Cosmetic consultations?

Ten years ago I set up a civic media initiative on the web called Groundviews. Since then, the majority of the content the initiative has published and produced online can be framed as ‘victim centric’ – stories and perspectives around inconvenient truths mainstream media, throughout the war and even after it, could not or would not cover. Perhaps on account on this, Groundviews received an invitation to make a submission to the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) last week. As noted in the invitation, the CTF, appointed by the Prime Minister on the 26th of January 2016, is tasked with consulting members of the public on the processes and mechanisms for reconciliation in Sri Lanka to seek truth and justice, ensure accountability for human rights violations and provide measures for redress. We were asked for our opinion on an Office of Missing Persons, a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence Commission, a Judicial Mechanism with a Special Counsel and an Office of Reparations. And that’s where the challenges started.

The invitation came with a short document that explained briefly what the process was about. However, it did not flesh out any of the four mechanisms. This was a problem. Our independent media and civil society is used to critical commentary around and opposition to government, under duress. There is now, for the first time after a very long time an opportunity, in a context of relative safety and security, to engage with mechanisms that will undergird Sri Lanka’s tryst with post-war reconciliation. We are asked to give input into how they should be constituted, what they should do and what they should be looking at. The challenge now in engaging with CTF’s invitation is to pivot to a solutions orientation, imagining ways through which the violence in the past, and structural violence that persists, can be addressed going into the future. This is much harder than it first sounds. Media personnel, arguably responsible for creating this vital discourse amongst citizens, themselves had little to no idea of the four mechanisms. Some, even after reading CTF’s invitation, hadn’t really thought through how the media could play a role in any of them. Revealingly, many said their engagement often had to be through professional associations, since large media institutions were largely averse to staff having critical, robust political engagements with the substance of these mechanisms in particular, and the contours of reconciliation in general.

Another problem was around awareness. The sectoral consultation was open to the public, and yet not a single member of the public, or the media, was present to observe or report on the proceedings and submissions. The Editors Guild, which had been invited, did not even bother sending a representative. The Sri Lanka Press Institute, which had been invited to make a submission, attended briefly yet left without engaging in any way. Widely perceived as two of the most important apex institutions representing mainstream media, for whatever reason, demonstrated a telling inability and unwillingness to participate in the design of reconciliation mechanisms. This in turn reveals a great deal about those who train, oversee, lead or own mainstream media in Sri Lanka, and their interest in shaping the public consciousness around these vital issues.

Linked to this and throughout the day, conversations around the consultation focussed on the lack of greater public awareness and engagement. It is somewhat unclear why this is the case, given the ostensible interest in these consultations by the PM and government. The CTF’s own guiding principles clearly notes that “consultations will be preceded by a public awareness and information campaign on the purpose and objective of the consultation process”. This simply has not happened. To date, the Facebook page and Twitter accounts of the CTF, the only means through which they have engaged with the public, are not even mentioned on the website of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM). It is unclear why this is the case if the main intent is to generate widespread public awareness around the process of consultations that in turn, results in substantive input and submissions. In significant contrast to the work of the Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms over the first half of the year, there have been no advertisements or concerted media campaigns around the consultations. Unsurprisingly then, for the vast majority of citizens, it is as if the CTF simply does not exist. This is a pity. When asked by the CTF as to how their visibility could improve, Groundviews submitted a detailed submission that was in effect a strategic media and communications blueprint. It is however unclear to what degree, if at all, the CTF is able to engage with what was recommended.

These concerns aside, our primary submission was process oriented, noting how a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence Commission and an Office of Reparations in particular, but also all the four mechanisms in general could benefit by acknowledging that media and communications are inextricably entwined with their central mandate, as has been the case in other post-war countries. Our submission, which is in the public domain, was also anchored to and build upon the contours and forms of debate online by a demographic between 18 to 34. In all this, the elephant in the room – no pun intended – was the unwillingness of government to acknowledge the importance of engaging the public through a comprehensive, multimedia, trilingual communications framework in support of reconciliation and over the long-term.

And therein lies the rub. The CTF has absolutely no mandate around implementation. Recall that the LLRC’s final report is now largely forgotten. More recently, the PRC’s final report – a distillation of thousands of verbal and written submissions –  never really got any meaningful coverage or traction. In light of this, it is unclear how and to what degree the CTF’s final report will be embraced by government. This raises the more important question around legitimacy of the process itself. If the CTF itself struggles to fulfil its mandate because of the stifling structural frameworks of governance it is hostage to, how can we expect that any recommendations from it, in line with what the public and victims want to see, can and will be implemented by government? Media personnel who appeared in front of the CTF said that their views on specific mechanisms were also framed largely by the simplistic reporting of issues through partisan perspectives. What hope then for a media that engages, raises informed critiques and informs consumers around these four mechanisms? If the CTF is so unknown today, what hope really is there for its final report and points therein informing policymaking and indeed, beyond government, shaping public discourse?

Those within CTF may be convinced they have embarked upon a process vital to shaping the contours of reconciliation moving forward, but the bitter truth may well be that all these consultative exercises of the present government are largely cosmetic, and hostage to more parochial and partisan machinations in the minds of a few. On this score, I would love to be proved wrong, but the tragic history of public consultations suggests the odds are in my favour.

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First published  in The Sunday Island, 10 July 2016.

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