Engaging with NGO watchdogs of the media

“Isolated individual endeavour, for all its purity of ideals, is of no use, and the desire to sacrifice an entire lifetime to the noblest of ideals serves no purpose if one works alone, solitarily, in some corner of America, fighting against adverse governments and social conditions which prevent progress.”

Che Guevara

It was, I suppose, inevitable that ideas on how to respond to a Damoclean sword of intolerance facing journalists in particular in Sri Lanka is in turn the source for invective directed against the author and his affiliation to NGOs. Such criticism is warmly accepted and welcomed, since it is far better than outright murder of opinion contrary to one’s own beliefs. The media reform project of Sri Lanka, writ large, is one that is fraught with the transformation of ideologues that cannot grapple with an exchange of ideas and instead, quite predictably, fall into the rhetoric that circumscribes comfort zones of their own partisan bias.

But this is a zero sum debate – us against them, those who are biased versus those who are ‘objective’, those who are Sinhala versus those who are Tamil and a multitude of other black and white socio-political constructs that dog our country and corrode all efforts at sustainable peace.

We are obviously concerned about all human rights abuses. The historical incapacity of the Sri Lankan state to safeguard the rights of the Tamil community, the problems of the LTTE appropriating the fight for Tamil rights by the brutal and continued elimination plural voices within its own community, the recent hate speech promoted by the JVP, the venomous froth purveyed by the likes of the JHU – these and much more gravely threaten our lives, our collective future and the democratic contours of the State.

The media plays a particular important role in safeguarding human rights. Most recently, the media has played a commendable role in facilitating public dialogue on issues related to the peace process. Whether these discussions have been facilitated by accurate, fair and responsible journalism, however, is another matter. We see a deplorable lack of standards in electronic and print media in all three languages, in both the mainstream and regional media. It is to this end that CPA (along with parallel efforts by a number of other institutions) many years ago, began a concerted effort, with all media – including Tamil and Sinhala media – to build capacity to report a peace process effectively. This did not mean a sycophancy to peace at the risk of everything else, a policy of appeasement to abuses which could be shoved under the rug to protect larger interests, ignoring human rights abuses and violations of the ceasefire to ‘preserve’ the process or ignoring actions and statements incompatible with the preservation and strengthening of democracy and justice. Rather, our attempts at conflict sensitive journalism were to build capacity within media to critically engage with processes of peacebuilding. Ironically, at the time, we were asked to “put our conflict sensitive journalism where the monkey puts his nuts” by a leading newspaper in the South.

Such then is the antagonism that media reform engenders. This oftentimes manifests itself as an anti-Sinhala bias by the proponents of an American funded evil Western conspiracy that has every single one of the NGOlogists (this is one of the more endearing terms that those who work in NGOs have been called in recent times) well and truly bagged in its kitty.

Rather than scoff at this, we have to take such comments as seriously as those who deliver it intend them to be taken. At the same time of course, we remember that those who often hurl these accusations remain ignorant of the issues they passionately argue on. The author agrees that we need to problematise media reform in Sri Lanka in order to ascertain exactly what media culture we are trying to engender and in turn, the political bias upon which such media cultures are created. In fact, the author has spent considerable time in private correspondence arguing against unsustainable, partisan and ill-thought out media reform projects, which if actioned, would have only served to deepen the divides between language media and exacerbate problem within media communities. On the other hand, the author’s work, both through CPA and through private submissions, has actively encouraged the creation of dialogues, exchanges, capacity building of journalists from the Sinhala South to those from the North and East, from journalists supportive of the LTTE to those who were opposed to its hegemonic control, from independent young voices to the influential voice of the older generation, from tech savvy English speaking journalists to those who could barely live on their monthly salaries in the out-station areas. This work has been underpinned by a belief that hate speech, for instance, has no place anywhere in Sri Lanka – in the North-East, in the Vanni or in Colombo. The author also recognizes that amidst the myriad of projects which are possibly detrimental to the goals of sustainable and endogenous media reform (which unfortunately add fuel to those who believe that all such efforts are partisan and promoted by parochial interests of ‘NGOlogists’), serious efforts at sustainable and organic media reform have existed in Sri Lanka for a number of years, but are strangely ignored by those who oppose such efforts carte blanche.

The danger here is that the bitter invective of interlocutors of NGOs robs attention from the far more valuable interventions that have existed for years to combat the very things that are pointed out in the Asian Tribune rejoinder – crude hate campaigns, threats to personal security, the murder and violence directed against journalists etc. It is also interesting how those who wish to engage with interventions cannot do so except in the very language they accuse others of purveying and contributing to bias.

To go beyond this involves engagement, not pointing fingers. While even primates can engage in the latter, debate on ideas, on reforms, on constructive and sustainable engagements within and between NGOs and their target audiences, and dialogues between groups in the peace process writ large, requires the capacity to transcend partisan bias, acknowledge the errors of one’s own ways, assess self-critically one’s actions and interventions, retrospectively look at the inequalities that have given rise to the Sri Lanka we know now and finally, the sincerity to commit ourselves to a vision that takes us from narrow, bitter and personal diatribes to a fight for larger ideals of democracy and pluralism.

This then is the process we must engage upon today as a collectivity, lest, as Che warns, we all end up in our armchairs aimlessly criticizing those who try to make a difference.

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