Why the ‘Fourth Estate’ Has Taken a ‘Huge Hit’

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Every other sector of the industry – and by extension, society – has listed out their sufferings in the aftermath of the unending economic crisis that has engulfed the nation. Other than hope, and the near-voluntary assistance of the Indian neighbour there is nothing to show that it would all end – and if so, when.

The one sector that has suffered equally, if not more, from the economic crisis and the trigger-cum-resultant forex crisis is the media industry, especially, the traditional Print media. It is not that the new-generation media like the TV, followed by web journalism, all have not suffered, but their difficulties are confined to revenue-generation.

That owes to the downtrend in the economy, which began in a way with the Easter Sunday blasts in 2019 and was followed by the global Covid lockdown(s). It was as much in other sectors of the industry the world over, and the larger society in the same way and for the same reasons.

It’s only the Print media that has taken the hit all-round. Yes, loss of ad revenue, the mainstay of the media industry is there as much as in other sectors of media industry. Truth be acknowledged, Print media the world over was slow in acknowledging the emergence of TV especially and its ability to divert limited ad revenue to their tills in a short time.

That could not have been helped as that’s the way technological revolution works ever since the invention of the wheel and more particularly the advent of the Industrial Revolution centuries back. But the current plight of Print media has other elements unique to the sub-sector, in the context of the larger media sector.

Unhealthy practices

Sri Lanka does not manufacture newsprint, the basic input for Print media, other than the intellectual inputs that the journalist community and the long list of expert columnists provide, day in and day out. Unlike anytime in the history of Print media, the cost of imported newsprint has been invariably high, difficult for start-up newspapers to manage.

At times of global crisis of one kind or the other, imports become scarce, and that adds to its own woes, at times black-marketing in newsprint. Unlike in the case of black-marketing in food items and pharma products, the Government seldom intervene to ensure that Print media did not suffer owing to unethical business practices of importers.

The economic crisis meant that the Central Bank did not have enough forex reserves to release for a host of imported goods, starting with basic food, fuel and medicines. Naturally, newsprint imports had to wait. The wait meant that newspapers had to cut down the number of pages. Which is how it has been since.

Ironically, when the import situation has improved in the case of food, fuel and medicines, so to say, it may never ever improve for newsprint – hence the newspaper pages. The overnight change of dollar-rate by the Central Bank, under the predecessor administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has fled and quit, is the other villain of the piece – worse than the other.

Sad day for democracy

Even if there are enough forex reserves for the Central Bank to release for importing newsprint, now or later, unless the dollar-rate became affordable, imports/purchase of newsprint by individual newspapers and groups is going to be a tough task – rather, an impossible task for all time to come. The pity, and for the whole nation, is that when many experts are coming up with multiple ways to face and/or face off the economic crisis, no one has suggested ways to make dollar affordable to the common man.

In this context, the newspaper industry is serving the common man, and has been bracketed with him when it comes to artificial import restrictions, dollar-crunch and dollar-rate, etc. The way out is for the Government to step in, discuss its plight with the newspaper industry and come up with solutions that should certainly include sops, for the short, medium and the long-term.

The temptation for the policy-maker, checking out boxes for IMF conditionalities, to yield to the pleadings and appeals of the newspaper industry may be conspicuous by its absence. It implies that the political leadership has to give the direction to the policy-maker to work/rework priorities in ways that it did not kill the Fourth Estate, one way or the other.

Why save the Press?

Should the Government fail to intervene to save the over-burdened newspaper industry from the crises that has hit it big-time, then that would be a sad day for Democracy in Sri Lanka, which credits itself with being the oldest electoral democracy in modern-day Asia. The reasons are not far to seek.

It may suit the politicos (ethnicity, language, caste holds no bar) and even the bureaucracy to be rid of the Media, especially the Print media, in the short-term. That owes to the credibility and consequent respectability attaching to them. But that is also what they would lose and so would the nation, over the medium and long terms.

It might have been different in a world without social media – or, so could it be argued. But in this era of reckless social media, the politicos, the bureaucracy, and more so ‘The Nation’ would suffer in very and very many big ways if the ever-credible Print media were to disappear from the scene. The Government as an institution knows all the dangers that the social media heaped upon the Nation by the social media, which has no laws, no credibility, and no trustworthiness to call its own.

Suffice is to point out that at the height of the communal riots that threatened to rock social peace and harmony, first in Batticaloa and then Kandy, and hence the whole nation, when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo was in power (2015-19), only a nation-wide curfew coupled with a blanket ban on the social media alone could help. There is no such case of a blanket ban on the Print media in the country or anywhere in the democratic world, now or ever. That owes to their inherent and inherited sense of social responsibility, accountability and credibility – all of them a legacy issue, from one generation of professional journalists to the next.

Sri Lanka has had a unique experience of the Government taking over the financial, management and editorial control of the Lake House Group, as far back as 1973. That was for political and ideological reasons. Today, it may have to be done in the case of most newspaper groups especially, purely for economic reasons. The viable via media alternative would be for the Government to step in, and save the newspaper industry from imminent extinction — here and now!

(The writer is a policy analyst and commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])

By N Sathiya Moorthy