THE POLARIZATION between Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities is also reflected in coverage of the island’s protracted conflict and has rendered ‘the truth’ an inevitable casualty of war, several speakers argued last week at the annual conference in London of the International Association of Tamil Journalists (IATAJ). The day-long event at the University of Westminster was attended by one hundred invited participants and was addressed by journalists, academics and media activists, including Mr. Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, editor of the Uthayan newspaper, Mr Chandana Bandara, senior producer with the BBC’s Sinhala service and Mr. Bhagwan Singh of the Deccan Chronicle.
‘Media and Sri Lanka's conflict: where is the truth?’, held on April 26, was intended “to facilitate an exchange views and examine the context of Tamil media in the 21st century,” the organisation said.
“There is no doubt that the media is a playing a pivotal role in the Sri Lankan conflict. But when it comes to conflict resolution we cannot see any tangible contribution from the media,” the IATAJ member, Mr. Gopi Ratnam, said in his welcome address.
“Apart from this, whether it is the media in Sri Lanka or the international media, we are yet experience unbiased stands on these issues,” Mr. Ratnam, who is also Editor-In-Chief of the London-based Oru Paper said.
IATAJ was formed in 2005 with aim of uniting Tamil journalists scattered around the world and working for their rights, he said.
“As you all are aware, back home in Sri Lanka, Tamil journalists are in great danger. They are hounded by the authorities, paramilitary groups and politicians. There is a sizeable number of them are living in exile. Some of them are going to talk here. And some of them are seated in the audience. The conference expresses solidarity to all of them,” he said.
Mr. Thiru S. Thiruchelvam, a veteran Tamil journalist who had worked for years as reporter and editor with several newspapers in Sri Lanka’s embattled Jaffna peninsula, was the first panellist. He outlined the lengthy history of Tamil media in the island and the persecution it had endured after independence from Britain, especially just before and during the armed conflict.
Whilst the large commercial newspapers such as Virakesari were based in Colombo, he pointed out that several Tamil newspapers had been based in Jaffna, and at one stage four were publishing simultaneously from the ancient Tamil city. All had been targeted and suffered state violence and many had been forced to close, he said.
Mr. Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, editor of the Jaffna-based Uthayan newspaper and the Colombo-based Sudar Oli newspaper, also spoke of the violent targeting of Tamil media by the Sri Lankan state.
In the present context of Tamil media reporting from the warzones, he spoke of the litany vicious attacks on the Uthayan’s staff by Army-backed paramilitaries.
In 2006 gunmen from the pro-government Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) had stormed the newspapers office, shooting dead at least two employees and wounding others. Nonetheless, their colleagues had courageously ensured that the days’ edition was produced, printed and distributed Mr. Vithyatharan said, to applause from the conference floor.
Two Uthayan staffers had been confined to the Uthayan’s premises in Jaffna for over 18 months due to death threats, but were insisting they would remain in the Army-controlled peninsula to ensure the news of what was happening there would be brought out, he said.
He said the Uthayan’s Trincomalee correspondent had been shot dead after exposing the falsehood of the Sri Lankan government’s claims about the violent deaths of five Tamil students in the eastern port town in 2006.
The Colombo government had claimed that the five had died after a grenade being carried by one of them had exploded. However, the correspondent’s photographs, published in the newspaper, had clearly shown the gunshot wounds and exposed the armed forces’ execution style killings. Two weeks after the photos were published, the correspondent had been shot dead.
Mr. Chandana Bandara, senior producer with the BBC Sinhala Service, Sandeshaya, spoke about the severe difficulties of reporting accurately on the conflict in the context of an enforced lack of media access in Sri Lanka.
Proper coverage of the intense battles in the island’s warzones was impossible because of government restrictions on journalists travelling to those parts and under these circumstances, he said. Unless people came forward to alert the media as to developments, it was impossible to report, he said, noting the context of many people being too frightened to do so.
Reporting was thus reduced to covering the statements by the government and the LTTE, he said, adding that merely carrying second- or third-hand accounts was unacceptable conduct for professional journalists.
Moreover, discussing coverage of recent bomb blasts targeting civilian buses in both LTTE-controlled and government-controlled areas, Mr. Bandara pointed out how ethnic biases in Sri Lanka’s media heavily framed present reporting.
Sinhala media uncritically accepted government versions and some even went further, unqualifiedly blaming the LTTE for attacks in the south and some media even blamed the LTTE for the explosions in buses in LTTE-controlled areas, he said.
Taking up the same theme, Mr. Suthaharan Nadarajah, editor of the Tamil Guardian newspaper, said the sharp polarisation between Sinhala- and Tamil-language media reflected the depth of the cleavages between their respective ethnic communities.
Drawing on a study on ‘Vernacular media and Sri Lanka’s Peace Process’ he had authored in 2005 as part of the Strategic Conflict Assessment exercise funded by the World Bank, Mr. Nadarajah said the profound impact vernacular media had on peoples’ perceptions has consistently ignored by analysts of Sri Lanka’s conflict.
