killing through banner headlines.
Minister Weerakoon also commended the investigation into the killing of journalist Nimalarajan. "I am aware that the AG is closely monitoring the case regarding the slaying of journalist Nimalarajan in Jaffna," he said.
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said, "the opposition has unanimously decided to make press freedom not a crisis issue but a victory for democracy."
When speaking of press freedom, one must speak of democracy, he said, adding democracy was not limited to the election. "That is why I propose a Human Rights Charter and a court that can enforce it in the Asia Pacific region," Mr. Wickremesinghe said.
Stressing the plight of independent newspaper publishers competing for the limited advertising available, Mr. Wickremesinghe said, obtaining advertisements was difficult as the most revenue generating industries did not advertise in the local papers. The garment industry, the tea industry, paddy marketing, and the tourist industry advertisements did not appear locally. Foreign employment too only a section of the advertisements appeared locally.
"Therefore the advertisements are insufficient to make newspapers successful. And therefore government advertisements are the ones that matter," Mr. Wickremesinghe said.
According to the Secrecy Act you could take action against ministers who let out information. "Even if papers did not let out information, rumours would be rampant," he said.
He said today the JVP had proposed the State Media Commission. He suggested that this should be discussed with the Editors Guild and other relevant bodies.
The Opposition leader also brought up the need for a training institute for the media
The UNESCO local representative Prof. Carlo Fonseka raised the question whether Press Freedom was important because it promoted democracy or democracy was important because it promoted press freedom.
"On this World Press Freedom Day let us rededicate ourselves to the concept of free speech. But it does not give you the right to shout fire in a theatre where there is no fire and thereby create panic," he said.
Editors Guild Secretary Upali Tennakoon stressed that why World Press Freedom Day was so important was that in 26 countries 52 journalists had been killed during 2000.
He said twelve newspapers had criminal defamation cases pending against them. The Editors' Guild proposed to repeal the 100-year-old criminal defamation laws introduced by the British to prevent people insulting the monarchy and the empire builders.
Mr. Tennakoon said even in Pakistan ruled by a military government the Freedom of Information Act was in force.
A session dedicated to discussion on emerging local and global trends and challenges to press freedom was held with AFP Bureau Chief Amal Jayasinghe, science writer Nalaka Gunawardena, Uthayan publisher Saravanabhavan and Lankadeepa Deputy Editor Ariyananda Dombagahawatta. Dinamina Editor Sarath Cooray chaired the session.
Nalaka Gunawardena said all media followed the gatekeeper concept while the Internet alone had given people the right to be published or transmitted.
Following Mr. Gunawardena's presentation Ravaya journalist Chapa Bandara raised the point as to why a government minister and the Opposition Leader were invited for the seminar. He further questioned why the JVP was not invited when the State Media Commission was being mentioned.
Amal Jayasinghe commenting on the Internet and the new entrants to the media world said,. "what will happen to the journalists with ink on their hands? What challenges will these newcomers pose ?"
The Daily News was on the web, two years before the Washington Post, Mr. Jayasinghe said adding, "I believe our engineers are behind the media people."
Mr. Dombagahawatta said when journalists are killed in Sri Lanka the killers remained unknown. He said as there was no clear definition of a journalist, anyone could pose as one.
Mr. Dombagahawatta said journalists needed a proper training. At present they depended on the training they received while working. As a result the role of career journalists had been belittled.
Mr. Saravanabhavan referring to the killing of journalist Nimalarajan said such courageous people had no place in Sri Lanka.
Ravaya journalist Chapa Bandara questioned whether the seminar was addressing the current problems faced by mediamen. "It is good to talk about technology. It is very beautiful. But Nimalarajan has been killed," he said.
"Are we just discussing media freedom today because the West is doing so," he questioned.
Questioning the contradiction in the approaches of editors belonging to the Editors Guild, Mr. Bandara asked how one newspaper referred to Nimalarajan as a Tiger terrorist, while another spoke of him as a journalist. Dinamina Editor chairing the session at that stage said there was no need for them to have a consensus among editors.
The need for free lance journalists and regional correspondents to have identity cards was stressed in the seminar. As they could not establish their identity as journalists, they had faced many problems in their professional lives.
Meanwhile, Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan spoke of the brutal treatment meted out to journalists accused of criminal defamation.
Mass Communications lecturer from the Jayewardenepura University Dr. Dhammika Ganganath Dissanayake condemned the local media for its publication of photographs of violence and rape.
