Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

SRI LANKA: With End of War, Media Shifts Focus

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Aug 12 2009 (IPS) - These days, the front pages of mainstream Sri Lankan newspapers are dominated by reports of clashes between two Muslim groups, the drama of two baby elephants separated from their mothers and government efforts to ban porn sites and curb adult-only movies. This shift in news focus is a radical departure from the days when newspapers were choked with war coverage.

"I think the clashes between two Muslim factions have been overplayed, maybe because there is no other news," said Mohamed Ameen, a veteran Sri Lanka journalist.

Since the end of a bloody Tamil rebel campaign for independence for the country’s minority Tamils in May, Sri Lankan newspapers are struggling to fill the void created by the sudden end to war news.

"What do we report now? That’s the question journalists are asking," said Ariyananda Dombagahawatte, Editor of the Sinhala-language, Sunday Lankadeepa, the country’s largest selling newspaper with more than 350,000 copies.

"Who thought the LTTE (rebels) would be defeated or who imagined (Velupillai) Prabhakaran (the elusive rebel leader) would get killed? No one was prepared for that, least of all we journalists," he added.

For some 25 years – during the course of the battle between government troops and LTTE rebels – newspapers have been tailored on a diet of war news which took a chunk of ‘Page 1’. Now newspapermen are struggling for fresh story ideas and new ways of attracting readers whose daily dose of war news is more or less off the pages.

The issue confronts more the vernacular media that the English language-press because Sinhala newspapers have a far wider reach in the country where the majority speak Sinhalese and have been supporting the military crackdown against the rebels. Thousands have died in the conflict since 1983.

Victor Ivan, Editor of the mainstream ‘Ravaya’, a Sinhala language newspaper, says journalists are confronted with a major challenge and believes the debate and discussion would now shift from the war to others issues like reform of the state, education, refugees, ethnic emotions, transport, parliament, election systems, the judiciary, and the sort.

"But in this new focus, the challenge means journalists have to read up more and be able to understand and analyse topics which are more complex unlike before when news was just a phone call away," he said.

Most reporters call their military contacts or media spokespersons in the military for stories which were mostly straightforward reporting of events or clashes, a problem one publisher said led to a drop in good investigative reporting.

"That is one of the problems we’ll have – how to handle proper investigative reporting on corruption and other issues of public importance. Reporters in the past two decades were content with calling their contacts to reporting war and other related news," the publisher who owns a stable of newspapers and magazines in Sinhala and English said. He requested anonymity.

Newspaper reports on the war have varied over the years from high spurts during heavy battles in the war-front to low intensity particularly during peace talks between the government and the rebels. Sri Lanka’s development, social and economic-news media changed sharply after July 1983 when minority Tamils were attacked, many killed and their properties destroyed by rampaging mobs from the majority Sinhalese community in the worst bout of ethnic unrest.

Even though the economy hasn’t grown to its full potential due to the unrest and world opinion, the thirst for war news has led to a plethora of newspapers, radio and television stations against a handful in the early 1980s.

Editors from the English language press however say war news has not been their main priority. Sinha Ratnatunga, Editor of the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka's largest-selling independent English weekly, says there was a lot of interest in the war particularly during a period of fighting or a major incident and especially during the final military onslaught (earlier this year).

"But over the years we also balanced war related news with a lot of political news and other developments. War news was not exactly our staple diet," he said, referring to his newspaper.

He said with lots of elections due in the next few months, presidential and parliamentary polls included, reader interest will shift back to the politicians and that's what newspapers will be focusing on at least in the months ahead.

Defence correspondents, journalists who write weekly newspapers columns on military and war-related affairs, still focus on military matters but its more about how the war was won, new appointments and changes in the military hierarchy.

Sunday Lankadeepa editor Dombagahawatte says the news content cannot change overnight. "We need to keep running stuff on how the war was won for at least a few months and quietly shift gear. You can’t do it immediately because this (thirst for war news) is what we created over the years. Trying to stop it now would be like suddenly stopping a man drinking water." He said he noticed a slight drop in the circulation of Sinhala language newspapers after the war ended in May for these reasons.

Chaturanga Perera, a Colombo business executive and vociferous reader of both English and Sinhala newspapers, says war and business news is normally what gets his attention. "Yes, there is a kind of vacuum created by the sudden drop in war news but I believe since we have been reading newspapers all our life, we will move with the changes in news content," he said.

Another veteran journalist, Siri Ranasinghe, Editor of the largest circulating Sinhala-language daily ‘Lankadeepa’, the sister paper of the Sunday Lankadeepa, says the vacuum created by no war news means newspapers have to look at new stories and what to report. "While normal crime news will be our focus, development news would get more play in newspapers now," he added.

Indeed this Sunday’s newspapers were filled with clashes between Muslim groups in Beruwela, south of Colombo and other developments. Next week’s polls in the north have also got a lot of play. There was only, just a few paragraphs about the discovery of a huge cache of weapons left behind by fleeing rebels.

 
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