Viewership, listenership and readership in the Sri Lankan media market is highly concentrated among a few media owners, many of whom have political affiliations. Limited access to ownership information and a number of regulatory shortcomings pose a further threat to media pluralism in the country.
HIGH CONCENTRATION CHALLENGES MEDIA PLURALISM
MOM analyzed 46 media outlets with the largest audience shares in Sri Lanka. The research revealed that the country’s media market is highly concentrated. In the print media, the top four owners (the Wijewardene Family, the Government, the Welgama Family, and the Alles Family) have a combined readership share of 75 percent. In this media sector, the gap between the market leader and the remaining outlets is exceptionally high, with the Wijewardene Family alone reaching almost half of all readers. The top four owners in Sri Lanka’s television market (the Rajamahendran Family, Dilith Jayaweera & Varuni Fernando, Rayynor Silva and the Government) together account for 77 percent of the viewership share. An equally high concentration can be observed in the radio sector, where the top four owners (Rayynor Silva, the Rajamahendran Family, Dilith Jayaweera & Varuni Amunugama Fernando as well as Nihal Seneviratne Epa) account for 74 percent of the listenership share.
These tendencies in audience concentration pose a high risk to media pluralism in Sri Lanka. This could also be the result of the fact that the country lacks an overarching legislation specifically designed to mitigate media concentration and monopolies.
The research also revealed a high level of cross-media audience concentration, which implies ownership across television, print, radio and online. Three of the top four owners in TV are also among the top four owners in Radio. The only media owner with a significant foothold in all media sectors is the government. Currently, no regulatory safeguards are in place in Sri Lanka to prevent cross-media ownership concentration.
POLITICAL AFFILIATIONS OF MEDIA OWNERS
As in many other countries investigated by the MOM project worldwide, many owners of media outlets in Sri Lanka are also affiliated with political power, posing a potential risk of bias and manipulated content. To assess these political affiliations, MOM examined whether individuals holding political office or their family members can be found in the shareholder structures of media companies.
More than half of the analyzed media outlets belong to owners with known political affiliation. In addition, in print media, the politically affiliated outlets account for a readership share of almost 80 percent, indicating a high risk of media politicization.
The law in Sri Lanka has not yet identified political affiliations as a potential problem. There are no legal provisions on conflict of interests which could prevent Members of Parliament or their family members from owning shares in media organizations. Media owners are not obliged to disclose their political affiliations to the Department of Registrar of Companies.
ROLE OF THE STATE: MEDIA OWNER AND REGULATOR
The MOM findings also revealed that the state plays a key role in the Sri Lankan media market, not only as a media owner reaching a large share of audience in the country, but also as the main regulator. The state runs four TV channels through two companies. One of them, the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), regulates private broadcasting services on behalf of the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media by issuing licenses to its commercial competitors, which results in a conflict of interest. Similarly, in the radio segment, the Ministry uses the state-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) to issue licenses to commercial radio stations.
The laws enabling this procedure date back to 1982 and 1966, respectively. An independent regulatory authority for media does not exist. The audio-visual media sector does not self-regulate either.
In addition to the SLBC and SLRC, electronic broadcasters are required to obtain an additional license from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), which comes under the purview of the country’s president Maithripala Sirisena. The current chairperson of the TRC also serves as the Secretary to the President.
One of the biggest hurdles in the project’s investigation in Sri Lanka was obtaining the ownership information of the media companies. Media outlets are not obliged to publicly disclose their ownership structure, for example on their websites, or in their printed publications. However, media companies have to be registered at the Department of Registrar of Companies (ROC). The ROC is the only institution in Sri Lanka that oversees the registration of companies, including media companies.
Ownership information is available at the ROC, but obtaining the data is a costly and a time consuming affair. Some of the company files were outdated, misplaced and stored under poor conditions – when files get damaged, the information becomes inaccessible.