"The President issued a directive saying that gruesome photographs of bomb blast victims should not be published in the media, and now that has stopped. Is the media awaiting a similar directive before it stops publishing photographs of child victims of rape," Dr. Dissanayake questioned.
What is present today is a "culture of secrecy rather than a culture of transparency," Rohan Edrisinha, Law Lecturer at the University of Colombo said. He also referred to the response he had received when he tried to gain access to the draft Consumer Protection bill.
Thinakkural editor A. Sivanesaselvan focused on the negative quality present in Sri Lanka today. He said he opposed English journalists being given a higher status than their Sinhala and Tamil counterparts. Finance Ministry representative Mr. Guruge justified the calculations behind the various taxes newspapers were subjected to.
"Your problem is that at the Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement you lost
a large slice of revenue. So now you are trying to recover it," veteran
journalist Victor Gunewardena said.
While analysing the tax incidence of the newspaper industry he divided it into three main sections.
The first section, he said, included taxes which would add to costs. In this category the Customs duty on newsprint was the major item. The cost of newsprint went up recently not only because of Customs duty but also due to rising world prices and exchange rate fluctuations. Customs duty was levied only at 10% of the CIF value of imported newsprint. By this way the government had collected around Rs.150 million in the last year. However, there was a possibility of getting a concessionary rate of 7.5% on the newsprint it imported from India under the Free Trade Agreement.
He said another alternative was to make a claim for the lower rate of 5% for which he might not be agreeable at this juncture due to revenue considerations.
Mr. Guruge put taxes which would add to the cash flow problems into the second category. He said other main taxes, such as GST and NSL, would not add to the cost of the Industry. These taxes could be claimed as input credit from the tax payable on the output. Therefore, he said, it would contribute to the cash flow problems of the organisations.
He said personal taxes formed the third category. He cited an example of employees who might be liable to income tax and Save the Nation Contribution on their remuneration. Both these would be deducted by the employer under the PAYE scheme. If the employer (business) had not done that then it would be liable to pay such taxes as well.
He said the company would be liable to pay income tax on its profits. If there was no profit, no income tax was payable.
In order to achieve revenue targets in this year certain measures had already been taken. They include a surcharge of 40% on import duty till 31.12.2001, surcharge of 20% on corporate income tax payable for the year of assessment 2001/2002 and an increase in the National Security Levy rate from 6.5% to 7.5%.
He appealed to all sectors to contribute to the revenue to overcome
the difficulties faced by the country.
The largest privately-owned newspaper group, Wijeya Newspapers Limited, said it hoped the UN's education and cultural agency UNESCO would intervene to help in the interests of press freedom."
"I would like to ask of organisations and countries seriously interested in fostering democracy in the developing world to pause to think of how they can encourage in any way possible, a greater competitiveness in the sources of newsprint," Wijeya Newspapeers chairman Ranjith Wijewardene said.
He said his Sunday Times newspaper cost more than The Hindu newspaper published in neighbouring India and sold on the streets of Colombo.
Publishers have to pay a 10 per cent tax on newsprint plus a 40 per cent surcharge on customs duty as well as a 7.5 per cent national security levy and a 12.5 per cent goods and services tax.
Newsprint accounted for about 70 per cent of newspaper production costs.
Representatives of state-run media organisations said they backed a collective effort to lobby for a lower tax for newsprint as readers were slowly shifting away from traditional newspapers.
Sri Lankan publishers can import newsprint from neighbouring India at
less cost under a bilateral trade agreement, but the quality of the paper
was a problem, Mr. Wijewardene said.
Full of good intention, the group hoped to needle seniors and ministers in the party into quick and effective action. There was no idea or plan then to oust Dudley Senanayake as the leader of the party or as Prime Minister.
Within a year these good intentions changed to a desire for more positive action against a leadership which was perceived as laid back, lethargic and prone to vacillation. The battle lines were drawn.
Urban oriented MP's were for JR and those with a rural base supported Dudley. The JR group wanted radical measures, which included a deregulated economy, a true value for the Rupee and a tough government to go with it. Dudley went for a compromise two tier devaluation and he was soft on Democracy. When the break came, Dudley opted to go it alone, carrying the campaign on his shoulders, while JR remained aloof. The schism was damaging to a Coalition Government fighting an election on a five year term, and on the first past the post system.
Without the managerial skills and the greater resilience of the Urbanites, Dudley's Government fell to a humiliating defeat. JR wanted to prove a point, but he misjudged the electorate and basically achieved what his arch rival RG had admitted to earlier, "we wanted to pull out a tooth and almost killed the patient." The patient however lingered long enough to be revived at the great Rapprochement of 1972, and even then it took a further five years for the UNP to sweep to victory in the polls.
