By Aingkaran Kugathasan –
In any country that is deeply divided, a lot more needs to be done than solely establish multiple offices with overlapping mandates towards, building trust and confidence across the divide and in bridging the information gap which was one of the main reasons for the mistrust amongst communities. It is quite disturbing to see that the Sri Lankan media hasn’t recognised its value and the impact it could make in supporting and promoting much-delayed national reconciliation and reform. Executing a transitional justice process that aims to bring national reconciliation in a society deeply polarised for decades over various reasons/ideologies won’t yield the expected outcome and it is time the Sri Lankan media realise their role and social responsibility in constructively engaging in the transitional justice process.
The crucial role the media can play in promoting reconciliation in Sri Lanka has been highlighted in various forums since the end of the brutal war in May 2009. The then government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa did next to nothing to address the root causes of the conflict and to deal with the unspeakable consequences of the bloody war. On the contrary, the Rajapaksa regime cultivated a culture of intolerance and hatred by patronizing radical and nationalist groups and media outlets inciting racism and extremism and harassing, intimidating or threatening the media and any dissenting voice.
With the defeat of Rajapaksa in January 2015, media freedom in Sri Lanka improved sharply due to the apparently less restrictive policies of the Sirisena government. With some key changes, including, eased political pressure on media, Constitutional guarantee on the Right to Information (RTI), improved freedom of movement for journalists, and reversal of ban on internet, media personnel experienced an improvement in space as did the NGO sector. Besides, at various occasions, the key players in the transitional justice process, namely the President, Premier and Foreign Minister expressed their commitment (and willingness) towards an inclusive and consultative approach towards the transitional justice agenda. Nevertheless, despite the political rhetoric, the key actors in the National Government headed by Sirisena which came into power with promises of good governance for a transparent and corruption-free Sri Lanka has failed to do anything substantial to fight this culture of inciting racism and extremism using radical groups and media outlets backed by extremists or parties with vested interests.
In 2015 September, by co-sponsoring the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) Resolution titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ the Sirisena government made a promise to Sri Lankans and to the international human rights community that this government will take genuine efforts for reconciliation. The Resolution emphasizes on the importance of consultative and participatory methods that include incorporating views of all relevant stakeholders to guarantee the effectiveness of the proposed TJ mechanisms.
In light of this the GoSL has established several offices (and Ministries), including the Consultation Task Force (CTF) on Reconciliation Mechanisms. The CTF was established in 2015 with a set of guidelines which specifically states that consultations will be preceded by public awareness and information campaigns on the purpose and objective of the consultation process. Be that as may, the CTF was unable to reach out to the masses as envisaged due to its own limitations.
In such a setting the Sri Lankan media should do more than merely present facts. Being the bridge between the rulers and the ruled, the media should play a proactive role in keeping Sri Lankans informed and shaping public opinion about the importance of the transitional justice process. In transitioning Sri Lanka, it is important to give voice to the victims by seeking out diverse victims’ narratives and wider contexts. Media, as one of the key instruments, can play an invaluable role in keeping the citizenry informed and in exposing the ones who seek to manipulate the masses by insisting on differences and sowing seeds of hatred.
The importance of creating an enabling environment (A Sri Lanka with communities that trust each other) before initiating or implementing any transitional justice measures is not rocket science. Unfortunately, the GoSL which is struggling an internal political tug of war between the President and the Premier as well as the one between Sirisena and Rajapaksa, has done next to nothing to address these trust issues. But then again the responsibility of building trust doesn’t solely fall on the shoulders of GoSL. With this improved civic space and media freedom the responsibility of creating an enabling environment for transitional justice and national reconciliation by shaping public opinion has become everyone’s responsibility, most importantly, media’s.
As a powerful tool, the media can mediate public discussions around transitional justice processes and shape public opinion by deciding what gets to the public domain. This will help transform misunderstandings and mistrust into constructive avenues for dialogue that may help us reach public consensus over the importance of transitional justice measures to rebuild the nation. It is undeniable that the media has a major role to play in addressing this national issue which needs to be seen as a social responsibility as opposed to a political role. One of the main challenges before the nation is the absence of a common political agenda aimed at promoting national reconciliation. In such a situation the state media is often driven by the whims and fancies of the political parties who run the ruling government of the day. It is also important to understand the hardships faced by the electronic media in reporting on reconciliation with a special focus on language barriers, attitudinal impact and the impact of inescapable conflict-mentality in reporting in relation to reconciliation which further worsens an already alarming situation.
It is high time for Sri Lankan media personnel to learn from the experiences of other countries, for instance, South Africa’s TRC Special report, SENSE News Agency (reporting from the ICTY), Hirondelle News Agency (reporting from the ICTR), Interactive community radio in Democratic republic of the Congo, BIRN Justice report in the Balkans, and Plaza Publica in Guatemala. The editors and proprietors of media institutions in Sri Lanka have the responsibility of thinking beyond their political and monetary interests to help the nation they are all a part of. Further, they also help their journalists shape their approach to reporting on transitional justice process that would act as catalyst for a positive social change. As Alex Boraine, Deputy Chairman of South Africa’s TRC stated, ‘to make the transitional justice process truly a national experience rather than restricted to a small handful of political elites, the role and importance of media should be recognised by the government as well as the media personnel’.