As Sri Lanka grapples with an economic crisis caused by dwindling foreign currency reserves and escalating debt payments, the print media is beginning to pay the price.
On March 25, Upali Newspapers Ltd said it would be of the Island newspaper and Sinhala newspaper Divaina, due to a shortage of newsprint.
But Upali isn’t the only publisher with concerns. The chief operating officer of Liberty Publishers – which prints the English language Morning daily, Sinhala language Aruna, and Tamil language Thamilan in Sri Lanka – told this reporter that newsprint now costs $1,200 per metric tonne as against $600-700 last year. (This is approximately 385,368 in Sri Lankan rupees today as against 192,684-224,798 last year.)
“We are facing several problems,” he said, on the condition of anonymity. “One is the market price [of newsprint] going up. And then, there’s less availability in the market. The rupee depreciating has also added to our costs, since we don’t manufacture newsprint in Sri Lanka and have to import it. There’s also higher shipping and freight costs to consider.”
While Liberty hasn’t decreased the editions of its three publications, it’s looking at streamlining operations.
“We can’t reduce the number of pages too much since there’s a minimum amount you can print at a time,” said the COO. “Also, we have promised a product to our consumers and it’s important they get timely information, especially during a time like this. But at the rate things are going, we’ll have to reduce somehow.”
Even as costs are rising for publishers, journalists covering the protests against the economic crisis have to prepare for the possibility of violence. At least and under section 120 of the penal code while covering a protest outside president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence in Mirihana on March 31. Section 120 – which makes it an offence to “excite feelings of disaffection” against the president or government – carries a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment.
Protesters in front of the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa theatre on April 4.
A protester holds up a signboard calling for the abolition of the executive presidential system, a promise made by several regimes that remains unfulfilled.
Daily Mirror photographer Waruna Wanniarachchi, who was at Mirihana that day, said police personnel from Sri Lanka’s special task force had emerged from the president’s house after a bus was set on fire.
“Even though I had my media ID, a guard hit me on the head with a baton,” he said.
Wanniarachchi was then taken to Kalubowila hospital with the help of two people working in a nearby shop. The following day, he said officers from the Criminal Investigations Department visited his house and asked him to hand over his camera’s memory card to help them identify protesters. Wanniarachchi had already handed over his equipment to his publication and asked them to make an official request to his employer instead. He has not filed a complaint about the alleged assault.
Tharindu Jayawardhana, the founder of Sinhala language newsite MediaLK, had visited the site of the protest a day later, on April 1. He told Newslaundry he received “verbal threats” from the president’s media division staff stationed outside Rajapaksa’s house, asking him to stop reporting. He was , “We will take care of you later.” Jayawardhana later filed a complaint at the Mirihana police station.
Several reporters said they learned best practices on the go, as there is often a lack of resources for safety training programmes. Instead, senior journalists pass on tips to their juniors.
Many journalists in Sri Lanka are experienced in covering potentially dangerous situations, including protests. But several reporters said they learned best practices on the go, as there is often a lack of resources for safety training programmes. Instead, senior journalists pass on tips to their juniors.
“There is a lack of safety training and even equipment like gas masks and helmets for journalists going into volatile situations,” said Easwaran Rutnam, founder of the news website Colombo Gazette. “Sometimes, photographers might bring their motorcycle helmets if they think the situation will turn volatile. But not everyone has a motorbike or a helmet.”
Namini Wijedasa, deputy editor of investigations at Sunday Times newspaper, said she instructed younger journalists to be “supremely self-aware of their surroundings”.
“It can be terribly exciting to be in the centre of action and sometimes, young journalists can take huge risks since there’s mileage to be gained from being brave,” she said. “But in doing so, journalists and their team might get injured or killed.”
Wijedasa added that photographers often have different practices in order to capture protests. “There are things you can do, like go to higher places and capture what’s unfolding there.”
Social media circumventions
Safety threats aside, journalists in Sri Lanka also have to adapt quickly to modes of communication being cut off, or being unable to report on the ground.
Just after midnight on April 3, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission ordered mobile service providers to – including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram – ahead of large protests planned against the economic crisis. The block, which lasted 15 hours, followed a curfew and state of emergency imposed over the weekend.
Social media is a vital tool to disseminate information and news in Sri Lanka. Citizens use it to share while attending protests and also and protests. Journalists depend on social media to share content and identify story ideas.
“I depend on social media for hits to my website, Colombo Gazette,” said Easwaran Rutnam. “The print publication I work as a social media consultant for, Daily Mirror, was also affected since their live-streaming of events, which they recently introduced, was impacted due to the block. All this affects advertising as well.” News websites like Colombo Gazette largely rely on social media for traffic to their site, and with fewer audience visits during the block, their revenue was impacted, he explained.
But the government blocking social media platforms during volatile situations has happened since at least 2018, when several platforms including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were blocked during riots across Kandy district targeting the minority Muslim community.
News websites like Colombo Gazette largely rely on social media for traffic to their site, and with fewer audience visits during the block, their revenue was impacted, he explained.
As a result, most journalists have become adept at using circumvention tools like VPNs – a move endorsed by former state minister for digital technology Namal Rajapaksa, the son of former president and current prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Namal had as “completely useless” because of the widespread use of VPNs.
Sunday Times’s Wijedasa said she instructed younger journalists to download VPNs on the night of April 2, when it was indicated that a block might be imposed. She also emphasised the need for consistent training programmes on digital security and best practices for journalists.
A protester participating in protests near the presidential secretariat.
A rally held near the presidential secretariat on April 9.
Additionally, since around , Sri Lanka has experienced power cuts due to a lack of fuel to generate power, beginning with two-hour blackouts and extending to as long as 13 hours as fuel reserves ran out. This makes it difficult for journalists to carry out their work, especially with often spotty connectivity on their mobile phones. (In a , mobile service provider Dialog confirmed there might be interruptions in connectivity during long power cuts due to constraints in backup power systems.)
“With the ongoing power shortages due to the crisis and resulting signal issues and not being able to find out what was going on, it was difficult to manage,” Wijedasa admitted.
The shadow of Covid
With so much volatility across the country, Covid has faded from news headlines. On April 4, Sri Lanka for the first time since its second wave of the pandemic in November 2020. However, two strains of the highly transmissible Omicron variant were .
This adds another layer of uncertainty for journalists, given that the public protests make social distancing difficult. In many newsrooms, journalists have to bear the cost of masks and protective equipment. Covid has impacted their salaries, particularly that of freelancers, with steep cuts being reported from some publications even before the economic crisis. With inflation of , journalists are also impacted by the rising cost of living.
Yet Sri Lankan journalists continue to file reports. Like any other country, some of the coverage is partisan or prone to manipulation by business or political interests ( noted that readership is often concentrated among a few key media outlets owned by a handful of powerful individuals). But at least there is less superficial linking of the economic crisis to Chinese debt traps or Covid or the Ukraine war, and no glossing over of bad policy decisions and mismanagement – unlike much of the international coverage seen so far.
All photos provided by the author.
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