Media and agitators feed off each other | Sunday Observer

Media and agitators feed off each other

When our society faces up to this challenge of security and social management, would not our collective endeavour as an island nation be guided by sober, pragmatic calculation? Is not our immediate and urgent common objective the restoration of stability to enable human and economic recovery from the shock of April?

Not so, judging by the unnerving mix of sensationalised news reporting and communal fear-mongering emanating from some sections of the media. It appears as if, for some sections of the country’s news media, the suicide bomber carnage and the subsequent sudden bout of communal violence, has not done enough damage. Some sections of the national press and television seem eager to outdo the internet social media in their frenzied reportage of blood-curdling communal conspiracies.

The slightest violence-related police detection, whether of razor blades or old-fashioned hunting shotgun ammunition, is instantly portrayed as another ‘terrorist’ discovery by these voracious media outlets. Street-side altercations are described as communal riots; such reporting thereby communalising what would otherwise be seen as mere hooliganism.

None other than the Army Commander himself demanded that these sections of the news media end their unceasing melodramatising of an urban terror attack and counter-insurgency aftermath. Criticising the sensationalised reporting of crime detections – such as caches of knives – as the discovery of ‘terror weapons’, the Commander, Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayaka, sarcastically told a news conference that he had six swords in his own home.

The reckless exploitation of communal suspicions and stereotype by these sections of the media is now encouraging interest groups to use the media themselves in crude public antics for their short term political purposes. ‘Patriots’ are now rushing to proclaim via the media their latest accomplishments in ethnic hostility and communal rejection. Church and Sasana leaders may make responsible pronouncements on foreign policy, but their authoritative statements are lost amid the dramatic coverage of junior monk-turned-politicians performing fasts for the cameras.

The deliberate highlighting of even the most flimsy minor news development, the scariest conspiracy theory and the most extravagant political demand seems to be the strategy of these sections of the media. The ready publicity provided to some political events indicates a mutually beneficial coordination between these media outlets and the agitators.

Thus, a medical specialist being probed for excessive wealth accumulation seems to have become a convenient bogeyman for ethnic terror. Proud boasts of ‘professionalism’ notwithstanding, certain news media outlets have already accused that doctor of macabre communal hate crimes in a spate of coverage that is notably short of any verification of facts and substantiation of allegations. What happened to our proud tradition of investigative journalism? Usually, news media criminal exposés come replete with hard evidence and interviews by affected persons. But the reportage of the Kurunegala caesarean allegations have not delved into administrative records or identified and interviewed alleged victims or provided other concrete information which would have enlightened the audiences rather than merely arousing mass fear.

Meanwhile, a prominent minority politician is now the target of ethnic fear-mongering based on the smallest incident of a telephone call. During the war, when a businessman and prominent Sangha patron in one of our sacred cities was caught doing business with separatist insurgent groups, the detection did not dominate the news headlines. Nor did monks go on fasts. Yet, today, there are sections of the media who are seizing on a mere phone call to unleash a propaganda barrage against the Government.

Ethnic communal emotions and aspirations, being mass social dynamics, garner the largest audiences and largest markets, no doubt. Surely three decades of far more devastating terrorism and counter-terror has taught us the extreme dangers of manipulating mass emotions.

During those decades of endless war and prowling death squads, perhaps the rigours of journalism under authoritarian duress, disciplined the news media industry into avoidance of ethnic and religious communal incitement.

In those difficult times, while the shadow of death squads deterred media from too much political speculation and sensationalism, the harshly visible reality of social conflict and dislocation prompted a responsible restraint in reportage. Market revenues notwithstanding, news media outlets were proud to do their bit in self-controlled reportage.

Why are the lessons of the past ignored? A section of the news industry seems so committed to a singular political project that the danger of another prolonged and disruptive social conflict is secondary. Clearly, whatever their pious pretensions of societal service, these media outlets deem serving the power greed of despotic political clans a greater priority. The political loyalties of the owning conglomerates indicate the real motives behind the screen of patriotism.