Several posts on social media by a group of young journalists who visited Jaffna on their own made ‘my day’ a couple of days ago. This was the day I was expecting to happen – mainly to build the bridge between two fractured societies in one country.
Visiting another part of the country by a group of Colombo based journalists would certainly not make news within the media sector but this visit made waves within social media as it was the first of its kind by a group of young journalists who pooled their own funds, found their own logistics and found their own way to make it happen.
Who initiated this visit and who mooted the idea, we do not remember but everyone grabbed when it came up during one of our social meetings, said Manoj Ratnayake, one of the participants.
Seventeen young journalists – still in their twenties - from several media houses got into the Yaldevi train with their cameras and note books and headed for Jaffna in search of Jaffna life and understanding its people. Fourteen out of this group were alumni of Sri Lanka College of Journalism. They were not on an official assignment by their respective newsrooms, but on an assignment of their own. “We wanted to see the life of Jaffna,” Shivanthi Fernando wrote in her face book page.
Jaffna University lecturer Swaninathan Wimal was their host and the group walked miles and miles within the peninsula for three days talking to people, visiting media houses, meeting journalists at Jaffna Press Club, drinking toddy under the palmyrah trees and bathing in the Jaffna sea. Magnificent journalistic works including pictorial portraits appeared on their face book pages with beautiful write-ups.
One of the arguments that several media experts came up with following the end of the war in 2009 was to build a media bridge between the two divided societies as a move to create ethnic harmony and cohabitation.
But in contrast it was a tough military regime that continued hindering all possible avenues for ethnic reconciliation. Every single move of individuals was strictly monitored if not restricted. Thus, media had an easy excuse. “But we do not think that the tough military control has entirely changed. Though we did not see military men on the street, we sometimes faced interruptions to our casual movements,” said some of the participants.
The Colombo centric media has extensively become ethnically polarised. One could hardly see a story from Jaffna in Sinhala newspapers unless it was ethnically sensitive – such as the recent controversial resolution at the Northern Provincial Council. Nothing on the day-to-day life in Jaffna and its related issues. The same argument applies to Tamil media as well. If one read both Sinhala and Tamil newspapers of the day, they could easily be seen as two sets of newspapers from two different countries. A key issue for this phenomenon is the lack of understanding between the two communities.
The train trip was full of thick political discussions and then music. “But when we talked to our colleagues in Jaffna, we realised that both of us had the same challenges – professionalism, language and job security,” says Manoj Ratnayake. The political debates during the return journey were more analytical and constructive, he added.
“Our perception towards the whole ethnic conflict was changed after the visit,” says Dasun Rajapakse. Now we are thinking on the ways and means to build a strong bridge between our two journalistic communities for better understanding, he says.
What is the next step? The answer could be extremely emotional and encouraging.
“We are waiting until our pay-day of this month. We will pool some funds from our monthly salaries and invite our Jaffna colleagues whom we met in the North to come down to the South, probably to Matara for a couple of days.”
What a future in the making if these plans go well?