There are ominous signs on the media horizon. Moves made by President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government on the media within the last six months bodes no good.
There are moves made to reintroduce the Press Council that was opposed tooth and nail by the national press when it was first introduced in the ’70s by the United Front government of Sirima Bandaranaike. Next came the proposal of curtailing the time of TV broadcasts on the pretext of saving power followed by the closure of two private channels (cable and satellite) and now, taxes are to be imposed
on foreign films and advertisements screened on local TV channels. The last move though officially not stated is said to be done in the name of’ boosting the indigenous film industry, but the industry clearly states that the heavy taxes announced will be financially disastrous.That is leaving aside the number of media persons killed in the recent past.
With the government beset with so many problems, with which it seems unable to cope, these attempted media changes maybe revealing the true intentions of the government. The last move, to impose such heavy taxes out of the blue, appears to be an attempt to financially strangle the independent TV channels and put them out of business and hundreds of people out of work.
The taxes are being moved under the Protection of Revenue (Special Provisions) Act, which becomes effective from today. The affected TV companies have told Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa that the levy imposed without prior consultation and warning has imposed severe difficulties on them. Some of the difficulties are: the certification processes are not practical to adhere to within the stipulated
time frame; the levy would have a significant impact on the viability of the TV industry and that it would be inevitable that some of the TV channels will close down resulting in unemployment in the TV industry and other related businesses.
TV channels have entered into long-term contracts with the international media and need to be serviced regardless of any domestic levy. Failure to abide by contracts would have legal implications and loss of faith in international markets.
These are basic considerations that any panjandrum in the Media Ministry should have considered, unless of course those behind the moves are devoid of such elementary knowledge or is it that some political hack wants to cripple the independent TV channels because the state television has fallen back on the ratings particularly when it comes to news coverage?
What President Mahinda Rajapakse should well know is the media, whether it is state or privately owned, is not his personal property and that the rights of the people are involved. The right to knowledge and information is a basic right of every citizen and neither he nor his minions can take away that right. He is discriminating in this instance, against the English media, Tamil films being exempted from this tax.
English is officially the link language in this country and there are many who are acquiring the ability to speak and write in English through the mass media including English TV channels. These channels are popular and sought after by the non-English speaking viewers because they provide them with the rare opportunity of listening to English continuously. It helps them to break the kaduwa barrier — the fear
of the Sinhala educated youth to speak out in English.
However, there are among those who have recently acquired fair competence in English, attempts to prevent their own people from acquiring competence in English. A good example of this is that some of the leading lights who oppose popularisation of the English language send their children to foreign universities where English is the medium of instruction! President Rajapakse is a striking example in this respect with his own
son sent to a British university whilst back home he is imposing heavy taxes on English programmes on television, which will eventually lead to curtailment of such programmes and in the process deny the lesser mortals in his own Beliatta from getting access to English language programmes.
The view is also being presented that these taxes which would prevent foreign English films being screened would provide greater opportunity for Sinhala films such as tele- dramas. Sri Lankans over the 60 year vintage will recall how the only entertainment they had till the ’70s, international English films, was destroyed by the over enthusiastic promoters of the Sinhala cinema.
In the days prior to the ’70s, the best of English films were screened in Colombo’s cinemas and even in the provinces. The highest price for a ticket was only Rs. 5 but in the ’70s the United Front government decided to change it all. The State Film Corporation took over the best of cinemas in an attempt to promote the indigenous cinema. And what happened is history. Today, most cinemas in Colombo screen ‘adults
only’ films which in reality are soft or hard porn. Even the film cutouts of these films outside the cinemas have resulted in some of the purist cinema buffs objecting to these cutouts and insisting that they be censored.
President Rajapakse should also realise that it will be the poor man who will be deprived by this move. If independent TV channels broadcasting English films close down, it is the poor who watch free-to-air television that will be affected. The affluent will still have access to satellite and cable TV. The poor cannot go to late night film shows even if such late night films are screened today and with the
emergency on, public transport grinds to a halt quite early. Now it is proposed that that TV telecasts be stopped early to curtail power consumption. What kind of entertainment can the poor have? Probably the growth rate in population will increase. That can be considered another contribution of the Mahinda Chinthana.
The most dangerous aspect of this Act is that the imported films will have to be presented to a ‘group of resource persons’ to categorise the films to determine the taxes that are to be imposed. These ‘resource persons’ will be appointed by the Media Ministry Secretary. This could in practice turn out to be some kind of censorship of films because quite often such ‘resource persons’ often happen to be
political ‘yes men’ of the government in power. They may not be able to ban a film or tele-drama but could use considerable influence on TV channels. They could delay the release of such films because the timing of the screening of controversial films too becomes important.
The government may plead that this is merely a revenue collecting device. But it is also a definite infringement of the people’s right to knowledge and information. What is even more dangerous is the symptom of more and more government regulations being imposed on the people whereas the world over the call is for less government. We have the government imposing religious piety through excise laws such as the closure
of bars for seven consecutive days and other measures taken to regulate social clubs.
Recently there were strict regulations imposed on smoking at public places. Some of these laws are for the good of the public but questions remain why greater dangers such as exhaust emissions and the moonshine (kasippu) menace or for that matter, the bookie business, do not get as much attention. Now we see moves being made to regulate the media.
This itch to control and regulate the lives of people is an outstanding SLFP malady. In earlier times they nationalised and banned everything they did not like. Now they are trying to undo what was done and it is costing the tax payer unbearable amounts. If the government needs revenue there are other ways of raising it such as restructuring of the CEB which is costing Rs. 8500 million a year and not by depriving
the poor people of the few sources of enjoyment they have. It is time to ask the Rajapakse government to stop interfering with the lives of the people. If the government wants to help the likes of Sangeetha Weeraratne who helped in the election campaign, then by all means pump more money into the local film industry but not at the expense of the public at large.