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Imagining the future – The Role of Conflict Sensitive Journalism Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Sanjana, Sri Lanka Feb 21, 2003
Peace & Conflict   Opinions
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Imagining the future – The Role of Conflict Sensitive Journalism


In the present context, it is understandable why attention has focused on the media and its role in the ethno-political conflict of Sri Lanka. Most articles in the press examining the complex interactions between the media and the conflict have been reactionary, cautioning the public against tenets of ‘peace journalism’, or have too easily come to the conclusion that media in Sri Lanka is unproblematic and objective in its reporting. However, debate on the underpinnings of media freedom in Sri Lanka, coupled with an examination of its biases, ethno-centricity and market driven agendas has been sparse. Ergo, the role of the media as an essential and pivotal institution of democratic governance, and an examination on how it can best help support and critically analyse the emergence of a post-conflict situation is of pivotal importance to the evolving context in Sri Lanka. This article will primarily examine one aspect of media in Sri Lanka - the problematics of conflict sensitive journalism.

The Media and Conflict

In instances of ethno-political conflict, the role of the media is inextricably entwined with the particular dynamics of that conflict. Furthermore, in situations of conflict, the media is a double-edged sword and can be a frightful weapon of violence when it propagates messages of intolerance or disinformation that manipulate public sentiment. For instance, Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda is one of the most appalling contemporary examples. Using a blend of popular entertainment and proselytizing by announcers, the government-supported broadcasts demonized one group of people and built resentment and fear among the other group. One can also see this in the journalism in Sri Lanka, where there is an abundance of popular prejudices about terrorism and ethnic stereotypes.

But there is another aspect to the media. It can be an instrument of conflict resolution, when the information it presents is reliable, respects human rights, and represents diverse views. It’s the kind of media that upholds accountability and exposes malfeasance, one that enables a society to make well-informed choices, which is the precursor of democratic governance. It is a media that reduces conflict and fosters human security. Such a media culture can be a vital tool in transcending conflict, working towards a just and lasting peace by going beyond the problems of the present.

Conflict Sensitive Journalism

Where undemocratic politicians inspire, provoke and underwrite national fears and prejudices, and where journalists do not benefit from a tradition of independence, but satisfy demands of leaders for support for the ‘national interest’, media soon becomes a vehicle for propaganda. This is often the case in Sri Lanka, where the constant quest of media is an elusive search for ‘objectivity’. In this quest, propaganda becomes truth, and the search itself becomes rooted in vested interests that often veil and distort reality.

Conflict sensitive journalism is acutely aware of these problems. While it is true that journalism must be fair and accurate in reporting the facts, it must also be remembered that in a society riddled with conflict, journalism must engage with the search for alternatives to armed conflict and be guided by a firm and committed desire for peace and democratic governance. This is a point often confused by journalists writing in Sri Lanka. Under the guise of objective reporting, many writers fail to explore and address alternatives to a given situation, believing falsely that doing so would be contrary to the ethics of good journalism. In fact, in not examining alternatives, writers who merely present the facts may actually exacerbate conflict. Protracted ethno-political conflict deepens and widens societal fault-lines, and if a conscious and concerted effort is not made to bridge differences between ethnic groups and communities, to explore non-violent alternatives to grievances, to critically analyse and explore the raison d’etre of violent clashes, to refute stereotypes and break communitarian hagiography, these fault-lines will inevitably give rise to violent armed movements and clashes.
Demystifying conflict sensitive journalism

Within the context of the present ceasefire in Sri Lanka, it is certainly the role of journalists to act as watchdogs to violations of the CFA and other developments in the North-East, and report it to the public once their factual accuracy has been suitably determined. Conflict sensitive journalism should not be misconstrued as an attempt to mystify the truth, or to hide it. Conflict sensitive journalism at the end of the day, is nothing more than the practice of good journalism – journalism that critically examines and also looks beyond the problems of any given context. In Sri Lanka, conflict sensitive journalism would examine the shortcomings of the CFA, provide the context for events on the ground, explore how society and polity could address these lacunae, critically analyse the dissipation or build-up of tensions in the North-East between ethnic groups, the Army and the LTTE and other armed factions, and explore options to bring an end to armed hostilities. A conflict sensitive journalist would ensure that every story of a ceasefire violation would examine not only the violation itself, but also its underlying causes, and explore how violations of a similar nature can be avoided in future. Conflict sensitive journalism extrapolates from incidents in the present, lessons for the future. It engages with actors and stakeholders, examines their concerns, and formulates strategies to buttress developments on the ground for an end to armed conflict.

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Sanjana Hattotuwa is a Rotary World Peace Scholar presently pursuing a Masters in International Studies from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. The views expressed here are his own. He can be contacted at hatt@wow.lk.

aclam | Feb 26th, 2003
A very good point --- journalists are often all too willing to hide behind their "profession" (that is, as "objective observers) and forget their higher responsibilities, responsibilities as humans.

Sunday Chanda | Apr 24th, 2003
This idea of engaging the media in Conflict management is critical to our existence as human beings.I want to implement these ideas on the ground heere in South Africa.I have a journalist background. Great Idea , once again

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