So what do we have now? A curious mixture. A UNP Leader without the Charisma of a Dudley, but with some of the manipulative and managerial skills of a JR and with some vision for the future. His reliance during the present crisis has been on younger rural members of Parliament, with more Urbanites ranged against him. The Reformists, (Rebels, Dissidents, what have you), have taken issue with a leader who is laid back, and seen by them to be lethargic and vacillative. Both Leaders then and now listened to the voice of the rural voter. The former because he felt that was where his strength lay, the latter because he felt that economic pressures had not been sufficiently felt at the rural periphery and therefore an election may not give a salutary result.
We have today the same patchwork of statements that followed the Dudley-JR break up. The UNP statements and pronouncements from both sides are even more naively worded than before.
If the UNP is not to suffer another schism, Ranil Wickremesinghe will need to do some soul searching.
We as a people love to dissemble. We also have an inbred litigious treak in our nature.
One can only speculate on the course of our recent history if there was a genuine reconciliation between Dudley and JR prior to the 1970 election, or if the UNP had closed ranks soon after the near impeachment of President Premadasa.
It is true that all the tension and acrimony of conflict are laid aside, when a common interest looms sufficiently large on the horizon. But at what and whose cost?
Now that the dust of battle has settled, there is a fresh wind blowing through the serried UNP ranks. But it is a light breeze, which may flutter and die at any moment. The UNP leader has to use it while it blows. He should not try to neutralise the Reformists, but to neutralise their grievances. Words, especially now, could be destructive of relationships which have to be rebuilt, and therefore communication must be measured and guarded. If he can use this time to lead a pro-active UNP forward, he could perhaps win the grudging admiration of those who have moved against him.
Ranil may well ponder that where there is a permanent interest and if it is close at hand, then he need not unduly worry about impermanent friends or seemingly permanent enemies. Such problems would resolve themselves in the fullness of time.
By Victor IvanThere is an ongoing political discourse in the country about the need to broaden democratic freedom as well as about the political reforms required for this purpose. However this discussion appears to be more in the line on how to reform the state in a manner that will broaden democratic freedom. The party system which functions as a main tool of the state does not appear to act in such a way as to strengthen internal democracy in those parties.
When a crisis arose in the UNP and 22 MPs had signed a document requesting the leader of the party to summon the parliamentary group of the party to discuss the crisis, and when parliamentarian Ravi Samaraweera took that document to Mahinda Ratnathilake to get more signatures, Mr. Ratnatilake did not hand it back to Mr. Samaraweera but took it to Ranil Wickremesinghe , it was reported.
Mr. Ratnathilake may have taken the document to his leader on the presumption that the sudden demand on the part of this group for a meeting of the UNP parliamentary group, was a conspiracy to oust their leader from leadership. If Mr. Wickremesinghe was a leader who respected democratic traditions, what he should have done was to summon a meeting of the UNPs parliamentary group, explain his viewpoints. But instead he resorted to getting the signatures of the MPs declaring their loyalty to him, contradicting democratic traditions.
Due to the enormous power of the party leader, it is unlikely that any member would refuse to sign such a document.
Absence of internal democracy is not a feature inherent in the UNP alone, but is common to the SLFP too which may be considered the main political party. Neither of those parties has given its members the right to choose the leaders of the party or to decide party policies.
Normally in a party with a democratic organisational structure, the lowest unit is considered to be the party branch. The regional or electorate centres of power and district or electorate centres of power consist of the leaders of a number of party branches while the executive committee and the all island committee consist of leaders of district centres of power. The working committee or the central committee which may be considered to be the main working body which includes the chief leader of a party is selected by that working committee or the all island committee. It is in order not allow any change in party leadership that the party leader is given the right to appoint a number equivalent to half the total membership of that working committee or the all island committee which may be considered the main executive.
Not only anti-democratic features existing in a party but also anti-democratic features of the political party system have a bearing on the non-democratic and authoritarian feature that prevails in the political atmosphere. It is through political parties that the leaders required by a country emerge. If these emerging leaders are given a training to function as dictatorial leaders, instead of a training necessary for functioning as democratic leaders,one can only expect a dictatorial administration from such a group of leaders.
No party, in which the members are denied the right to decide on the leaders and party policies can be considered a democratic. The prairie fire of democracy which is raging in the UNP should spread to other political parties too.There should emerge in every party a demand for democracy within, before extending it to the country.
The writer is the Editor of Ravaya
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