Ilankai Tamil Sangam

23rd Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Reporting on Civilians

Media filters in the island of Sri Lanka

by N. Malathy, December 14, 2007

There have been eight incidents where the LTTE has blamed for killing Sinhalese civilians during this period [and]... This total is close to 120 lives of Sinhalese civilians.

In contrast, the deaths of 2104 Tamil civilians at the hand of Sri Lankan security forces-operated death squads have been recorded in the same period. In addition, 988 disappearances of Tamil civilians have also been recorded. Yet, the total number of international media reports of these murders would be fewer than the reports on the murders of Sinhalese civilians.

The need to remember the filters described above when reading international media reports on civilian casualties and the civilian plight is obvious.

Value attached to different lives

The UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) in 1948 was momentous, for it - for the first time in the history of human race - declared that all people of the human race are equal. It did make a definite shift in the manner in which humans perceived the value of human life. Yet, the value attached to a loss of life undoubtedly varies at all levels of the human group.

Let us take the simple case of a family of a handful of members. If we reflect on it, we will realize that the loss of one life within this family will be considered more serious than the loss of a life in another situation. This only goes to prove that human lives are equal and yet are unequal.

The difference in the value of human life is also easy to see this in another simple case. The loss of a respected community leader receives a lot more attention than that received by the loss of an ordinary citizen. This is true in all human societies. This is another example of humans being equal and not equal.

A more unpleasant truth, yet accepted by all who read the international media, is the difference in the value attached to the lives of citizens of the developed countries and of the developing countries. Any regular follower of the international media would have observed this stark reality. It is also easy to understand the reason for this. The international media is mostly owned by western organizations and is situated in the developed countries. It is therefore natural that it gives greater coverage for the loss of lives of the citizens living there.

Extending this line of thinking further, any two groups will attach greater value to the lives of their own members than to the lives of the members of the other group. If the two groups each have its own media, this will be clearly observable in the two media. This difference in value attached to lives will sharpen if the two groups are in violent conflict with each other. A very good example that demonstrates this principle is the Sinhala-owned and Tamil-owned media in the island of Sri Lanka.

All of what has been said above is more or less obvious. The representations in the international media of the loss of lives among the Tamil and Sinhalese civilians and the inherent filters that cause the biases in these representations are not obvious.  It is the intention of this article to examine these filters.

Chomsky-Herman media filters

The term media filter was first made popular by Chomsky and Herman, who described in their book, “Manufacturing Consent”, a five-filter model of the American media. Briefly, the five filters they identified are: ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak and fear of some “ism” (e.g. communism, terrorism). They argued that the “liberal media” is a myth and that through these five filters the news that is reported in the dominant media are managed and controlled. They demonstrated, with specific examples in world affairs, how these filters have ensured that only news friendly to the western governments and the major advertisers, are reported in the dominant western media.

The Chomsky-Herman media filters are diffuse and hard to grasp. Many people challenge the model itself.

The international media reporting of Tamil-Sinhala affairs of the island can also be studied by identifying some filters that are operating. These filters are, indeed, a lot easier to understand than the Chomsky-Herman filters because they are more concrete.

Five media filters in the island

Five distinct filters are readily identifiable around the island. These are: blockade of international media; fear; unattractiveness to international media; level of local media resource availability and level of local media skill.

Blockade filter:  International media that reports on the island’s affairs are concentrated in Colombo. Their reporters do, if permitted by the Sri Lankan military, travel to locations of hotspots to produce first-hand reports. To what extent these reporters have access to a given area determines the strength of this filter.

In this island, during escalation of clashes, large parts of the Tamils areas of the North East are blocked from the reporters. It has been the case in the past and it is the case at present. Jaffna and Vanni are more or less completely blocked for international reporters. Other areas also have been blocked during times of clashes when the number of civilian casualty has been very high.

Fear filter: Even if the international media has access to a hotspot, fear determines the readiness of eyewitnesses to speak out about what they have seen and know. The strength of this filter is determined by the degree of fear of the local people to speak out.

Fear of death at the hands of paramilitaries and the Sri Lanka military are extremely high in the Tamils areas. Tamil reporters and many other out-spoken civilians have met death over the last two years.

Unattractiveness: Civilian casualty news is in general unattractive for international media, unless the number of deaths in one single incident exceeds the figure 10.

If one cares to follow the international news reporting on civilian casualties in this island, this rule of thumb becomes obvious. In comparison to civilian casualties, military ups and downs - as well as military casualties - are more eagerly gathered and reported, even though the truth behind the claims of military casualties of the two sides has been questioned in the international media.

Media resources: In order to fill the gap caused by the absence of international media reporters, local reporters also need many types of resources to produce the news and send it out. This requires quick transportation resources to the location, long distance communication facilities like phones, electricity and internet facility, etc.

In the Tamil areas, due to deliberate blockade by the Sri Lanka state, these resources are also poor in comparison.

Local media skill: The local media skill becomes an acutely important factor when international reporters are completely blocked. Media skill involves photographic skill, learning to gather timely information, gathering the right kind of information and having good presentation skills.

In the Tamil areas, the continuous brain drain caused by the war has left many skill shortages. Media skill is just one of them. Professional reporting about civilians and their plight for international consumption is not good. This filter is also therefore very strong in the Tamil, areas affecting the standard of reporting of events that are missed by the international media.

Proof of the filters’ existence

The proof of the existence of these five filters is clearly visible in the international media reports over the six years since the signing of the ceasefire agreement. Every single loss of life of a Sinhalese civilian, allegedly at the hands of the LTTE is extensively reported in the international media.

There have been eight incidents where the LTTE has blamed for killing Sinhalese civilians during this period: two claymore attacks in Kebitigollawa (80 Sinhalese civilians); suicide attacks in Colombo targeting military persons (8 Sinhalese civilians); two recent attacks in Colombo (17 Sinhalese civilians); murder of six farmers in Trincomalee; a claymore attack in Yala Park (5 Sinhalese civilians); and recent murder of five farmers in Amparai. This total is close to 120 lives of Sinhalese civilians.

In contrast, the deaths of 2104 Tamil civilians at the hand of Sri Lankan security forces-operated death squads have been recorded in the same period. In addition, 988 disappearances of Tamil civilians have also been recorded. Yet, the total number of international media reports of these murders would be fewer than the reports on the murders of Sinhalese civilians.

The need to remember the filters described above when reading international media reports on the civilian casualties and civilian plight is obvious.