We must also understand that peace and news make strange bedfellows. News covers events, not processes. This presents the public with an extremely narrow and simplistic view of what is happening and makes it difficult for the stakeholders to the conflict promote long-term policies. The Sri Lankan peace process, like any other, will be marked by protracted negotiations with occasional breakthroughs. Adopting a short-term perspective often leads to a sense of impatience and frustration, and the media’s emphasis on the immediate makes it difficult for the government, the LTTE and other stakeholders maintain support amongst their constituencies for the peace process over a long period of time. The sum of all this is deeply ironic. While negotiations are intrinsically considered major news, the protracted nature of negotiations will entice media to flag and highlight the negative rather than the positive of these negotiations.
Capacity Building for Media
There is a very real sense of hopelessness amongst those who are engaged in media reform that the situation in Sri Lanka is too complex and convoluted for any real change to take place. This is unfortunate, since there is considerable scope for input, provided of course, that exercises to address short-comings and lacunae of the media are sustained and long-term in nature.
Ideally, the news media should serve as a forum in which proponents and opponents are encouraged to express their views in an open and reasoned fashion. While such an ideal is rarely achieved, it is important nevertheless to identify those structures and processes that prevent constructive criticism and healthy debate on the peace process.
By examining the ideologies of key protagonists and spoilers, the media can often flag aspects of the peace process that are important and cannot be ignored. Assigning a reporter for instance, to spend some time with the LTTE or amongst the Muslims and Sinhalese in the East could make them develop new sources close to the ground, identify moderate voices, examine the internal dynamics of emergent socio-political realities, provide perspectives which are not ethnocentric in form or content and examine political arguments that go beyond specific incidents into the deeper roots of the conflict.
Greater research must also be done on whether there is a potential conflict between the Freedom of Expression, Speech and Information and the protection and advancement of the peace process. How critical should one be of the process? Can one be first with the news and also be impartial, accurate and reliable? How can the media maintain the balance between transparency of the peace process and the need for confidentiality? Can the media meet the imperatives of market forces, sensationalism and commercialisation, and at the same time create a forum for serious and responsible public debate?
There are no concrete answers to these questions, and the media in Sri Lanka, as media anywhere else, will always be characterised by a combination of all these factors. In all this, what must not be forgotten is that the media is a very important actor in the peace process. The media is a pivotal catalyst in the success of the peace process, within an enabling political atmosphere. Animating its involvement should be a realisation that citizens depend on the media for information on the peace process. The relationship between the stakeholders to the conflict, the political framework of the peace process, media reporting and the public is a symbiotic one – each moulding the other, in a continuum that contains within it the key to conflict transformation as well as the seeds of conflict formation.
The problem facing journalists in Sri Lanka is how to protect their ‘independence’ when the world around them asks them to follow strategies and ethics which bind them to a certain ideology and path. No path or method is value neutral. And yet, the imperatives of journalism – accuracy, fairness, impartiality and reliability – bolstered by the freedom of expression, speech and information and open government provide the backbone of democratic pluralism. However, the multiplicity of voices in the media should not become a cacophony of half-truths, and must avoid the ills of rabid ethnocentrism and tabloid sensationalism.
To do this, there could be several practical steps media organisations can take:
• Promote ethnic and gender balance in the newsroom.
• Regular updating and internal review of editing and style handbooks.
• In-house workshops and training on conflict sensitive journalism.
• Greater co-operation between personnel in Colombo and grass-roots level correspondents. Building the capacity of provincial and grass-roots level correspondents, and increasing the interaction with journalists from Colombo is mutually beneficial. It helps journalists from Colombo better understand local conditions and develop more informed, diverse and reliable sources of information, and gives grass-roots level journalists the experience and know-how with which to effectively report 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 [email protected]
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