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On mute no more

1 December 2021 02:15 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The pandemic has changed the way we speak and infused our vocabulary with a new set of words and phrases. Those like infodemic, hybrid-working, remote working, cluster-spread, community-spread, super-spreader, remote-learning, flattening the curve and many others are now part of our daily usage with a new set of meanings. My favourite has been “you are on mute,” the phrase that I have heard the most and invariably hear at least once a day still. 

These changes to our vocabulary are ancillary to the upheavals that have taken place in the last 24 months. In a broad sweep, the mass fear of infection and  personal isolation have influenced us to revaluate how we approach our work and our lives. 
For a long time after I became a writer, I never thought I would ever be anything else. But about a decade back, the Lasantha Wickrematunge murder and my professional and personal connections to the late editor jolted my career as a writer and its impact on my life so much that I changed careers. I found it hard to deal with the situation where I had to cover the murder and the shambolic investigation as a journalist. That was when I began to seriously consider the trauma impact of my work. 

"Despite more women now taking up journalism in Sri Lanka and holding decision-maker positions, the remnants of a past steeped in the pseudo macho culture of the bullet-proof journalist is still very much an industry trademark"

There was no one in the Sri Lankan media community who had the skills or the training to talk about this. Ten years after my first discussion on trauma and journalism on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, the subject is front and centre of my research work now. And it is not only me who is speaking about this. 


COVID has made the journalism community take that same hard look as I did a decade back. I recently spoke with Piyumi Fonseka, who works as an investigations editor for this same newspaper. She recounted how the last year has been a difficult journey. The isolation, the disruptions to our lives and real threat of contracting a deadly virus combined to erode our mental peace and whatever personal equilibrium we had achieved. 
Fonseka spoke about another difficult circumstance of being a journalist and may be a female journalist in Sri Lanka. The reluctance within the community to acknowledge and thereafter deal with mental health as a serious work-related risk. 


Despite more women now taking up journalism in Sri Lanka and holding decision-maker positions, the remnants of a past steeped in the pseudo macho culture of the bullet-proof journalist is still very much an industry trademark. 
Only a few years back, a female colleague of mine addressing an international training programme for Indian and Pakistani journalists in Colombo said that she had PTSD. She said it as if it were a badge of honour to wear, an ideal that others, especially juniors should aspire to. It was an attempt to thrill and shrill. PTSD is no minor issue, nor should it be trivialised to shock-jock an audience. 

"In a broad sweep, the mass fear of infection and  personal isolation have influenced us to revaluate how we approach our work and our lives"

She is a product of an incubated community that still equates years on the job as expertise. That attitude has made way for dozens of homegrown media experts whose only claim to such expertise is years on the job. Worse, some of them even do not have that. Their claim is that they have self-appointed themselves as talking heads for years. 
Those like Fonseka go against the grain. They are part of a new breed of journalists who are willing to challenge skewed thinking in Sri Lanka media. Admitting we are not bullet-proof is one such instance, announcing a false PTSD diagnosis is not. 


COVID has made us rethink how we approach work.  Several years back, even I would have balked at any suggestion that journalism was anything but a 24/7 job. We used to say it is a calling not a job. But COVID has made us understand the impact a 24/7 job has on us, our loved ones and even on that job itself. 
Another journalist, from the Maldives told me that it takes courage to say no. To walk away from the job, every week, every day for some time. To take that break. 


That break is more valuable to the quality and professionalism of our work than we may suspect. Emergent research indicates that a healthy balance between work and our lives outside of work, in fact lends to professional rigour and resilience. 

"A big impediment is a non-supportive work-place culture. The same culture made space for talking heads to monopolise the air space when stories on workplace harassment appeared. Where has the MeToo moment in Sri Lanka media gone? Has it changed anything?"

A big impediment is a non-supportive work-place culture. The same culture made space for talking heads to monopolise the air space when stories on workplace harassment appeared. Where has the MeToo moment in Sri Lanka media gone? Has it changed anything? 


From where I am, I saw a bunch of mike-grabbers, who are experts on everything on media, from investigative journalism to climate change to digital space preach. The moment was rendered a blip, a noisy blip. 
That is why I respect those like Fonseka, who take the difficult options, not the clickbaity ones. It is time to unmute the conversation on workplace harassment and by extension mental wellbeing in 
Sri Lanka media.

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