For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-long conflict with Tamil separatists has divided communities and polarised the media. Around 100,000 people died in the war and over a million fled to other countries. Both the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers used the media for propaganda purposes and resorted to violence to silence and suppress the free flow of information. Journalists working for Sinhalese, English and Tamil media were killed during the war. .. This is why Sri Lanka is often described as one of the most dangerous place for journalists
Swaminathan Natarajan ( Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper, University of Oxford)
6 Little Hope for Change
Free and vibrant media perform an important role in any functioning democracy. In spite of being a democracy, Sri Lanka has over decades curbed the power of institutions which safeguard democracy through a system of checks and balances – like an independent judiciary and an Election Commission.
It has even taken away the power of parliament which – in a functioning democracy -would be a means of curbing the power of the government. Power is now almost exclusively in the hands of members of the Rajapaksa family171. The president and his brothers control key ministries which receive over 70 per cent of the national budget172. Without the support of other institutions, it is indeed difficult for the media to discharge its duties.
The long civil war has created mistrust between the government and the media. During the critical
phase of the war, the government successfully implemented an information embargo and it continues to meddle with the media even after the war. To understand the present state of affairs this research paper formulated two broad questions to assess the overall media environment in Sri Lanka.
1) How do journalists feel about their own safety and the overall media environment in the country?
2) Do journalists feel they are able to play a role in the post war reconciliation efforts? The main conclusions of this study are:
1) There is some improvement with regard to the physical safety of journalists. The government has withdrawn restrictions imposed on the movement of journalists into northern parts of the country.
2) Lack of media freedom undermines the ability of journalists to play a meaningful role in the reconciliation efforts.
3) The militarisation of society, the lack of independence within the judiciary and a largely dysfunctional parliament are other factors that have an adverse impact on media freedom.
4) Sri Lankan journalists in exile are vigorously pursuing war crime stories. To an extent their work influences both the domestic and international media. A lack of regular and dependable financial support is a major limiting factor for the reporting by journalists in exile.
5) The reporting by international media, in particular by the British broadcaster Channel 4, helps to keep the international focus on Sri Lanka. The government has responded by mounting its own counter media campaign.
6) Many victims of the war feel disillusioned and let down by the media. As the case studies show, those who need media support the most, hardly get any.
7) The government has created structures to monitor and manipulate the media within and outside of Sri Lanka. These structures may outlive the present government. They pose a long term challenge to media freedom.
The main hope for the immediate future lies with the international media. Through their reporting on allegations of war crimes and human rights violations they have swung international opinion against Sri Lanka, but the impact on the domestic political process remains limited. But there remains the chance that in the long run, the continuous focus on Sri Lanka by the international media will force the current government under the leadership of President Rajapaksa to return freedom and democracy to all of the Sri Lankan people.
While reporting a war, it is very important for journalists to make extra efforts to report the consequences of war on civilians. By encouraging both communities to share their sufferings the media would be able to bring out the true cost of war. This may ultimately lead to reconciliation.
1. Journalists must spare some thought for the hapless population that got caught in the cross fire. The media need to create space to give voice to the voiceless. The best way of doing this is by filing personal stories.
2. During the civil war, journalists were deliberately targeted and frequently killed. In such scenarios there is a need for the international media to be proactively involved. To be in the focus of the international media may not stop the war or improve the security of the local journalists but will thwart the attempts of a government to suppress information. With the rapid spread of citizen journalism, it should be possible to get factual inputs from any region.
3. There is a need to create an institutional mechanism involving media rights organisations, international non-governmental organisations, journalism schools and donors to provide financial help and professional and linguistic training to journalists who flee from conflict zones.
From the report MEDIA FREEDOM IN POST WAR SRI LANKA AND ITS IMPACT ON THE RECONCILIATIONPROCESS
By Swaminathan Natarajan
Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper, University of Oxford