Sri Lanka must end media restrictions to facilitate reconciliation

This month, in the wake of anti-Muslim sectarian riots in the southwest, the Sri Lankan government pressured local journalists to hide the truth by not covering the violence. Those brave enough to report it had their equipment destroyed and were threatened or physically attacked, according to media reports. Since the government stifled coverage of these incidents, journalists have reported using websites accessible outside Sri Lanka. The atmosphere of intimidation in Sri Lanka continues to have a chilling effect on reporting across ethnic lines, even on issues unrelated to the most controversial topics of the wartime or postwar human rights situation.

Media freedom has remained limited since the violent end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war five years ago, which resulted in allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides. Today, perpetrators of wartime abuses have yet to be held accountable through trials or truth commissions, and human rights violations persist. Moreover, CPJ research has shown that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made no attempt to address the murders of journalists that took place under his political leadership. Consequently, the country has remained “postwar,” which indicates the absence of actual warfare, without transitioning to “post-conflict,” which indicates the absence of the causes of the war such as the lack of political power-sharing and political spaces.

The lack of media freedom not only has negative consequences for reporting on current events but also for opening political spaces; debating the past; and acknowledging, explaining, and understanding previous acts of violence. These aspects, alongside prosecuting abusers or exposing the truth, constitute transitional justice processes. In the absence of traditional transitional justice mechanisms such as trials and truth commissions, the media can potentially address human rights violations.

Unlike trials and truth commissions, the media exist in order to satisfy the day-to-day needs of individuals and communities. Research on conflict resolution affirms that the media are the primary vehicle through which people learn about and understand events and accordingly possesses the power to shape collective sentiments. Due to their permanence, media institutions and journalists may be inherently better suited to facilitate reconciliation than traditional transitional justice mechanisms. The media can even help generate the political will necessary to galvanize prosecutions.

“The press can and should hold power to account … not only state power but also others: in this case, the government, and also non-state actors like the (now-defeated) LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] or other armed groups, the international community, and various diasporas,” journalist and writer V.V. Ganeshananthan told me in an interview. In fact, the media have already performed a justice function as exemplified by Britain’s Channel 4, which has highlighted abuses through its ongoing coverage. One broadcast–a video showing members of the Sri Lankan Army killing blindfolded, bound, and naked Tamils–actually prompted a U.N. investigation into wartime abuses, verifying the authenticity of the video. However, in places enduring or recovering from war, the local media generally impacts reconciliation efforts much more than the foreign media, according to legal scholarship on media and conflict resolution. Increasing media freedom within Sri Lanka is consequently critical.

Media outlets should be able to freely comment on the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity and also on current tensions and human rights violations. This would allow voices of trauma and suffering to emerge and preserve the stories of victims, thus acknowledging the harm done to Sri Lankans, particularly the Tamils in the north, and saving their memory from total destruction by the government. I believe communities do not need to reach perfect consensus on these narratives, as the value of transitional justice processes may in fact be in their ability to encourage discussions about the past as opposed to achieving total closure. This process of coming to a shared understanding of the past may have valuable implications for reconciliation. At this stage, “the conversation could progress more effectively from ‘what are the facts?’ to ‘what do the facts mean?'” Ganeshananthan suggested.

Many war survivors feel that the media have failed them by excluding their voices from the news, according to a BBC Tamil service producer’s survey of 10 Tamil, six Sinhalese, and four bilingual journalists. The same survey indicated that because journalists frequently cannot report honestly on events–especially in the northern areas still recovering from the war, which remain heavily restricted–journalists have felt unable to contribute to reconciliation efforts.

In fact, many journalists may not even understand themselves as potential transitional justice actors, according to Sanjana Hattotuwa, editor of the website Groundviews. “They haven’t had the space or the freedom to explore this role to any great degree,” since “those who dare to ask [inconvenient or investigative questions] are vilified and prosecuted,” he said.

Given freedom, the media could transmit unedited and uncensored Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim experiences of suffering across the country. The recent sectarian violence underscores the necessity of reporting across ethnic lines.

Unless media restrictions are lifted, the media cannot report independently and impartially, and genuine accountability and reconciliation efforts will not occur. To move forward from postwar to post-conflict, the government must create a political climate in which journalists can speak out about wartime and postwar human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Being a journalist should not coincide with living in danger–instead, it must be a free and safe undertaking for journalists seeking to promote reconciliation.