Regional national media dynamics

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Regional Media | 24/02/2014
In the age of coalition national governments it is important to understand the role of regional media in constructing popular sentiments on ethnic issues,

In the various aspects that are discussed following the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to release the seven convicted for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the role of regional media in ethnic politics has hardly been focussed upon. Even while questioning the validity of the various arguments that are proffered for the state government’s decision to release the ‘Tamil’ prisoners it is worth evaluating the role of regional media in contributing to popular sentiments on the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka.

The ways in which regional media have transformed public space have been extensively documented by academicians and journalists over the years. The localisation of content by newspapers led to the vernacularisation of the public sphere impacting upon local politics, which in turn has affected national politics.[i] But the Sri Lankan ethnic issue is an example of how technically ‘a non-local issue’ has the potential to permeate domestic politics, affecting not merely national politics but also impacting upon India’s ‘international relations’.

In Tamil Nadu, a state with a long and unparalleled history of media-politics nexus, there are two divergent perspectives on the Sri Lankan Tamil population’s links to the people in Tamil Nadu. Popular discourse in the region is based on the claim that the Tamils in Sri Lanka are linked ‘umblically’ by language and culture to the Tamil-speaking population in India and hence the two peoples are but one divided by the Palk Strait. However, academic discourse is divided. It makes a distinction between the two peoples based on the differences in Tamil nationalisms in India and Sri Lanka, arguing that emotional and cultural linkages between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils are grossly exaggerated.[ii] Interestingly, regional media in general have been covering the issue within the frame of ‘kinship’ while English media have been framing it as one relating to a neighbouring country.

Although media seemed indifferent to the issue for a decade following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu in May 1991, Tamil media coverage of Sri Lankan Tamils’ plight increased following the unilateral ceasefire declared by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a decade later that made travel to the North and East of Sri Lanka possible. In the years that followed, the coverage of the Sri Lankan struggle and the people in regional media was by and large sympathetic both to the cause and the struggle spearheaded by the LTTE effectively blurring the lines between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the LTTE.

The dichotomy in framing strategies of English and regional media was most apparent during the height of the civil war in Sri Lanka when regional media cited pro-LTTE sources and English media relied more on Sri Lankan Government sources. The reason for the choice of sources was dictated perhaps both by expediency and ideological affinity; nevertheless, the consequences were interesting and significant. The accounts in media in Tamil Nadu during of the civil war in Sri Lanka were confusing and even contradictory. While most of regional media indicated that the LTTE was successfully resisting the Sri Lankan forces, English media in the region and elsewhere were reporting huge losses. The contradiction and confusion was best seen in the wake of the announcement of the death of LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran, which English media reported based on the Sri Lankan Government’s claim and which sections of regional media debunked on the strength of Tamil nationalists’ statements that Prabhakaran was still alive and the images produced by the Sri Lankan government were fabricated.

A qualitative analysis of media coverage of the rejection on August 12, 2011 by then President Pratibha Patil of the 11-year old clemency petition of Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, in Tamil and English newspapers in Chennai revealed the dichotomy further.[iii] Even when the publications argued for the abolition of death penalty, the Tamil newspapers pegged it on the need to save ‘Tamil lives’ while the English newspapers placed the issue in the larger context of humanitarianism. It is worth noting that of the three accused, Perarivalan is an Indian while Murugan and Santhan were Sri Lankan Tamils. Among other things, the consistent and sustained framing in the Tamil press of Sri Lankan Tamils as kin, has led to the three ‘Tamil prisoners’ becoming the face of the campaign against death penalty in Tamil Nadu.

It is indeed difficult to isolate the extent of media’s influences on popular and political thought but the intersections were too hard to miss in May, 2012, when the US moved a resolution in the United Nations against Sri Lanka for crimes against the Tamils during the civil war in 2008-2009. English media focussed on the likely effect of India’s actions on its strategic interests while regional media evoked the kinship frame and argued for the need to protect ‘our own people’. The regional media coverage was accompanied by activism in the state, a notable event being the ‘fast-unto-death’ launched by a group of college students demanding justice for those killed by the ‘Sri Lankan forces during the civil war’. As the clamour grew for India to vote against Sri Lanka, the regional parties jumped into the fray, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) -- which was then a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) -- threatening to quit the coalition if India did not vote for the resolution against Sri Lanka. Together the factors led to a turnaround in the Central Government’s stand on the vote.

Regional media in Tamil Nadu have thus, over a period of time established the parameters within which meanings must be made of the Sri Lankan issue and events related to it. The reportage on the UNHRC resolution drew from this already established core of meaning. The events before and after the resolution that were placed in the context of Tamil nationalism, not only drew extensively on the readers’ cognitive resources but also built on a thematic structure: the Sri Lankan Government had oppressed the Tamils and was now rightly punished. The current reportage of the release of the seven convicts reflects the same structure. Even as the decision is lauded in regional media as a victory for the campaign against death penalty, it draws attention to undercurrent strains of Tamil nationalism. Conspicuously absent from regional media reportage are issues of national security and justice for the victims of the crime that English media harp upon.

Given that language is the primary marker of ethnic identity and that regional media reflect regional aspirations, the reportage on ethnic issues assumes great significance. Regional parties and regional media supporting regional causes and sentiments even when they run counter to the national ideology and viewpoint raise issues of great import relating to the composition of the nation. This is more so in the age of coalition politics when national governments comprise or depend upon the support of regional political parties.

The author teaches media and international communication in Macquarie University, Sydney.

[i] Robin Jeffrey, India’s newspaper revolution: capitalism and politics of the Indian language press,1977-99 (UK, C. Hurst and Co., 2000); Avind Rajagopal, Politics after television: Hindu nationalism and the reshaping of the public in India (UK, Cambridge University Press, 2001); Sevanti Ninan, Headlines from the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi public sphere (New Delhi, Sage Publications, 2007)  and Ursula Rao, News as culture: journalistic practices and the remaking of Indian leadership traditions (New York, Berghahn Books, 2010).


[ii] Sankaran Krishna, Postcolonial insecurities: India, Sri Lanka and the question of nationhood, (Minnesota, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1999), pp. 59-101.


[iii] An article titled ‘When the regional counters the national: frames in press coverage on the Sri Lankan ethnic issue in Tamil Nadu, India’ by the author has been accepted for publication by the academic journal ‘South Asia’.

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