Given the present context, it is understandable why attention has recently focused on the media and its part in the ethno-political conflict of Sri Lanka. Most articles in the press examining the complex interactions between the media and the conflict have been reactionary, cautioning the public against tenets of ‘peace journalism’, or have too easily come to the conclusion that media in Sri Lanka is unproblematic and objective in its reporting. However, debate on the underpinnings of media freedom in Sri Lanka, coupled with an examination of its biases, ethno-centricity and market driven agendas has been sparse. Ergo, the role of the media as an essential and pivotal institution of democratic governance, and an examination on how it can best help support and critically analyse the emergence of a post-conflict situation is of pivotal importance to the evolving context in Sri Lanka. This article will primarily examine one aspect of media in Sri Lanka – the problematics of conflict sensitive journalism.
The Media and Conflict
The media is a double-edged sword. It can be a frightful weapon of violence when it propagates messages of intolerance or disinformation that manipulate public sentiment. For instance, Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda is one of the most appalling contemporary examples. Using a blend of popular entertainment and proselytizing by announcers, the government-supported broadcasts demonized one group of people and built resentment and fear among the other group. One can also see this in the journalism in Sri Lanka, where there is an abundance of popular prejudices about terrorism and ethnic stereotypes.
But there is another aspect to the media. It can be an instrument of conflict resolution, when the information it presents is reliable, respects human rights, and represents diverse views. It’s the kind of media that upholds accountability and exposes malfeasance, one that enables a society to make well-informed choices, which is the precursor of democratic governance. It is a media that reduces conflict and fosters human security.
Conflict Sensitive Journalism
Where undemocratic politicians inspire, provoke and underwrite national fears and prejudices, and where journalists do not benefit from a tradition of independence, but satisfy demands of leaders for support for the ‘national interest’, media soon becomes a vehicle for propaganda. This is often the case in Sri Lanka, where the constant quest of media is an elusive search for ‘objectivity’. In this quest, propaganda becomes truth, and the search itself becomes rooted in vested interests that often veil and distort reality.
Conflict sensitive journalism is acutely aware of these problems. While it is true that journalism must be fair and accurate in reporting the facts, it must also be remembered that in a society riddled with conflict, journalism must engage with the search for alternatives to armed conflict and be guided by a firm and committed desire for peace and democratic governance. This is a point often confused by journalists writing in Sri Lanka. Under the guise of objective reporting, many writers fail to explore and address alternatives to a given situation, believing falsely that doing so would be contrary to the ethics of good journalism. In fact, in not examining alternatives, writers who merely present the facts may actually exacerbate conflict. Protracted ethno-political conflict deepens and widens societal fault-lines, and if a conscious and concerted effort is not made to bridge differences between ethnic groups and communities, to explore non-violent alternatives to grievances, to critically analyse and explore the raison d’etre of violent clashes, to refute stereotypes and break communitarian hagiography, these fault-lines will inevitably give rise to violent armed movements and clashes.
Demystifying conflict sensitive journalism
Within the context of the present ceasefire in Sri Lanka, it is certainly the role of journalists to act as watchdogs to violations of the CFA and other developments in the North-East, and report it to the public once their factual accuracy has been suitably determined. Conflict sensitive journalism should not be misconstrued as an attempt to mystify the truth, or to hide it. Conflict sensitive journalism at the end of the day, is nothing more than the practice of good journalism – journalism that critically examines and also looks beyond the problems of any given context. In Sri Lanka, conflict sensitive journalism would examine the shortcomings of the CFA, explore how society and polity could address these lacunae, critically analyse the dissipation or build-up of tensions in the North-East between ethnic groups, the Army and the LTTE and other armed factions, and explore options to bring an end to armed hostilities. A conflict sensitive journalist would ensure that every story of a ceasefire violation would examine not only the violation itself, but also its underlying causes, and explore how violations of a similar nature can be avoided in future. Conflict sensitive journalism extrapolates from incidents in the present, lessons for the future. It engages with actors and stakeholders, examines their concerns, and formulates strategies to buttress developments on the ground for an end to armed conflict.
Peace Journalism seems to attract derision from many quarters, but is also somewhat of a misnomer. It seems to suggest that there is a separate category of journalism that one can adhere to if one is to be sensitive to conflict. This is untrue.
Peace journalism, and indeed, conflict sensitive journalism, is nothing more than the practice of a journalism that adheres rigidly to a set of ethics and principles that are predicated on professionalism and a commitment to the truth. Truth however has many facets, and any one of them alone is a lie. This is an adage that journalists must always remember. Good journalists must not suspend judgement on everything in their quest for objectivity. Certain facts must be stated, and obvious conclusions must be drawn. However, journalists must strive to present facts mindful of a larger context, where single incidents are part of a larger whole, where individuals and groups are part of a complex matrix that is in constant flux.
Engaging with the conflict
Journalists must recognise that virtually every technical and editorial decision made by them in presenting conflict has potential consequences for the conflict itself. All these forms of reporting generally adhere to the first principle of mediation, which is to give all stakeholders an opportunity to present their views. In the process of giving each side a hearing, several important steps toward conflict resolution can occur: the parties may be educated about each other’s point of view; stereotypes are challenged; and initial perceptions can be re-evaluated and clarified.
Of equal importance to the emerging context in Sri Lanka is the ability of reporters to ask questions that lead the conflicting parties to identify and discuss the deeper interests and needs that underlie their public positions. Reporters and commentators must put the conflict in historical and social perspective, deepening everyone’s understanding of it. Good reporting and news analysis should look beyond stated positions toward the interests and needs of the parties. This exploration of the interests of stakeholders by the media helps disputants and the public identify the shared problems that are causing the conflict.
The larger goal of peace talks and conflict transformation is to enhance the capacity of a society to manage its own conflicts without resorting to armed violence. Peace talks and conflict transformation processes however, do not take place in a normative void and usually take place in a highly charged and unstable media environment, one in which information is scarce and often suspect. Journalists in Sri Lanka have to realise the pivotal importance of the media in the process of conflict transformation – if media continues to spew out half-truths, propaganda and poor information, it will negatively counter all other attempts at peace building.
Sri Lanka is at present undergoing significant changes in polity and society. To examine the dynamics of this change requires a sensitivity to the historical moment, a commitment to reporting the truth, and an imagination that refuses to be bogged down in the problems of the present. The smorgasbord of issues that come in the wake of the CFA, are part of peace talks in the near future, and indeed, are part of the greater process of conflict transformation requires journalists who don’t just report the facts, who don’t just inform the public, but go beyond the facts and incidents to critically and creatively explore avenues for conflict resolution. Conflict sells – but so should peace, and it is up to journalists to ensure this.