SRI LANKA: Journalists seek trade union, reform for provincial news media

News media conference participants say journalists need better representation to protect editorial freedoms, fight for better wages

By Arthur Rhodes
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Monday, September 12, 2005

Tolangamuwa, Sabaragamuwa Province --- Journalists converged in central Sri Lanka this weekend to discuss freedoms and social responsibilities in provincial news media and explored the possibility of creating the country's first all-inclusive journalists' trade union.

In a conference hosted by the Center for Policy Alternatives and the Free Media Movement (FMM) in partnership with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Sri Lankan journalists began to address some of the problems facing the nation's news media. The most significant accomplishment of the weekend, however, was the creation of a space for Sri Lankan journalists to air their grievances and express their hopes for the future of their profession.

A large number of the 100 conference participants were members of Sri Lanka's provincial press corps, a group that has been traditionally marginalized within the world of professional news reporting for years.

"Provincial journalism is something that we don't ever discuss in this country," says FMM president Sunanda Deshapriyat. "There are no standards, no rights, no protections for these people. It is an issue that we have neglected for too long."

Though speeches and workshops were focused on topics like media and democracy, journalistic ethics, gender and news reporting, open-group discussions returned again and again to the need for the establishment a nation-wide journalists-only trade union.

By the end of the conference, participants created a two-year action plan that promises to move toward the creation of an all-inclusive journalist's trade union. Journalists say, however, that it could take much longer to form a body to represent them.

Although Sri Lankan law permits freedom of association for all employees within the country, no trade organization currently represents all of the nation's journalists. The government publication houses have their own unions, and the Media Employees Trade Union is open to all those involved in media, including editors, a fact which the journalists argue often causes a conflict of interest within the union and hampers their ability to openly air grievances for fear of reprisal.

"Private media establishments do not like the idea of trade unionism, and many journalists worry that if they join a union they will be sacked [fired]," says Deshapriya. It will take some time to bargain with the owners and gain support and strength for the movement, but we are confident that it will happen one day."

Many of the journalists present claimed to have been threatened with termination for attempting to form unions within their organizations. Manjula Wediwardena, sports editor for the Sinhalese paper Rawaya, tells AsiaMedia that in 1995 he and 43 of his fellow employees were fired from the Lanka Deepa, the nation's largest private media agency, for attempting to unionize.

Uvindu Kurukulasuriya of the Free Media Movement says that while journalists in Sri Lanka fight for the rights of other Sri Lankans to join trade unions, they also need that right: "We need someone to fight for our rights. We have no protection. If someone is sacked for trying to join one of the organizations that fights for the rights of journalists, like Free Media Movement, they will not be able to find another job because they will be [black balled] in the editor's guild."

Many at the conference agreed that provincial journalists remain the most ignored and marginalized members of Sri Lanka's fourth estate. Journalists from the provinces are still paid on a piecemeal system that was last amended over 25 years ago. The going rate for a news article coming from outside Colombo is Rs 25 (US$.25) per two centimeters of column space. For this reason many provincial journalists cannot work full time. Low wages also lowers the retention of quality reporters, who are forced to look for income elsewhere.

Provincial journalist Rohana Siriwardena says he was glad to have the opportunity to voice his concerns. (Photo by Shaun T. Kadlec)

The Colombo-centric focus of the Sri Lanka is a topic that has been debated among media critics for some time. Nonetheless, little attention has been paid to the importance of the reporting done by the journalists from the nine provinces outside of the city.

Rohana Siriwardena, who reports from Kaluthara in the Western Province, was pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the conference about the obstacles that he and his colleagues face outside of the capitol. Through a translator he says that promotion of the media is essential to Sri Lanka's development. "The village reporter tells the story of the real people of this country. We take the message from bottom to top and top to bottom. Still we have no organization that can fight for our rights."

"Ever since I was a boy," says Siriwardena, "I have wanted to help my people, to strengthen them. And the only way to do this is through media."

The journalists will reconvene in December in a location to be announced, organizers say.