By Anjana Vencatesan
In the recent months, Facebook has consistently been in the spotlight for its role in the Cambridge Analytica controversy; ineffective response to fake news in Ireland’s reproductive rights referendum; and the failure to remove hate speech during the Rohingya crisis, among others. Another recent issue in which Facebook was a key tool used to spread propaganda was in Sri Lanka.
In February and March 2018, certain areas in Sri Lanka such as Kandy and Digana were witness to a conflict between groups representing the majority Buddhist-Sinhala population and the minority Muslim population. In light of the violence and arson which continued despite curfews in the selected localities, the Sri Lankan government promulgated a state of emergency to curb the violence and introduced restrictions on social media to stop the spread of propaganda videos. In subsequent months, the government openly criticised Facebook for failing to identify and remove hateful content. While the role of social media in fomenting unrest is under the lens, another interesting aspect of any conflict situation is the coverage by the mainstream media.
In the island nation with a history of conflict, how does the media coverage of the conflict influence opinions? Part 1 of this two-part series compares and assesses the tone of coverage in English and Tamil language media in Sri Lanka. Part 2 will examine the impact of geographical proximity on the coverage by international publications.
The assumption prior to the analysis is that Tamil language media outlets may hold a more antagonistic view towards the Sinhala majority government and the promulgation of the emergency compared to English language media outlets, owing to historical or ‘lived experience’ proximity or that it may take a form of identifying with the Muslim population of Sri Lanka as fellow minorities. An analysis of the newspapers, however, reveals that the assumption did not hold true and that on the contrary the coverage was almost opposite to what was assumed.
The abovementioned ‘conflict’ was given wide coverage in leading English language Sri Lankan news outlets such as The Colombo Telegraph and The Daily Mirror Lanka. The Colombo Telegraph termed it as “communal riots” and “attacks” across various articles and specifies in each article, “the death of a Sinhala man when attacked/beaten up by Muslim men.” The Colombo Telegraph was also critical of the government’s response to curbing violence, reiterating multiple times that it was slow. One of the striking publications in The Colombo Telegraph is an Op Ed by former President Mahinda Rajapakse, in which he argued that “But since the late 1980s a section of the Muslim population has gravitated towards communal political parties. This has made it easy for conspiratorial forces both local and foreign to inflame tensions…”
The Daily Mirror Lanka focused more on political and economic fall-outs of the conflict such as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s statement to the parliament; the possibility of Muslim members of parliament voting for a No-Confidence motion; and even the reaction of the Canadian government to the violence. One such article focused on the impact of the conflict on tourism, arguing that “religious and communal violence” has affected tourism, and by describing the conflict as having begun from a “roadside brawl” and leading to “chaos.”
In Virakesari, Sri Lanka’s oldest and most popular Tamil language newspapers, the article describing the proclamation of emergency is a brief 15-line note with a straightforward headline. It refrains from mentioning any identity and also does not use terms like ‘clash’ or ‘riot’. It begins with the phrase, ‘Taking into consideration the events that have taken place in the country, the government has decided to promulgate emergency…’ [Translated from Tamil]. Another article begins by describing it as ‘violent incidents’ and while mentioning that mosques were damaged, it refers to the perpetrators as ‘members of the majority ethnicity’.
In the state owned Tamil language newspaper, Dinakaran, articles term the violence as ‘ethnicity related attacks’. This trend can also be seen in the Jaffna based Tamil language newspaper, Uthayan, where most articles refer to it as ‘ethnicity based violence or attacks’. Of all the articles covering the conflict, only one refers to the identity of the ‘majority ethnicity’ while describing it as ‘the clashes between Sinhala and Muslim communities has reached its peak’ [Translated from Tamil].
It is interesting to observe the role of political statements and considerations playing a bigger role in the English language media coverage than an actual description of the violence that unfolded. The English language media also terms the conflict as ethno-religious whereas the Tamil language media terms it as exclusively ethnic in origin. Similarly, in Tamil language media, it can be seen that the shared proximity of fellow minorities does not directly translate into increased coverage.
In 2003, a study on media in North East Sri Lanka by the Centre for Policy Alternatives and International Media Support noted that the “media is not seen as a shared space by the Tamil and Muslim journalists in the North-East,” and recommends improving relations between the two media communities through inter-communal media dialogues. A similar view is echoed in the 2015 book, Embattled Media: Democracy, Governance and Reform in Sri Lanka, where the desire to maximise benefits from limited land resources is cited as a possible reason for Tamil antipathy. It appears that years later the situation has not improved for the better.