Tamil and Sinhala media had different focuses and interests, even on the same topic, and took zero-sum approaches to peace-related issues, he said, adding that unless these strong polarizations and antagonistic perspectives are recognized and accepted, future peace efforts are guaranteed to fail.
Dr. R. Cheran, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Windsor in Canada, pointed out that ‘the truth’ was socially constructed. Nonetheless, media should strive for objectivity and professionalism in their reporting.
Turning to the practices of the burgeoning Tamil Diaspora media, he called for more ‘ethical journalism’ and for more principled approaches to news coverage. The objectives of patriotism and professionalism were not mutually incompatible and, indeed, could be complimentary, he said.
He also criticised the over-commercialisation of Diaspora media, pointing out that many Tamil publications were largely full of advertisements and short of information. He also criticised many publications’ disproportionate focus on cinema-related material. It is not that people shouldn’t have entertainment-related news, but serious issues concerning the Tamils and deserving of proper coverage were being neglected, he said.
Mr. Bhagwan Singh, Consultant Editor with the Deccan Chronicle, warned against journalists succumbing to particularist interests of their publishers or owners of their institutions. There are many who succumb to the easy life of peddling untruth, often inspired by selfish interests to yield short-term gains through dishonest means, he said.
He spoke of the risks he took whilst reporting on the Tamil liberation struggle, including taking the perilous boat journey between Rameshwaram and Jaffna in the 1980s. Saying this was essential in reporting the truth from warzones, he contrasted this approach he and some of his colleagues took with those of other foreign journalists who reported instead from Colombo, using hand-out photographs and accounts gathered by local, state approved stringers.
Mr. Singh said that the Indian media is not doing enough to focus public attention on the human tragedy continuing for decades and across generations in Sri Lanka. “They seem stuck covering the ridiculous antics of local politicians, the glamorous nothings of the movie stars and such other trivia unrelated to society's enlightenment and betterment of the people.”
“And if you look carefully between the lines in those political resolutions, you will find the fine print of personal agendas of the various political parties and their leaders piloting them,” he said.
Mr. Sundararajan Murari, Associate Editor of the Bangalore-based Deccan Herald, also spoke of his experiences covering the Tamil question for almost quarter of a century. In the early years of the conflict he had met all the Tamil militant leaders, including Mr. Vellupillai Pirapaharan of the LTTE, he said, adding he was the first international correspondent to interview the LTTE’s theoretician, Anton Balasingham, after he returned to London in 1999.
Mr. Murari said Eelam Tamils should not expect major changes soon in India’s policy towards their plight as Tamil Nadu’s influence on the centre was limited when it came to their issue.
Mr. Balasingham Prabaharan, a director of the Australia-based Inpa Thamil Oli radio spoke of the difficulties under which Tamil Diaspora media had come to be established and had now become a major industry comprising newspaper, radio and satellite television.
Mr. Mike Jempson, Director of The MediaWise Trust, spoke on his experience as a reporter during the protracted conflict in Northern Ireland. He said efforts there to highlight and explain the sufferings of the people on one side to those on the other side had served to bring home the devastating effects of conflict.
He called on journalists to make space for the voice of ‘the Other’ and speaking of how British media had often taken the official line when reporting the Irish conflict, pointed out how the BBC had deliberately challenged British government regulations forbidding the broadcasting of IRA and Sinn Fein officials’ voices by hiring actors to speak over footage of these officials and thus ensuring their views were heard by the British public.
Justin Randall, a practicing lawyer, spoke on behalf of the civil liberties advocacy group, the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC). He said terrorism-related legislation in Western democracies such as Britain had served to stifle discussion of major political issues. He said sweeping anti-terrorism laws had engendered the erosion of freedoms of expression and threatened minority communities’ ability to engage in political activities.
Ms. Rachel Cohen, human rights and information officer for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), said her organisation was taking up the case of media censorship and the plight of journalists by the Mahinda Rajapakse government in Sri Lanka.
She called for Sri Lankan media workers to link up with those in other countries to forge a ‘global community’ of journalists to fight for press freedom.
Ms. Cohen joined IFJ after working as a Reuters correspondent in New York covering the stock market and financial news.
The conference’s morning session was chaired by Mr. Ivan Pedropillai, Chairman of the Tamil Writers Guild (TWG) and the afternoon session was chaired by Ms. Vino Kanapathipillai, Deputy Editor of the Tamil Guardian newspaper.
The presentations by the speakers on each panel was followed by a question-and-answer session involving the audience which included journalists, human rights and civil liberties activists and representatives of Tamil Diaspora lobby groups.
The President of the IATAJ, Ms. Anandhi Suriyapragasam, who retired after two decades with the BBC’s Tamil service, Tamil Ossai, gave the Vote of Thanks on behalf of IATAJ.
Meanwhile, IATAJ officials echoing the issues of ethnic polarisation and prejudice raised by some of the speakers, said several Colombo-based Sinhala journalists invited to attend the conference had declined, some citing the prevailing political conditions in Sri Lanka. The IATAJ conference had been portrayed in some Sri Lankan media as an LTTE-organised event, they said.