Written for 14th World Congress of Environmental Journalists, organised by Sri Lanka Environmental Journalists Forum (SLEJF), 27th – 31st October 2002, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
“To a person with a hammer, the world is a nail” – Mark Twain
The point here is that we must never have pre-ordained solutions from the outside which make the situation fit the solution, and this is especially relevant to those in the media. The media, in the framing and reporting of conflict, must be acutely sensitive to the smorgasbord of issues and inter-linkages that inform and shape the dynamics of that conflict.
At the outset, we must recognise that the media play a central role in the promotion of peace. The media can emphasise the benefits that peace can bring, they can raise the legitimacy of groups or leaders working for peace, and they can help transform images of the enemy. However, the media can also serve as destructive agents in a peace process, and can choose to negatively report on the risks and dangers associated with compromise, raise the legitimacy of those opposed to concessions, and reinforce negative stereotypes of the enemy. These two roles are not mutually exclusive, or inseparable and much of the mainstream media in Sri Lanka shifts continuously between these two positions.
Influence of the media on the peace process
In general, the news media can have four inputs on any peace process. First, they help in defining the political atmosphere in which the peace process takes place. Second, the media has an active influence on the strategy and behaviour of the stakeholders to the conflict. Third, the media has an important influence on the nature of debate about a peace process. Fourth, the media can buttress or weaken public legitimacy of the stakeholders involved in the peace process.
An understanding of how each of these facets interlink to inform and shape the peace process is of pivotal importance for all news media personnel and institutions in Sri Lanka.
A peace process is usually long and complex, and the direction it takes is often open to interpretation. Journalistic norms and routines, which dictate the selection of sources and construction of story lines, can have a significant effect on which interpretation appears to make the most sense. News reports provide citizens with important clues about the political climate surrounding the peace process. Is the process moving forward or back? Does the overall level of violence appear to be rising or declining? Is the LTTE keeping its side of the agreements? Are events in the East undermining the peace process? How much of the public supports the government initiatives for peace? Will there be snap elections? How will the constant bickering between the President and the PM affect the peace process? The answers to such questions – which are often provided by ongoing news coverage – help determine whether the political atmosphere is conducive to making peace.
We must also understand that peace and news make strange bedfellows. News covers events, not processes. This presents the public with an extremely narrow and simplistic view of what is happening and makes it difficult for the stakeholders to the conflict promote long-term policies. The Sri Lankan peace process, like any other, will be marked by protracted negotiations with occasional breakthroughs. Adopting a short-term perspective often leads to a sense of impatience and frustration, and the media’s emphasis on the immediate makes it difficult for the government, the LTTE and other stakeholders maintain support amongst their constituencies for the peace process over a long period of time. The sum of all this is deeply ironic. While negotiations are intrinsically considered major news, the protracted nature of negotiations will entice media to flag and highlight the negative rather than the positive of these negotiations.
The search for drama within a peace process can also be detrimental to the process. Headlines, as one has often seen over the past few weeks, which focus on threats, accusations and sensational confrontations, generate anger on both sides, with the inevitable demand for retaliation. Disagreements turn into crises, enemies become more frightening and opponents more viscous. This dynamic also raises the level of rancour in the internal debate over the peace process. Reportage on the flashpoints and incidents in the East rarely give voice to the moderate forces in each community. By highlighting the most angry and violent forces, the media make it almost impossible for leaders, moderates and civil society carry out a reasoned debate over the issue. Over a period of time, this search for sensationalism over moderation, action over reason, and radical voices instead of temperate ones, leads to an exacerbation of the conflict and even the radicalisation of moderate voices.
In Sri Lanka, it is especially important to remember that the greater the frequency and severity of crises which affect the peace process, the more likely it is that the media will play a negative role. One must not forget the extent to which the media in Sri Lanka is the repository of public prejudice, majoritarian interests and market capitalism. The both of these are usually facets of mainstream media in any region with protracted ethno-political conflict.
Events that will shape and inform the dialogue and debate on the peace process in Sri Lanka will increasingly stem from areas and peoples whose concerns and fears will have hitherto been ignored in the mainstream media. The emergence of a radical Muslim and Tamil press is to be taken as a result of this neglect. The inherent ethnocentrism of this radical media cannot be expected to provide reasoned analysis, insightful and constructive criticism, or help diffuse ethno-political tension.
