Resolving the Sri Lankan Conflict through Free Media
Previously published on October 15, 2008
The ability to readily acquire factual information is pivotal to the decision making process. With emerging technologies, mass media provides greater openness as well as new opportunities for misinformation. While mass media opens the world to the views and experiences of billions, professional news outlets continue to represent sources of credible information. Although Western news outlets tend to be kinder to their home countries, they are free to report the shortcomings of their governments. In nations, such as Sri Lanka, where media is used to manipulate the populous in favor of the government and drive an ethnic conflict, media freedom could help facilitate a resolution to their long-standing insurrection.
For years, Tamil separatists, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have attempted to form their own nation separate from the majority controlled Sri Lanka
after ethnic violence pushed Sinhalese mobs to kill over 300 Tamils in 1983. While India supported the Tamil and attempted to broker an agree in 1987, which required the eventual formation of an autonomous region controlled by the Tamil and replaced Sri Lankan troops with Indian troops in the Tamil dominated Jaffria Peninsula, the Indian intervention eventually failed with the withdrawal of troops in 1990. After a series of Sinhalese governments and an attempt on the behalf of Norwegian mediators to reconcile the two ethnic groups in 2003, violence continues with government troops killing civilians thought to be insurgent sympathizers and Tamil targeting civilian Sinhalese.
In regions of crisis, free media provides two essential functions. Where a suppressive government prevents objective, credible information from reaching the populous, free media sources work to inform citizens on their government's behavior against fellow citizens and other nations. Meanwhile, it helps validate facts and manipulate propaganda.
Secondly, free media helps inform the outside world of the situation in such a nation, so global actors can move to punish suppressive governments for the unacceptable treatment of its people. Furthermore, it also helps the world prepare for humanitarian crises and provide assistance when there is change in government.
Free media includes news outlets that operate in a nation without regard to the will of that nation's government. In America, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press; however, many nations only have access to state controlled or manipulated media. By helping nations like Sri Lanka obtain media freedom, citizens can begin to better understand the opposing side to conflicts and curtail their government's inappropriate behavior. In the meantime, outside sources broadcasting into Sri Lanka
can, at the very least, provide residents with alternative perspectives to official state propaganda. Meanwhile, a free media source can also correct misinformation provided by insurgents. For example, proper analysis of Al Qaeda broadcasts can help correct the propaganda spread by such groups. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, it is both government and insurgent misinformation that helps polarize people to the point war is the only option.
Recently, the crackdown in Myanmar (Burma) was only captured because free media sources, such as the BBC and Radio Free Asia, had been able to infiltrate the nation. With internet access and digital cameras widely available, individuals were able to provide shocking images of a brutal crackdown. Had free media not been able to broadcast such images, the world would have been blind to the brutality of the crackdown while the people of Myanmar would have been unable to see their follow citizens willing to fight their government. Furthermore, the destruction caused by the tsunami, which devastated the region months later, could not have been seen nor would the ineffective nature of the government been revealed.
In Sri Lanka, media freedom means building news outlets that can attribute the destructive deeds of government and the insurgency to the responsible party while highlighting the positive contributions of the Tamil and the Sinhalese as well as generating awareness so mediators will take a greater interest in the conflict. Meanwhile, free media can recondition the people of Sri Lanka to see outsiders as sources of support despite prejudice created by India's relationships with the Tamil and the West. Furthermore, a conflict can only be resolved when there is transparency and the people on both sides are able to trust their interests and grievances will be addressed. Because government and the insurgency are willing to attack innocent civilians, a lack of credible media allows both groups to polarize the Tamil and the Sinhalese against each other. Media freedom is a necessary component in the healing of Sri Lanka.