Friday, February 12, 2010

Women scribes in Sri Lanka: fighting against odds

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Manipadma Jena - May 2009 marked the end of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war that had torn the nation apart. But it has been an uneasy truce. “The Sri Lankan government should immediately end its post-election harassment of media outlets and ensure protection of journalists from attack,” Human Rights Watch said on January 29, 2010. It added, “Since the presidential election on January 26, Sri Lankan authorities have detained and questioned several journalists, blocked news Web sites, and expelled a foreign journalist. At least one journalist has been assaulted and several threatened.”

Controls on journalists who had dared to take on the government — not just on the war with the LTTE and its aftermath, but also on domestic, political and economic issues — have hardly eased. Abductions, phone and text threats, and denouncements on official government Web sites continued into the election eve. “Now that the President has been re-elected, there appears to be a settling of scores with critics of the government,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

As the voices against media harassment rise, several media organisations, including Reporters without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, have asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa to deliver on his promises of a free and autonomous Fourth Estate. But will Rajapaksa now deliver? That's anybody's guess.

Sri Lanka's civil war, which began in 1983, was one of the oldest ongoing conflicts in the world. In 2006, when full-scale violence resumed between the government and the LTTE, human rights violations committed by both sides increased dramatically. Widespread internal displacement was by far the direst of consequences, as the military recaptured LTTE occupied territory.

The pre-poll promises of returning Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their homes, too, have only been partially fulfilled.

Media, black or white?

In such a sharply polarised scenario, the media are viewed in black and white terms — either as supporters or detractors, as allies or enemies. Boding far-reaching ills for a democracy and civil society, freedom of expression has been a consistent casualty.

Dilrukshi Handunnetti, in the Asia Media Report 2009, titled ‘Truth, the Second Casualty' takes an insider's hard look at the tumultuous state of the Sri Lankan media in its quest for the truth amidst violence, sensationalism and censorship. A lawyer by training, she has been a journalist for 17 years, and is currently editor, investigation desk, at The Sunday Leader. She sees herself as a human rights activist above all else and has covered the ethnic conflict from a non-military perspective.. She says, “Women journalists successfully bring in the gender perspective and the psychological impact of violence on men, women and children, both during the conflict and at the IDP camps, which male journalists might mostly overlook, concentrating rather on political aspects.”

“Journalists are consciously kept out. News that gets out from the camps is sensational and there is no way to verify its authenticity,” observes Sharmini Boyle, the director and chief editor at ‘Young Asia Television', a leading independent organisation producing programmes on human rights, peace-building, youth and gender issues.

In Sri Lankan politics, women have a four per cent representation at the Centre and two per cent presence at the local level. Gender representation in the media is much better. A Sri Lanka-based Tamil woman journalist, who has put in 16 years in the profession, but who requests anonymity, asks a pertinent question, “How many of us women journalists really travelled to conflict zones to report? Every attempt has been made to silence us.”

A majority of mediapersons, both at the local and international levels, would echo her. Thakshila Dilrukshi, BBC's Sinhala service reporter, who was attacked with clubs recently by partisan political groups, certainly would.

The Tamil journalist adds, “It is quite difficult to operate as an independent journalist and report impartially.” Her fears are those of all journalists who have remained true to their professional ethics and spirit, despite the immense pressure to side with the government, quit altogether or even leave the country.

“It is frustrating being unable to carry out my job independently, travel to North and East (the conflict areas and IDP camp bases) for news coverage without obtaining prior permission from the authorities, and being watched all the time. I like to travel to the field, be with the people of all three (Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim) communities and report what I see and hear. I do not like ‘comfort journalism'. But after my colleagues were shot dead, and about 35-40 journalists left the country, I have decided it is prudent to keep a low profile,” she says. Of the 34 media personnel killed since April 2004, three were Sinhalese, one was a Muslim and the rest were Tamils.

The gender perspective

For women journalists the nature of work and the working environment has undergone a sea change. Recalls Vijita Fernando, journalist, translator and fiction writer since the 1960s, “There was a time in the media industry in Sri Lanka — print and broadcast — when there were no women reporters. They were either editors of supplement pages for women and children or feature writers.”

Things have changed dramatically in the intervening years. “Now, women occupy editors' chairs, cover parliament, do the police beat and, of course, cover the conflict too, but only marginally — and with accompanying male journalists. When the conflict was on, however, hardly any journalists were allowed in the north and east,” she observes.

Vijita strikes a thought provoking note: “Women journalists have always focused on the gender aspect even while writing about IDPs and IDP camps. This is an extension of their interest in women. Even outside the conflict and post-conflict situation, women journalists tend to focus on women's lives — the abuse, their rights, their children, domestic violence, maternal health and mortality. But I am not generalising. There are a few women journalists who have always written on politics and issues like the dearth of women in politics and women's legal rights. Yet, here too, it is the women they are focusing on, although not on what is normally termed as ‘women's issues'.”

Confirming her observations, the Tamil journalist adds, “There are many stories to be covered, such as martyrs' families, women cadres, children affected by conflict, to name a few. Since there are travel restrictions these stories remain untold to the world.”

Women scribes in the troubled island nation are certainly mainstreaming gender. They are shaking off the tag of being interested only in ‘soft' stories and are consolidating their position despite the odds. For instance, 30 women journalists came together in May last year to put in place the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asian Women in Media (SAWM - the first South Asian all-women media association with members from SAARC countries) in order to give the much needed fillip to women journalists in Sri Lanka. But most of all they want to do stories that shine the torch on the political and stark social realities that beset their country today.

© The Hindu Business Line

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