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Media can never give the full truth- Prof P N Balji

Exclusive Interview with P N Balji
Associate Professor, at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

By Nilantha Ilangamuwa

(October 30, Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka Guardian) “I empathize with the journalists in your country. It is a difficult terrain they have to walk. “If I have one recommendation to make, it will be this: Focus on the future by tackling the fundamental issues Sri Lanka are likely to face”, Professor P N Balji of Asia Journalism Fellowship at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore exclaimed in an exclusive interview with the Sri Lanka Guardian.

After spending the last 20 years building two of Singapore’s most successful newspaper start-ups, veteran editor P. N. Balji is turning his attention to professional development as the Director of the new Asia Journalism Fellowship at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

Balji has been much sought after as a consultant, and as a speaker at press and media seminars overseas. His unique experience as editor of one of the most successful newspapers in the world is his calling card.

He has been a consultant to both The Malay Mail in Malaysia and also an Indian weekly magazine. He was also approached to kickstart a new newspaper in India, and was also offered the post of editor-in-chief by a European publisher wanting a foothold in the region.

Prof. Balji has openly shared his thoughts on the present political developments, role of media, and responsibilities of journalists to make excellent media that can be focused on people that are, with the Sri Lanka Guardian. Here is the full text of the interview;

Q.In many countries some political groups are barred by the government from being able to express their views in newspapers and on the radio and television. In other places, governments impose on news companies to provide avenues for all political groups to express themselves, even fringe or radical groups. Many people, especially in the United States and in Western Europe, oppose both of these systems, feeling that, while any government clampdown on freedom of expression is an act of tyranny, the government would also be acting tyrannically if it dictates how much coverage each point of view is allowed to have by implementing a 'fairness doctrine,' as it is called in the United States. What are your views on the role of government in regulating the media?

The fundamental question here is whether media should be regulated. And if so, who should do be the regulator? Ideally, newspapers should have staff who see the profession as a calling, not just as another job. They should make sure that their publications stand to the objective scrutiny of newsmakers and readers.

Generally speaking, the media has fewer of such people around. The result is an erosion of standards, which then results in somebody else stepping into the vacuum to control the media,

As a guiding principle, I am against government control of media. But, we don't live in an ideal world.

Q.Throughout history, the media has often played a key role in the political side of military conflicts and as such, governments have often sought to control content during times of crisis. From the Alien and Sedition Acts in the United States at the end of the 18th Century to the media blackout in Sri Lanka precipitated by the final campaign of the civil war there, how do you feel emergency government censorship has helped or hurt the nations that employ this tactic over the years? Are there any examples where you feel government intervention in the press has been beneficial?

A lot depends on whether the Government does it for the good of the nation. The problem is that such intervention usually starts with altruistic intentions. But then the good intentions degenerate into something more sinister and an interventionist govt continues to dominate the media as a way to rule for ever. The taste of such control can give them such a high that they don't want to let go after that.

Also, the world is so driven by monetary gains and power politics that inhumanities committed are ignored by foreign govts in search of the gravy train. The Sri Lankan example is illuminating. Look at the foreign govts trying to jump on to the train to cash in on business potentials being laid bare in the aftermath of the annihilation of the LTTE.

Q.Many of those who remain in Sri Lanka are harassed and threatened. What advice do you have for Sri Lankan journalists seeking to continue writing despite their hostile environment?

I empathise with the journalists in your country. It is a difficult terrain they have to walk. If I have one recommendation to make, it will be this: Focus on the future by tackling the fundamental issues Sri Lanka are likely to face. I suggest two paths: One, learn to live and let live. Nelson Mandela was a target of the repressive apartheid regime. Still, after he became the leader of South Africa he got the entire nation to focus on forgiveness. The winners in Sri Lanka should learn to be magnanimous in victory.

Second, the govt must do some soul searching and realise that the cotninued marginalisation of the Tamil minority can only be the breeding ground for more blood letting in future. Malaysia is realising the hopelessness of its policy of forcing the Malay language down the throats of the minority Chinese and Indian communities. That policy and the discrimination in favour of Malays is exposing that country's racial and religious faultlines only to be exploited by opportunists and trouble makers. Economic growth and peace are the victims.

Q. It has often been argued that biased media networks and sensationalist journalism can put a nation at risk in a wartime situation. Some even argue that there are groups of journalists who seek to aid and abet the opposing forces their country is fighting because they oppose their own country's government. In Sri Lanka, it seems that nearly every media company that doesn't simply accept government press releases at face value is accused of being a front for the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels. More famously, many Americans have blamed activist journalism for deceiving the American people during the Tet Offensive by cherry picking facts and stories to give the appearance that America and South Vietnam were facing a disaster, when in fact they were winning the most decisive military victories of the entire war. This resulting in the failed offensive becoming a political victory for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Can you comment on how accurate you feel these views are and how great is the danger to a nation or government of being destabilized by activists in the media?

I recommend objective activism. By that I mean present as many sides as possible. And let the readers decide. Media can never give the truth. It can only give some truths. Make sure you give every shade of opinion on a subject. Don't rush into print with unconfirmed stories. Check and double check. Make corrections the next day if there are inaccuracies.

Q. Can you share with us your experiences as a journalist, what kind of challenges you faced how you work with deadlines. What is your advice for young journalists and students who want to be journalists?

A. If you don't have the passion for the profession, please don't get into it. With the world becoming more complex and major shifts taking place, we need journalists who can slice and dice the issues and say with confidence and some certainty what it all means to your reader.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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