November 6, 2018

Sri Lanka: Media-capture in real time

Political affiliations, lack of transparency and conflicts of interest are among the major threats to media pluralism.
Just hours after the sudden reinstatement of Sri Lanka’s strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa on the afternoon of 26 October, his supporters took over state-owned media outlets, literally over night. These events illustrated, most visibly and in real time, the main findings of the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM), a research project carried out in Sri Lanka by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Verité Research (VR) over the past four months and presented in Colombo just on the day prior to what is widely considered as a cold coup d’Etat.

The strong role of the state, as a player, referee and rule-maker in the media sector, combined with a number of regulatory shortcomings, is mentioned as a main threat to media pluralism in the country, in addition to high levels of concentration and political affiliations of media owners. All of these risks materialized less than 24 hours after the study was published. The detailed results are now available to the public on the MOM website at in English, and soon in Sinhala  and Tamil.


"Transparency of media ownership is crucial for democracy as it helps us understand to what extent information we receive is monopolized. Political affiliations or state capture of media can only result in producing biased information. The public has a right to know who controls the audience”, said Deepanjalie Abeywardana, Head of Media at Verité Research.


“The public needs to have access to impartial news coverage, especially during times of political turmoil”, added RSF Germany’s board member Martin Kaul, who took part in the MOM launching event in Colombo. “Before the political crisis, our findings already revealed a high level of media concentration and a lack of regulatory safeguards that endanger a pluralistic media landscape 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.


Some examples: Ranjit Sujiva Wijewardene (the owner and the chairperson at Wijeya Newspapers) is the uncle of the – now ousted – Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The father of Varuni Amunugama Fernando (owner of Power House (Pvt) Limited, operator of the leading outlets in television and radio) presently serves as the Minister of Science, Technology, Research, Skills Development & Vocational Training and Kandyan Heritage. The brother of Rayynor Silva (Chairperson of Asia Broadcasting Corporation (Pvt) Limited, the largest radio network in Sri Lanka) is a former Member of Parliament.


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.


Transparency issues


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. 


Violence against journalists


On RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Sri Lanka climbed up 10 ranks and is now placed 131st out of 180 countries. After the presidential elections in January 2015, the new government took over, ending the term of the previous president, during which there was a high level of violence against journalists and media. Between 2004 and 2015, more than 20 journalists and media assistants in Sri Lanka have been killed in direct connection with their work. Rajapaksa had in the past earned a prominent position on RSF’s list of the world’s biggest press freedom predators.


Violence against journalists has abated during the term of the current president, which has helped Sri Lanka to improve its ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. However, journalists in the country still encounter restrictions in their work. The independent Tamil journalist Uthayarasa Shalin for example has been the target of harassment and intimidation for the past two months, ever since he was summoned for questioning about his coverage at the Terrorist Investigation Division headquarters in Colombo in August.


Media Ownership Monitor: a global research project


Initiated by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Media Ownership Monitor project is a global research and advocacy project to promote transparency and media pluralism at an international level. In Sri Lanka, it was conducted together with Verité Research, an independent think tank that provides strategic analysis for Sri Lanka and Asia. Its main research divisions are economics, media, law and politics. The project is financed by the German government.

Country studies were so far published in Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Cambodia, Ghana, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Peru, and the Philippines. In addition to Sri Lanka, this year, MOM researches media markets in Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan and Tanzania. For more information visit the MOM website:



Media Contacts:


Verité Research

Stephanie Nicolle / Deepanjalie Abeywardana / Chalani Ranwala

Media and Communications Manager:  +94 11 205 5544

[email protected]


Reporters Without Borders Germany

Ulrike Gruska / Christoph Dreyer / Anne Renzenbrink / Juliane Matthey

Media relations officers

Tel.: +49 30 60 98 95 33-55

[email protected]