There are three worlds in Sri Lanka defined by Sinhala, Tamil and English media. Consume only Sinhala or Tamil media and the construct of Sri Lanka is framed by lens so deeply ethnicised that ‘Other’ communities often cease to exist. This trend towards the essentially ethnic is particularly evident in heightened conflict – now and in the past – when traditional print and electronic media are caught in the vice grip of propaganda, censorship, violence and fear. The resulting quality of media coupled with very poor media literacy creates a polity and society that perceives propaganda as fact, fact as fiction and dissent as terrorism.
This is much more than a matter of mere academic concern or interest – it is about how we see our country, our place in it and our agency in shaping its future. Consume mainstream Sinhala media today and you will not find any real concern over or interest in the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni and acts of aggression by the State and armed forces against civilians. Egregious conditions of internment in IDP camps go unreported. The bizarre definition of ‘safe zones’, areas for refuge and evacuation that are actively targeted by parties to the war does is not critiqued. Mainstream Tamil media on the other hand shows an enduring concern over the humanitarian crisis and the egregious loss of life in the Vanni, yet glosses over the LTTE’s reprehensible actions to use civilians as human shields, preventing their movement to safer terrain and on occasion, using suicide bombers in the midst of civilian IDPs to horrendously kill and maim. Media monitoring over the course of 2009 I have been involved in reveals some interesting and disturbing key trends, unsurprising given the context. Sinhala and English media continuously refer and give primacy to State authorities such as the Ministry of Defence, the Media Centre for National Security, the Presidential Secretariat, the Foreign Ministry and the Government’s Peace Secretariat in their reportage. Tamil media also quote these same sources, but attribute other websites, international wire reports, opinions of Tamil politicians both here and in South India in particular as well as publish statements from INGOs, NGOs and the UN. These same statements no longer make it to Sinhala and English media in full or as excerpts. They are only published in the context of what is often a vicious and blanket rebuttal by the State against allegations and observations therein.
Framing and fuelling this media behaviour is a government that has (in a manner sadly reminiscent of the LTTE’s violent clampdown on free expression in areas once under its control) through unofficial censorship, outright murder and a resulting fear psychosis very successfully controlled and contained dissent, critical thinking and public debate on its deplorable record of democratic governance outside theatres of war. This means that even when news based on or quotes from a government authority is found to be misleading or incorrect, a retraction and correction is rarely made by or in traditional media. Ironically instead, those who discover and go on to point out such inaccuracies and underlying bias are targeted for vicious smear campaigns, including being branded as terrorists. But it’s not just the regime that censors. For example, few newspapers today are willing to openly stand up against the continued incarceration of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who is branded as being partial to terrorists on the most bizarre grounds imaginable.
Addressing this harmful symbiosis between illiberal governance and the exclusive, conservative nature of traditional media will be challenging and absolutely critical in the months and years ahead. Few traditional journalists today are aware of and champion key developments that generate more eyeballs on grossly under-reported places, aspects, events and processes. While there is a vested interest in being the dominant purveyor of news and information as each sees fit, neither traditional media nor repressive regimes will be able to stem the free flow of information in the future, coming from and going directly to citizens. I have written a great deal on the potential of media to support conflict transformation. A lot of this potential however, quite apart from the antics of the Rajapakse regime, is wasted by traditional media’s own obduracy to adapt and transform. Even though we may contest how we got here, and whether or how long it will last, a historic opportunity today presents itself to citizens keen to shape democracy by taking both government and traditional media to task. Both have failed us, repeatedly. Both take exception to criticism. Both engage in frequent name-calling, but neither is compelled to imagine new ways of representation.
But can we always pass the buck to government and traditional media? If neither fully represents us – our identity, community, location, class, caste, language, culture or whatever, we increasingly have a number of avenues to make our voice heard. For us to not explore such means, and for government and media to not support their development and widest adoption is to risk reverting, once more, to the old extremism and violence that drowns out new ideas.
The seeds of another war.
Published in The Sunday Leader, 12 April 2009