Media and humanitarian disasters

Article originally written for ActionAID newsletter

Media and information exchange play a critical role in relief operations in the aftermath of large scale humanitarian disasters. The unprecedented human loss as a result of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 proved a watershed in the history of Sri Lanka natural disaster preparedness and response. While government, private and international institutions and frameworks struggled to cope with the immediate demands for relief, the media functioned in the immediate aftermath of the disaster as a vital tool that facilitated communication with those who were affected by the disaster and first responders. The exceptional scale of media cooperation was highlighted by all media – state, private and alternative – rallying to support those in the coastal areas who were affected by the tsunami.

While the tsunami itself was non-discriminatory, those worst affected by it were the poorest sections of the Tamil and Muslim communities in the North-East, followed closely by the loss of life on the Southern seaboard in the Sinhalese communities. The sheer inaccessibility of villages affected by the tsunami in the North-East resulted in more news footage of tsunami affected areas in the South, leading over time to an imbalance in coverage, where the areas hardest hit were the most under-represented in the media.

The unfortunate regression of media from non-partisan support of all affected communities to aged ethno-politically divisions in the weeks that followed the tsunami is indicative of a larger malaise in Sri Lanka’s media landscape – the lack of a public service media culture. Public service media is predicated on the understanding that all media must function in the public interest instead of party political, mercenary or parochial gain. It is vital that such media is nurtured in Sri Lanka to strengthen relief efforts and the longer standing imperatives of conflict transformation.

A document titled Humanitarian Disasters and Information Crisis released recently by the internationally acclaimed activist group Article XIX, clearly underscores the right to information by those affected by humanitarian disasters. It also flags the importance of the media:

“The media’s role is not limited simply to providing a channel for official information dissemination. The media can also play a key a role in ensuring that complex messages are translated into a meaningful and understandable form for the public. In order for it to be able to perform this role, the media needs to be able to access accurate and timely information from credible sources. In the longer term, the media can also play a key role in raising awareness and facilitating discussions on disasters and other risks, with a view to educating people on preventive and survival actions.” (Humanitarian Disasters and Information Crisis – ARTICLE XIX Publication – London, 2005, Index Number: ASA/2005/0504)

The relief operations that major television stations in Sri Lanka launched to help those affected by the tsunami, sending over 200 truckloads of food, water, clothing and essential medication to Northern, Eastern and the Southern coastal areas in 72 hours (according to the independent press monitoring body the Free Media Movement) signify a strong bedrock for spontaneous support for relief operations amongst media institutions. The challenge of media reform in support of public service media ethics in Sri Lanka is the need to transform this spontaneity into something more long lasting and sustainable.

There were early indications of problems with the media coverage of the tsunami. For instance, in media monitoring carried out the Media Unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) from 1 – 7 January 2005 on coverage of the tsunami by the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), voices of affected communities in the North-East or their political representatives in Parliament hardly figured in the coverage of the disaster. 89.97% of news items highlighted the voices of the incumbent government and its constituent parties (Media Monitoring Report of Post-Tsunami Coverage No. 1, Media Unit, CPA, 2005). The work of civil society organisations and other first responders and support mechanisms that were setup for urgent relief operations also weren’t given due publicity. There was no emphasis on gender dimensions of the disaster or the importance of assessing and highlighting the role of gender sensitive relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction initiatives in the medium to long term.

The continuing need for media that scrutinises medium and long term relief efforts tsunami affected areas dovetails with the need for professional media that acts as a watchdog of vital human rights in the public interest. A relief process free of corruption, accountable to the people, constructed in consultation with those affected and is open to public scrutiny must be engendered and protected by the media in Sri Lanka. Public service media must also strive to disseminate information on the on-going relief mechanisms and support structures – highlighting the invaluable role of civil society in the relief efforts and promoting the voices of the people as stakeholders in relief efforts instead of only portraying them as helpless victims.

In covering conflict, disasters and trauma, media personnel must not only follow professional standards as enshrined in their own organisational or national journalism codes and best practices, but also take extreme care of themselves as well. Traumatised journalists cannot frame stories accurately and often need the same counselling as those directly affected by the disaster. A good knowledge of safety issues, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), field conditions and professional guidelines for photographing disasters and interviewing those on the ground etc form a holistic approach to media initiatives in support of immediate to long term relief operations. This holistic approach is one that requires the support of all media organisations and civil society actors in support of media reform in Sri Lanka.

The multi-faceted challenges wrought by the tsunami will require Sri Lanka to re-assess its developmental goals for the next decade. Taking into consideration the needs of the tsunami affected communities and the longer-standing needs of communities affected by conflict, the socio-political upheaval and the psycho-social wounds resulting from conflict and the tsunami will take years to heal. Sensitive to this process, we call upon all media in Sri Lanka to eschew parochial bias and facilitate communal and social dialogues that hold all policy makers, politicians and civil society accountable to the promises made to construct better livelihoods for all those who have suffered trauma.

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