Whither journalism in Sri Lanka?

BY Sanjana Hattotuwa| IN Media Practice | 07/05/2005
Sivaram’s death is a damning indictment of the future of media reform in Sri Lanka.

Sanjana Hattotuwa

The difficulty of formulating moderate responses to the murder of journalists bedevils efforts at media reform in Sri Lanka. The murder of Sivaram Dharmeratnam reminds us that Sri Lanka is far from a democratic state even further removed from a polity and society in which journalists enjoy the under-girding of freedoms that are the bed-rock of a functioning democracy without fear of persecution, torture or death.

Sivaram Dharmeratnam, 46, also known as Taraki, was a columnist for the Daily Mirror and a senior editorial board member of the online news service, TamilNet. He was abducted on 28th April 2005 in front of a restaurant in a suburb of Colombo and his body, riddled with bullets found the morning after dumped in a paddy field close to Parliament, located within the perimeters of a High Security Zone.

A political activist who turned  columnist for The Island in 1989, by the early 1990s Sivaram¿s Taraki column had become a ¿must read¿ for anyone interested in Sri Lanka. In 1991 fans of his writing among the Tamil community in France published a collection of his work entitled The Eluding Peace (An Insider¿s analysis of the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka). As a free-lance journalist, Sivaram, eventually wrote for many newspapers including The Island, The Sunday Times, The Tamil Times (London), The Daily Mirror, and Veerakeesari. In 1997 Sivaram helped Tamilnet.com reorganize itself into a Tamil news agency with its own string of reporters, and remained a senior editor there until his death. He filed his last story for Tamilnet.com at 7:30 PM on the night he was murdered. [i]

Today, the death knell for basic freedoms that engender peace and security is made louder by yet another death of a journalist whose only mistake was carrying out his profession. Sivaram¿s murder is a severe indictment on the incumbent government, which has miserably failed to its pledges in the run up to the General Elections in April 2004. This Hobbesian zeitgeist is indicative of the severe corrosion of democratic mechanisms in the country, giving rise to what a friend aptly termed a ¿cudgel and club conflict resolution¿.

An as yet unpublished report by the Free Media Movement (FMM) attests to the corrosive media climate that has prevailed for the past 12 months. In recent weeks, we record the blatant hate speech of the JVP, in open efforts to incite efforts to incite violence upon journalists they consider are unpatriotic, biased and all manner of other evils. In an interview given recently to Business Today, the leader of the JVP Somawansa Amarasinghe stated that "There must be balanced reporting, we must not forget that people have given us a mandate to do that." This statement however, is severely undermined by the vicious attacks on private media by the JVP and the actions of its Propaganda  Secretary, Wimal Weerawamsa, who in meetings removed recording equipment of media organizations and asked the audience to spit in the faces of journalists he identified as traitors. We grimly remember that media can be a frightful weapon of violence when it propagates messages of intolerance or disinformation that manipulate public sentiment. We also note the alarming degree of government interference in the independence of state media in the past 12 months.

The highly politicized and partisan media culture in Sri Lanka is also plagued by a lack of public service media - media that reports accurately, fairly and impartially in the interests of the public and not as instruments of incumbent governments or political parties. The severe internal contradictions within the incumbent government and the Janus attitude towards the peace process and media reform have severely undermined the development of progressive and conflict sensitive media frameworks.

We have to seriously ask ourselves whether any media reform is possible in the present context of a blatant and disturbing environment where basic respect for the sanctity of life is ignored in the violent suppression of voices that constitute a vibrant democratic and plural media. Tethering the grand vision of media reform to realities on the ground are the collective actions of government, journalists, civil society and non-state actors. Acting together in concert, these stakeholders can create the foundation for democracy, of which progressive and free media is an integral part, or choose not to, Balkanising polity and society in Sri Lanka, fracturing ethnic relations and undermining the effectiveness of media as a tool for conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Clearly then, Sri Lanka faces the grim reality that there is a severe and growing schism between the ideals of media reform and the regression of the socio-political cultures in which such ideals are enacted. Goons and murderers, the author contends, may be less open to media reform than governments and other actors who are truly committed to upholding democracy.

This then is our tragedy. Sivaram¿s death is a damning indictment on the future of media reform in Sri Lanka. The ripple effects of his murder, 3 years into a ceasefire which has failed to bring positive peace and any kind of stability to Sri Lanka, will reverberate throughout existing and planned media interventions, humbling the hopes of media activists, thwarting the hopes of the emergence of a more peaceful society, mocking promises of the State to protect and safeguard the rights of journalists including their personal safety and calling into question why Sri Lanka should not be classified as failed state.

In light of such dire circumstances, what reasons are there for a continuation of interventions to entrench conflict sensitive journalism in Sri Lanka? If violence begets more violence, and the cycles of brutality turn faster than calls for restraint, sanity and principled responses, we must examine the reality behind the rhetoric of conflict sensitive media.

The core tenets of conflict sensitive journalism appear tame and woefully inadequate to fully explain the context and actions which gave rise to the killing Sivaram Dharmeratnam. And yet, the greater tragedy could well be that Sivaram¿s death, and the deaths of so many journalists before him, are soon forgotten. Even though it may sound insensitive, our task must be to mould opportunities from Sivaram¿s death, to prevent such occurrences in the future. In doing so, we must be careful to avoid inflammatory reporting which plays into the hands of those who wish to inflame the fabric of Sri Lankan society. On the other hand, we must unflinchingly look at the reasons for Sivaram¿s death. His legacy, if anything, must be in the reaction of the media to both his death and the processes by which his killers are brought to justice and held accountable for their actions.

Conflict sensitive journalism is nothing more than the practice of journalism that adheres rigidly to ethics and principles that are predicated on professionalism and a commitment to the truth. Truth however has many facets, and any one of them alone is a lie. Good journalists must not suspend judgement on everything in their quest for objectivity. Certain facts must be stated, and obvious conclusions must be drawn. However, journalists must strive to present facts mindful of a larger context, where single incidents are part of larger processes, which must be explored and explained.

Conflict sensitive journalism isn¿t a mantra for actions that defy easy explanations. The death of a journalist is severely traumatic not just for fellow journalists, but for all citizens. Journalists are a weathervane for democracy. Their unexplained killing does not bode well for the health of a nation or its commitment to uphold democracy and plurality. Beyond our grief and reprobation for such heinous acts lies the hope and conviction to continue with our work, in whatever small way, to ensure that our country does not plunge into a vortex of violence of the same kind that we have sadly witnessed for over 25 years.

We celebrate Sivaram Dharmeratnam¿s life and his contribution to journalism in Sri Lanka. We remember his commitment to journalism and his contributions to the political discourse in Sri Lanka. We note that his voice, now silenced, will only give rise to more voices clamouring for the very same ideals he once espoused, in an interminable effort to bring democracy and peace to our motherland.

[i] This para is taken from  Sivaram Dharmeratnam: A Journalist¿s life, TNS News, Apr 30, 2005

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