27 March 2018
International coverage of anti-Muslim violence in central Sri Lanka left something to be desired.
If truth is the first casualty of war, then nuance is a frequent casualty of international reporting. Every so often, at the hands of the big-name media networks of the world that attempt to cover internal conflicts of small, decidedly unsexy nations, nuance dies a particularly slow and painful death.
In the wake of the recent anti-Muslim violence that erupted in the small town of Digana, in central Sri Lanka’s Kandy district, international journalists were seen clambering the hills, accompanied by less well-known local stringers.
Much of their coverage focused on the ongoing violence, with some context thrown in for those unfamiliar with the country’s complex sociopolitical terrain. To be fair, the nature of breaking news is such that there’s only so much airtime or bandwidth a journalist can allocate for the subject, and one cannot fault them for not supplying detailed sociological analysis of the causes.
That said, some nuance is necessary.
According to one Associated Press report:
Sri Lanka has long been divided between the majority Sinhalese, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and minority Tamils who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The country remains deeply scarred by its 1983-2009 civil war, when Tamil rebels fought to create an independent homeland. While the rebels were eventually crushed, a religious divide has taken hold in recent years, with hard-line Sinhalese groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert and destroying sacred Buddhist sites.
But grouping together the Muslims in Sri Lanka with Tamils of Hindu and Christian faiths is both historically and politically misleading. Even though a majority of Sri Lankan Muslims speak the Tamil language, they have historically insisted upon a distinct ethnic identity based on their religion. This distinction is especially crucial when talking about the three-decades-long civil war, as the report does, since it gives the wrong impression that ‘Muslim Tamils’ too were part of the separatist movement. On the contrary, the Tamil Tigers forcibly evicted around 90,000 Muslims from the Tamil-majority North in 1990.
Readers have also objected to the language used in some of these international reports. Several commentators told Chhetria Patrakar that use of the word ‘clash’ by some publications to refer to the violence implied that the incident was organic – that it was a logical conclusion to simmering tensions between the two communities, as opposed to an organised and calculated attack. But ongoing investigations have revealed that this was a well-orchestrated anti-Muslim operation.
And then there was the downright embarrassing. While tweeting that “Buddhist mobs are burning Muslim homes and businesses in Sri Lanka”, Al-Jazeera Plus had embedded to the tweet a video whose establishing-shots that were clearly filmed in Tamil Nadu, India – several hundred miles away from the scene of violence.
To Al-Jazeera Plus’s credit, it issued the following correction, a good seven hours later:
Correction: The footage used at 1:12 and at 1:19 in this video incorrectly showed Tamil Nadu, India and not Sri Lanka.
— AJ+ (@ajplus) March 8, 2018
By then the damage had been done: chauvinistic self-appointed “media watchdogs” in Sri Lanka had called into question the credibility of Al-Jazeera, using the faux pas to misrepresent its reportage in its entirety and pretend that nothing happened.
While there is much to say about the shortcomings in coverage by the local media as well, CP feels international media do have both the resources and a reputation to warrant CP’s ire. With local journalists embedded in their team, nuanced and fact-based reporting should not be difficult. Failure not only erodes the organisation’s credibility, but also runs the risk of giving credence to chauvinistic forces’ claims of agenda-driven international journalism.