Colombo Telegraph

Rebuilding Sri Lankan Media: A Timely & Imperative Task

By Aingkaran Kugathasan

Aingkaran Kugathasan

With the latest United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution on Sri Lanka, which was also co-sponsored by the government, the phrase ‘Transitional Justice’ (TJ) has become meaningless in the local context. The need or importance of a participatory transitional justice process has been discussed in numerous forums at various lengths, levels and amongst different communities. Though certain elements are trying to undermine TJ as western driven influence and thereby alienate it from our context, the majority of Sri Lankans are aware of the need of a process to address the national issue that has been ruining the country since 1950s. It is possible to say that a tiny window of opportunity for reconciliation has now opened and it is up to all to seize and to rectify circumstances before it passes.

The very first step in resolving any problem is recognising that there is one. Uncovering the issues that led to the conflict in the first place and finding ways to deal with the root causes might be the only sustainable path to achieve peace in Sri Lanka. It is foremost that we understand that TJ or any process for that matter is only as viable as the people who are involved in seeing it through. Thus, it is important for the relevant stakeholders to first reach out to the masses that is largely unfamiliar with the rationale and functioning of TJ measures. This includes how they can participate in these processes, the impact that TJ measures might have on the country and their daily lives, etc. to ultimately establish justice and national reconciliation. Although this need was understood only piecemeal efforts were taken to this effect by the State and not necessarily due to limited resources or deficiencies in capacities.

It is undeniable that the government alone cannot accomplish this task and as such the media, being the bridge between the rulers and the ruled has to play a crucial role not just in building an informed society but also in facilitating a critical public engagement process. This is imperative to build a broader understanding of and consensus towards this process by promoting a social self-reflection process on the conditions that led to conflict and the possible adjustments to be made in order to create a more inclusive society, reduce the potential impact of those trying to undermine the process and to generally influence the TJ processes in a positive way. In carrying out these duties, the media has to put social responsibility before their monetary and / or political interest, guided by norms, moral standards and professional ethics. They must maintain the quality and accuracy of reportage, and positively influence behavioural responses to conflict and shepherd in a new era of understanding, harmony, and security in broken communities across the country and to foster tolerance and reconciliation. Although in many transitioning countries the media has been used as an important tool in Sri Lanka unfortunately they have been largely left out of the process.

The question remains, however, whether the media is able of completing this task alone without the support of everyone who is a part of this complex and extremely lengthy process. In a country like Sri Lanka that is deeply divided along political and ethnic lines with a grave legacy of human rights abuses, a system that has been manipulated over and over for decades by various groups, including politicians, radical groups, media institutions, and other elements, the media cannot alone fulfil this important and timely task. It is important to understand that a transition process does not begin with a whole new media system, but rather inherits whatever media institutions existed before and inevitably played a role in everything we have experienced and witnessed. Thus, it is necessary for everyone, particularly the ones that have the power and statutory obligation to get together to assist the media in creating an informed society by providing unbiased information and a public discussion process that helps to build a broader understanding and trust amongst communities.

It is necessary to rebuild the media environment in post-war Sri Lanka like in any other post-war or post-conflict country by developing a systematic approach to establish certain protocols or guidelines that govern journalists and media institutions. At the same time it is equally important to understand the dynamic of the environment in which the media is currently operating. The Sri Lankan media has always been divided and biased on political and ethnic ideologies and catering to these particular interests. In my opinion, even though the media environment in Sri Lanka, on the surface continues to remain the same, it has been undoubtedly influenced by various factors, particularly by the civil war, over the past three decades.

Since the outbreak of war in 1983, the Sri Lanka has been divided over political interests and along linguistic lines. Until the end of war in May 2009, both the successive governments and LTTE had used media for their political propaganda purposes and resorted to silence and supress free flow of information, and both parties had unsurprisingly succeeded unequivocally. Many Sri Lankans hoped that with the end of the brutal war, things would change for the better in Sri Lanka. Yet, unfortunately, things only got worse. Majority of Sri Lankans, mostly the ones in the South overwhelmingly supported the then President for ending the war. The Rajapakses ultimately seized the moment and capitalised on it. They decided to cater to their (radical) Sinhalese base by feeding majoritarian nationalism and mono-culturalism rather than uniting the country.

On one hand, the Rajapakse regime cultivated a culture of intolerance and hatred by patronizing radical and nationalist groups and media outlets inciting racism and extremism. On the other hand, the radical Tamil groups both in Sri Lanka and abroad continue to use the media not only to expose grave human rights violations committed against Tamil but also to sharpen the ethnic divide. Anyone or any media institution that criticises the actions of LTTE or Tamil political leaders is labelled as a traitor or called a not-so-purebred by the Tamil radical groups. Tamil media institutions, just like the Sinhala media institutions, couldn’t afford to take the risk of being labelled considering the consequences. Even though, the media freedom, with the regime change in 2015, has significantly improved, the propaganda war waged by media institutions against different groups (ethnic, racial, religious) hasn’t come to an end. Sadly, addressing this issue is clearly not on the agenda of the current so called national government.

In this context, it is important for journalists and media institutions to understand and recognise their role and responsibility towards the society; to inform the citizenry of what goes on in the government, to report on and promoting discussion of ideas, opinions and truths toward the end of social refinement, and to mirror the society and its people. The Sri Lankan media (journalists, editors and proprietors of media institutions), in the current post-war context, should reflect on very specific issues, including but not limited to, the ways the media can influence national reconciliation, effective ways to inform people about the importance of reconciliation processes, possible pathways to effectively collaborate with relevant institutions, ways to identify and expose interested parties that have been manipulating the political system for personal gain, and the challenges in changing the media culture and how these can be addressed.

There have been discussions at policy-making level on changing the media culture in Sri Lanka. The need of establishing a mechanism to look into the media culture that significantly contributed to the war that was ended in 2009 and the prevailing divisions amongst communities has been realised. Nevertheless, this is a change that can’t be brought by one or two groups in isolation. This is a change that needs to be brought by the society as a whole.

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