| The search for drama within a peace process can also be detrimental to the process. Headlines, as one has often seen over the past few weeks, which focus on threats, accusations and sensational confrontations, generate anger on both sides, with the inevitable demand for retaliation. Disagreements turn into crises, enemies become more frightening and opponents more viscous. This dynamic also raises the level of rancour in the internal debate over the peace process. Reportage on the flashpoints and incidents in the East rarely give voice to the moderate forces in each community. By highlighting the most angry and violent forces, the media make it almost impossible for leaders, moderates and civil society carry out a reasoned debate over the issue. Over a period of time, this search for sensationalism over moderation, action over reason, and radical voices instead of temperate ones, leads to an exacerbation of the conflict and even the radicalisation of moderate voices.
In Sri Lanka, it is especially important to remember that the greater the frequency and severity of crises which affect the peace process, the more likely it is that the media will play a negative role. One must not forget the extent to which the media in Sri Lanka is the repository of public prejudice, majoritarian interests and market capitalism. The both of these are usually facets of mainstream media in any region with protracted ethno-political conflict.
Events that will shape and inform the dialogue and debate on the peace process in Sri Lanka will increasingly stem from areas and peoples whose concerns and fears will have hitherto been ignored in the mainstream media. The emergence of a radical Muslim and Tamil press is to be taken as a result of this neglect. The inherent ethnocentrism of this radical media cannot be expected to provide reasoned analysis, insightful and constructive criticism, or help diffuse ethno-political tension.
It is here that consensus amongst political leaders can help the media. Examples of American press coverage at the beginning of the Vietnam War show that when leaders are able to generate a high level of consensus over an issue, the press has little problem following suit (that the media, towards the end of the Vietnam War, spoke out against American intervention was because, by that time, many politicians had also started to question America’s role in Vietnam). On the other hand, when there is a lack of political consensus, as one finds in Sri Lanka, intra and inter-party power politics will inform and shape reportage on the peace process. Within such a context, it is unfeasible to think that the media will try to report the conflict with any degree of accuracy since media personnel and institutions close to centres of political power will rarely transcend partisan agendas.
Written for 14th World Congress of Environmental Journalists, organised by Sri Lanka Environmental Journalists Forum (SLEJF), 27th – 31st October 2002, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
“To a person with a hammer, the world is a nail.” Mark Twain
The point here is that we must never have pre-ordained solutions from the outside which make the situation fit the solution, and this is especially relevant to those in the media. The media, in the framing and reporting of conflict, must be acutely sensitive to the smorgasbord of issues and inter-linkages that inform and shape the dynamics of that conflict.
At the outset, we must recognise that the media play a central role in the promotion of peace. The media can emphasise the benefits that peace can bring, they can raise the legitimacy of groups or leaders working for peace, and they can help transform images of the enemy. However, the media can also serve as destructive agents in a peace process, and can choose to negatively report on the risks and dangers associated with compromise, raise the legitimacy of those opposed to concessions, and reinforce negative stereotypes of the enemy. These two roles are not mutually exclusive, or inseparable and much of the mainstream media in Sri Lanka shifts continuously between these two positions.
Influence of the media on the peace process
In general, the news media can have four inputs on any peace process. First, they help in defining the political atmosphere in which the peace process takes place. Second, the media has an active influence on the strategy and behaviour of the stakeholders to the conflict. Third, the media has an important influence on the nature of debate about a peace process. Fourth, the media can buttress or weaken public legitimacy of the stakeholders involved in the peace process.
An understanding of how each of these facets interlink to inform and shape the peace process is of pivotal importance for all news media personnel and institutions in Sri Lanka.
A peace process is usually long and complex, and the direction it takes is often open to interpretation. Journalistic norms and routines, which dictate the selection of sources and construction of story lines, can have a significant effect on which interpretation appears to make the most sense. News reports provide citizens with important clues about the political climate surrounding the peace process. Is the process moving forward or back? Does the overall level of violence appear to be rising or declining? Is the LTTE keeping its side of the agreements? Are events in the East undermining the peace process? How much of the public supports the government initiatives for peace? Will there be snap elections? How will the constant bickering between the President and the PM affect the peace process? The answers to such questions - which are often provided by ongoing news coverage - help determine whether the political atmosphere is conducive to making peace.
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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 [email protected]
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