When in August 2009, I was the first to report and publish photos, via the web, on severe flooding that affected thousands in Menik Farm, I also flagged what was, at the time, a Sinhala and English mainstream media blackout of this news. The severe flooding occurred one Friday evening, at a time when Menik Farm was one of the largest concentrations of interned IDPs in the world. Conditions were horrific. The flooding made it even worse. A week after the disaster I wrote,
… All SMS news services, that never fail to deliver cricket scores minutes after events on the pitch, were silent for over 3 days after the devastating floods in Menik Farm. Only Tamil media featured news of the flooding the day after the floods. The plight of IDPs was, shamefully, a non-issue for Sinhala newspapers last Sunday, with no front-page coverage whatsoever. This was despite a number of reports which suggested that toilet pits were overflowing, floors of tents were soggy and wet, IDPs had no change from wet clothes, a lack of dry firewood for cooking, that roofs of some tents blown away are increasing concerns over health and sanitation conditions with the impending monsoon. Erased by a supine traditional media, many in the South do not know the real ground conditions faced by IDPs. Worse, in a damning display of indifference, the South does not care enough to find out and demand this information.
On 31 March 2012, around 5.30pm, Menik Farm was hit by a cyclone. There was no bad weather warning issued by the Meteorological Department. A BBC Sandeshaya news report filed to the web around 11pm noted that around 2,000 inhabitants were affected by the cyclone, with around 200 shelters completely destroyed. A UN OCHA situation update on 3rd April flagged that the cyclone had injured over 20 people, damaged 942 shelters, 76 latrine units and affected 896 families. At a conservative estimate of four per family, that’s around 3,500 at the minimum affected by this disaster. The Disaster Management Centre actually put the number around 4,400.
If only for two simple reasons – the emphasis on reconciliation by government since 2009, which must surely embrace the suffering of those in the North and East as equal to and newsworthy as those in the South, and the rapid adoption of social media by major media institutions – you would imagine the cyclone’s aftermath was prominently featured and discussed in Sri Lanka’s mainstream news agenda soon after it was reported by the BBC.
Conversations with mainstream media journalists last week over Twitter revealed not just a callous dismissal of the disaster by journalists responsible for social media feeds, but that they were, ironically, unaware of even their own newspaper’s reporting of the scale of the disaster. No SMS about the disaster was sent out by news services that, for example, never miss an opportunity to spam customers with cricket scores. If mainstream media bias against Tamil suffering and the lack of empathy, interest and marginalisation of disasters when the victims are largely non-Sinhalese is, when bluntly pointed out, hotly contested and denied, the answer is a simple one. When storms hit Sri Lanka’s southern coast in late November 2011, dozens of fishermen were killed, thousands were displaced and rendered homeless. There was a total breakdown of early warning. The Meteorological Department said after the disaster that it would get Doppler Weather Radar by March 2012 to better warn against atmospheric disturbances. There was a flurry of media coverage on the disaster.
Yet, given the cyclone last week, no one has asked why the Meteorological Department still can’t forecast any better than it could last year, or whether its Doppler Radar is somehow ethno-centric in operation and scope. Media consumers in the South haven’t been shown how the cyclone affected those on the ground, some of the most destitute in this country. Short, single news stories are all, at best, the cyclone has generated. There is, quite simply, no interest in a disaster that affects thousands out of sight, and out of mind. This is not how it must be. To recall a blog post I penned last week, though nobody has an exclusive handle on the truth, when disasters in the South are clearly more important to most mainstream media than disasters in the North of Sri Lanka, can we really see old media embracing new online platforms as progress? And linked to this, three years after our war ended, can we honestly say we know more about and empathise with the plight of Tamils in the North – our fellow citizens?
Published in The Nation, 8 April 2012.