Transport, Highways and Mass Media Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardhana shares a light moment with UNDP Sri Lanka Resident Representative Azusa Kubota while Ministry Secretary Anusha Palpita looks on.

Transport, Highways and Mass Media Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardhana said yesterday that his endeavour as a Media Minister is to create a win-win situation concerning responsible journalism and countering misinformation, disinformation and hate speech through a process of consultation, compromise and co-regulation.

“We need to safeguard freedom of expression while upholding the age-old journalistic dictum ‘news is sacred; comment is free’. Minister Dr. Gunawardhana made the keynote address at the workshop

on Media Capacity Building and the Meeting of Media Administrators organized by the United Nations Development Progrmme (UNDP) in partnership with the Ministry of Mass Media.

The Minister said:I understand the current series of workshops is part of the broader project known as “Countering Hate Speech Through Education and Advocacy for Improving Social Cohesion in Sri Lanka”, assisted by the UN Peace Building Fund and presented through the UNDP. It aims at enhancing the capacities of both journalists and media administrators of the country on responsible journalism and identifying and countering misinformation, disinformation and hate speech.

“I am of the view that this project is being implemented and the two-day workshop that begins today takes place at an opportune moment in the history of our country as we are slowly but steadily recovering from the unprecedented economic crisis since our independence that has caused political upheaval as well. Although we can see the distant light at the end of the tunnel turbulent times are far from over. Steering the country and the economy on the right path while ensuring democratic governance, stability and welfare of the people is an arduous task which requires positive contribution from all stakeholders especially the mass media. That is where responsible journalism matters most. Accurate and balanced reporting backed by constructive criticism is an essential ingredient for the success of this endeavour.

“We have suffered enough from the damage and harm resulting from misinformation,disinformation and hate speech, carried out wittingly or unwittingly, in the recent past. This dangerous practice must be put to an end for the good of all. However, it cannot be and shouldn’t be done by imposing restrictions on the mass media from above. That is not only undemocratic, unethical and immoral but also a remedy worse than disease,”he said.

As the Minister in charge of the subject of mass media my endeavour is to create a win-win situation concerning responsible journalism and countering misinformation, disinformation and hate speech through a process of consultation, compromise and co-regulation. We need to safeguard freedom of expression while upholding the age-old journalistic dictum ‘news is sacred; comment is free’. As I see one remarkable feature of today’s workshop is that it brings together owners of media organizations who make decisions, executives who implement and academics who guide, on one platform. I hope that they will discuss, debate and compromise on the best practices to be adopted.

In conclusion I extend my sincere thanks and appreciation to Azusa Kubota, Resident Representative, UNDP leadership and guidance in the Media Capacity Building project and financial assistance for the same. UNDP since its presence in Sri Lanka in 1967 has provided grant aid, expert advice and modern equipment to the country’s main development sectors

such as economic planning, health, education, the legislature, the judiciary and now communication and information to name a few.

I commend the valuable contribution made by my own staff led by the Mass Media Ministry Secretary in organizing the two-day workshop.

Meanwhile, Resident Representative UNDP Sri Lanka Azusa Kubota said she acknowledges the incredible transformational journey that the Sri Lankan media landscape has undergone over the years.

She said: Currently, there are 34 licensed electronic media companies and 7 print media companies that publish 29 national newspapers altogether with a wide array of provincial media platforms as well as social media platforms.

The growth of private media companies since the 1990s has contributed to a more pluralistic and diverse environment. And this development has opened avenues for more independent and investigative journalism.

Private media companies also brought fresh perspectives, innovative content, and diverse programming, which in turn provided the viewers with a wider range of opinions and views.

This pluralistic media landscape continues to evolve and mature, while responding to the changing needs and interests of the Sri Lankan audience at this critical juncture of history for the country. As the country requires collective efforts to ensure steady and impactful recovery from the crisis, the media industry plays a crucial role in shaping public discourse and promoting united action towards peace and prosperity.

Noting the important role that the media plays, UNDP has always valued our partnership with all of you as indispensable partners through our journey in pursuing sustainable and inclusive development. Our purpose here today is to examine how we can adopt some of the international, regional, and local practices to further enhance the commercial viability and enterprising nature of a fast-growing media industry.

This dialogue today comes at a time when the UN and the global community are gearing towards the historic event, the SDG Summit, planned for September in New York. The world is faced with poly-crisis, characterized by a confluence of crisis, be it climate change, prolonged war in Ukraine and its consequences on energy, food prices and migration, and many others.

The world is becoming ever more polarized and divided, and the trust in institutions is diminishing. And the space for genuine dialogue is shrinking. The Summit will aim to gauge high level political commitment and investments to turn the course of action. How do we make the necessary turn at the time of fiscal crisis that most governments around the world are faced with? I am sure you agree the picture looks very similar for Sri Lanka.

Protecting and promoting the economic, social, and human rights of the people requires the whole of the society commitment. And the media plays an important role in shaping the discourse and facilitating impactful actions at all levels, and shedding the lights on those who act.

I was recently in the Jaffna University and was truly inspired by the students who are trying everything they can to support the communities to get through difficult times. I saw the same with more than 500 youth across the country who participated in the Youth Community Leadership Prgramme supported by the government, WHO, UNV and UNDP. They demonstrated leadership to resolve challenges in the communities within their means while demonstrating incredible leadership. Their stories must be told to inspire.

As a member of the United Nations system, UNDP is deeply committed to a fundamental human right stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To foster a society based on compassion, respect, tolerance, non-discrimination, pluralism, and freedom of opinion and expression, we also draw inspiration from the United Nations Secretary General’s Plan of Action on Hate Speech which calls for the strengthening of partnerships with new and traditional media to counter hate speech narratives and promote our shared values.

At the time of the polarization that the global community is faced with, we need to promote a safe space for open dialogue, underpinned by respect for diversity, so that we can collectively identify challenges, solutions, and actions to combat climate emergency and economic crisis. This is the only way through which we can ensure that no one is left behind.

When hate speech permeates media platforms, it can further fuel mistrust, discrimination, and social divisions, and at times disturbances.

It is not always easy to strike a delicate balance between giving a safe space for dialogue and expression and curbing hate speech. However, while safeguarding the right to freedom of expression, we must also be vigilant in preventing the spread of hate speech and disinformation.

On the other hand, we must be cautious not to use the issue of hate speech and disinformation as a pretext for excessive regulation, which could undermine the free media space and compromise the principles of a democratic society.

We all need to work towards fostering a media environment that promotes ethical and responsible journalism, based on facts and accurate information.

I look forward to your active participation in the discussions. Please share your insights, and I am confident you will make meaningful contributions to the formulation of a roadmap for which you will feel ownership and be an integral part of its implementation.

You all play an important role in fostering understanding, harmony, and prosperity as the global community grapples with formidable challenges.