Identity and Violence: Media Coverage of the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka (Part 2)

16 Aug, 2018    ·   5506

Anjana Vencatesan compares and assesses the international media's coverage of the February and March 2018 conflict in Sri Lanka

Part 1 of the two-part series on media and conflict in Sri Lanka examined the coverage by Sri Lanka-based English and Tamil language media of the February-March 2018 conflict that took place in Kandy and Digana areas. Part 2 examines the approach of international publications, including those based in countries neighbouring Sri Lanka.

The overarching question is whether geographical proximity (geographical location) influences how the conflict is covered by the media. One way to answer this question is via a two-stage evaluation of the issue’s prominence in the coverage. The first stage involves an examination of the presence or absence of coverage of the conflict in the leading news outlets of a country. The second stage involves a study on the numbers of articles dedicated to the coverage of the conflict, especially in comparison with coverage of other issues involving Sri Lanka. The timeframe for the focus of this study is restricted to the first week of March 2018 to ensure relevance in comparison. The most popular news outlets online from India, Bangladesh and Myanmar are chosen along with international publications such as the BBC and Al Jazeera.

The media in Bangladesh did cover the conflict, but the prominence attributed was very low. Articles on Sri Lanka in six prominent Bangladeshi newspapers available on the Internet comprise mostly of the coverage of the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka cricket tournament. A very small proportion of news articles, usually only two out of seven or ten articles, were on the conflict, and most of them were sourced from news agencies such as Reuters or Agence France Presse (AFP). In Indian publications–The Indian Express and The Hindu–there was equal coverage with articles on both the conflict and the tournament on a near daily frequency. In sharp contrast, there were no articles on cricket in both the BBC and Al Jazeera in the selected time period and search results return up to ten articles on the conflict.

Meanwhile, there was no coverage of the said conflict in any of Myanmar’s leading news websites–The Myanmar Times, Mizzima News and Myanmar Business Today–which in itself provides interesting insights with respect to proximity. In fact, the only article on Muslims in Sri Lanka was an Op Ed  from 2012 in The Myanmar Times. One possible reason for this could be that the idea of geographic proximity is overruled by other types of proximity such as religious and cultural aspects. Sri Lanka and Myanmar share strong cultural ties in Buddhism and have historically had good bilateral relations. Moreover, there is increasing evidence to suggest that the Muslim community is being framed as “the other” in both countries with recent instances of violence against Rohingya asylum seekers in Colombo.

One of the most interesting articles in Indian media was published in The Indian Express, which marked a significant deviation from other articles. The article was titled, ’Emergency imposed in Sri Lanka, China asks govt to ensure security of its nationals’, making it the only article to place China as the central focus; and this pattern persists throughout the article which begins with by stating “China on Wednesday urged the Sri Lankan government to ensure the security of its nationals....”

When contents of multiple international publications on the same date are assessed, the first noticeable difference that emerges is in the terminology used to define the conflict. The second difference is on the levels of emphases on the identity and agency of the communities in describing the events that reportedly triggered the conflict. The differences are presented below with identity highlighted in bold and the agency underlined for better clarity.

Media: The BBC
Terms used for description: Riots, violence, clashes between mobs, anti-Muslim violence
Identity description: “A Buddhist youth died during an altercation with a group of Muslims

Al Jazeera
Terms used for description: Anti-Muslim riots, rioters, attacks, communal violence, tensions
Identity description: “when a man from the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority died after being beaten by a group of Muslim men

Media: The Indian Express
Terms used for description: Communal clashes, communal violence
Identity description: “triggered by the death of a Sinhalese man at the hands of a mob last week”

Media: The Hindu
Terms used for description: Heightening violence, anti-Muslim attacks
Identity description: “death of a 41-year-old man from the majority Sinhalese community, who was beaten up by a mob, reportedly Muslim

The other notable aspect in the use of language is the tone of reporting. While all the other articles follow a highly factual form of reporting, the Al Jazeera article begins with a more dramatic style before proceeding to the section that provides an analysis on state action and domestic politics: “The mob came by the hundreds, screaming at the top of their lungs and carrying sticks, stones and petrol bombs, as they descended on the hill town of Ambatenna in central Sri Lanka on Wednesday...We don't feel safe. All our children are traumatised. We don't know where to go, or who to trust," the 27-year-old accountant told Al Jazeera, standing in front of the burned hulk of his car in his garage.”

As is the case with cultural and historical proximity, it is evident that geographical proximity is not a linear one-to-one mapping to prominence and framework of reporting. The notion that increased proximity defined by geography would imply increased intensity of coverage is disproved through examples from India (where geopolitical interests dominate to make China the centre of focus) and Myanmar (where coverage is absent despite geographical proximity).

The second observation is that very few publications attempted to make the article and the reportage of the incidents connect on a personal level. Barring Al Jazeera, which included eye witness accounts, all the other publications referred to only communities or groups. Reading about “Sinhalas,” “Muslims” or “mobs” is far less personal than reading about “Fathima Zameer clutching her three year old infant” and it is safe to assume that the former has the effect of de-sensitising the reader to the actual human impact of such conflicts. There are cases–such as the BBC–where it is a conscious decision of editorial style. However, as the BBC itself notes in its editorial guidelines, it is important to “strike a balance between the demands of accuracy and the dangers of desensitisation or unjustified distress.” The difference between “altercation,” “being attacked,” and “being beaten up” is sufficient to convey to the reader a sense of responsibility and blame. This further highlights how language is a powerful tool capable of influencing public opinion and determining the dominance of narratives. 

In June 2018, the New York Times' local Sri Lankan reporters investigating allegations of corruption against the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa were subjected to intense personal abuse online and criticism from parliamentarians. Given such incidents, observers fear that the progress made in press freedoms over the past three years could easily be lost. With the 2020 general elections fast approaching, mainstream and social media will play critical roles, and the need for conflict sensitive reporting is crucial to ensure de-escalation of violence.

Anjana Vencatesan is a graduate of the Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs, where she researches on media coverage of identities and conflict.