It is here that consensus amongst political leaders can help the media. Examples of American press coverage at the beginning of the Vietnam War show that when leaders are able to generate a high level of consensus over an issue, the press has little problem following suit (that the media, towards the end of the Vietnam War, spoke out against American intervention was because, by that time, many politicians had also started to question America’s role in Vietnam). On the other hand, when there is a lack of political consensus, as one finds in Sri Lanka, intra and inter-party power politics will inform and shape reportage on the peace process. Within such a context, it is unfeasible to think that the media will try to report the conflict with any degree of accuracy since media personnel and institutions close to centres of political power will rarely transcend partisan agendas.
Capacity Building for Media
There is a very real sense of hopelessness amongst those who are engaged in media reform that the situation in Sri Lanka is too complex and convoluted for any real change to take place. This is unfortunate, since there is considerable scope for input, provided of course, that exercises to address short-comings and lacunae of the media are sustained and long-term in nature.
Ideally, the news media should serve as a forum in which proponents and opponents are encouraged to express their views in an open and reasoned fashion. While such an ideal is rarely achieved, it is important nevertheless to identify those structures and processes that prevent constructive criticism and healthy debate on the peace process.
By examining the ideologies of key protagonists and spoilers, the media can often flag aspects of the peace process that are important and cannot be ignored. Assigning a reporter for instance, to spend some time with the LTTE or amongst the Muslims and Sinhalese in the East could make them develop new sources close to the ground, identify moderate voices, examine the internal dynamics of emergent socio-political realities, provide perspectives which are not ethnocentric in form or content and examine political arguments that go beyond specific incidents into the deeper roots of the conflict.
Greater research must also be done on whether there is a potential conflict between the Freedom of Expression, Speech and Information and the protection and advancement of the peace process. How critical should one be of the process? Can one be first with the news and also be impartial, accurate and reliable? How can the media maintain the balance between transparency of the peace process and the need for confidentiality? Can the media meet the imperatives of market forces, sensationalism and commercialisation, and at the same time create a forum for serious and responsible public debate?
There are no concrete answers to these questions, and the media in Sri Lanka, as media anywhere else, will always be characterised by a combination of all these factors. In all this, what must not be forgotten is that the media is a very important actor in the peace process. The media is a pivotal catalyst in the success of the peace process, within an enabling political atmosphere. Animating its involvement should be a realisation that citizens depend on the media for information on the peace process. The relationship between the stakeholders to the conflict, the political framework of the peace process, media reporting and the public is a symbiotic one – each moulding the other, in a continuum that contains within it the key to conflict transformation as well as the seeds of conflict formation.
The problem facing journalists in Sri Lanka is how to protect their ‘independence’ when the world around them asks them to follow strategies and ethics which bind them to a certain ideology and path. No path or method is value neutral. And yet, the imperatives of journalism – accuracy, fairness, impartiality and reliability – bolstered by the freedom of expression, speech and information and open government provide the backbone of democratic pluralism. However, the multiplicity of voices in the media should not become a cacophony of half-truths, and must avoid the ills of rabid ethnocentrism and tabloid sensationalism.
To do this, there could be several practical steps media organisations can take:
- Promote ethnic and gender balance in the newsroom.
- Regular updating and internal review of editing and style handbooks.
- In-house workshops and training on conflict sensitive journalism.
- Greater co-operation between personnel in Colombo and grass-roots level correspondents. Building the capacity of provincial and grass-roots level correspondents, and increasing the interaction with journalists from Colombo is mutually beneficial. It helps journalists from Colombo better understand local conditions and develop more informed, diverse and reliable sources of information, and gives grass-roots level journalists the experience and know-how with which to effectively report conflict.
- Recognition by media organisations of the need for voluntary self-regulation and maintenance of professional standards, codes of ethics and conduct.
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 multitude of issues that come in the wake of the CFA, the incidents in the East, and are part of peace talks in the near future, are part of the greater process of conflict transformation which requires the media to not just report, but to go beyond the facts to critically and creatively explore avenues for conflict transformation. Conflict sells – but so should peace, and it is up to the media to ensure this.