A free, professional and plural media contributes greatly to good governance and the development of society. Having a vibrant media, enables access to information and dialogue, encourages accountability and people to express views and causes greater political participation. In the wake of the tragedy faced by this nation on April 21, followed by heightened tensions between the communities coupled with acts of violence, in order to evaluate the role media has played so far and the role that should be played by the media, The Sri Lanka Press Institute organised a panel discussion on the topic, ‘The role of media in ethnic reconciliation’ was held on August 6.
The panel comprised Professor Jayantha Senevirathna (an academic in the field of peace and reconciliation and the current Chairman of the Centre for Peace Building and Reconciliation), K. W. Janaranjana (an attorney-at-law and the Chief Editor of Anidda) and Rashi Fernando (Acting Director of the Media Unit at the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms). The objectives of this panel discussion, were to analyse and discuss the decline in the focus of the ethnic issues that plague this nation, especially with regard to the role of the media. The root causes of these issues aren’t dealt with and are mentioned only in passing without delving deeper into the issues. This was identified as being one of the reasons that has contributed to the process of reconciliation coming to a standstill.
The moderator, Sri Lanka College of Journalism Director Shan Wijetunge, opened the dialogue by discussing, that Sri Lanka is still recovering in the aftermath of the war and both the Easter Sunday attacks and that acts of religious extremism have contributed to worsening the situation in the country. He further stated, that when fingers are being pointed at those responsible for this situation one of the fingers is pointed at the media. Wijetunge commenced the panel discussion with a question regarding, the current situation in the country following the Easter Sunday attacks. He identified that the ethnic situation has become more complex and that certain actions of the media have aggravated the situation. On this note, Wijetunge directed the question regarding the role of the media in such a situation and if the media is ready to face it, to the first panellist, Prof. Senevirathne. Prof. Senevirathne, identified truth, justice, forgiveness and compassion as the four main factors of reconciliation. Focusing on the aspect of forgiveness, he said that forgiveness involves the acknowledgment of guilt and responsibility, which is then followed by an apology and atonement leading to reparation.
It is only once the victim witnesses this process that he or she would settle for forgiveness which would pave the way for reconciliation. He emphasised, that the State has an important role to play in this process of reconciliation and that it must take responsibility for it. Prof. Senevirathne stated that there must be a thirst within humans for this process of reconciliation to be taken forward and pointed out that the society now seeks to solve the problems that emerge in society, through violence and has yet to reach that place of reconciliation. The Government has fallen short of the responsibility and duty they have in bringing the country through the necessary stages to reach a place of reconciliation. In as much as the Government has a role to play in this process, the media also has a great responsibility in fostering compassion among the people, to create a humane society. However, Prof. Senevirathne noted that as of today, there is a systematic ethnic hegemony that takes place within society, where those who wield and possess more power, dominate and suppress those with less. He observed, that in order to change this, the Government has to institute massive reforms and the media has to play a more active role in bridging the gap between the ethnicities. Prof. Senevirathne asserted, that it’s a big challenge, but it must be done. Rashi Fernando, focused on discussing the challenges faced by the regional correspondents when reporting.
He mentioned that there were issues regarding the accuracy of reports, due to the interference by certain media channels. He stated that due to their unsuccessful efforts to create a dialogue with the people responsible, they have taken a bottom up approach and have created a means of having direct communication with the regional correspondents, so as to ensure the accuracy of the reports. Continuing on this topic, Janaranjana further emphasised on the issue regarding the accuracy of news reports, drawing on the recent incidents surrounding the allegations against Dr. Mohamed Shafi and the message that was circulated via social media, on the prevalence of multiple vehicles filled with weapons that were travelling around of the country. In his discussion on how such a situation could be averted, he identified two key elements; firstly, the veracity of the reports and secondly the consequences of publishing a report. He further went on to discuss, how despite the war ending in 2009, our country not progressing past the stage of transitional justice.
There has been a lack of determination and effort made by those who wield political power to see progress in this situation. Promises made have remained as mere words and largely due to pressure placed on the leaders of the country by international actors to establish certain mechanisms, there has been some progress. People have lost faith in the process of reconciliation as their trust has been broken. He stated that the media should have taken up their responsibilities to bring change, but instead, the institutes have contributed towards creating further division among the people, by giving a voice to extremism. Janaranjana highlighted the importance of ethics in journalism, stating that a journalist should have core principles that they would hold true to in the course of their work. He concluded his speech by saying that media representatives are normal people, but they should not behave as such when they are part of the media.
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