For a country that suffered more than 35,000 deaths and one billion US dollars in damages, local media coverage of the aftermath of the Dec. 26 tsunami has been woefully inadequate, a study, sponsored by Transparency International in Sri Lanka, has concluded.
''The voiceless were not given a platform to express themselves at all. The main function of the majority media texts analysed was to conceal the fact that the state of public opinion at any given time is made up of a system of forces, of tensions, and the serious inadequacy of the Sri Lankan way of journalism toward representing the state of public opinion,'' the report, released last fortnight, said.
Titled 'Post Tsunami Media Coverage, The Sri Lankan Experience', the report analysed 913 articles and programmes over 11 TV and radio channels between Mar. 20 and 26 and found that instead of acting as a platform for the victims to air their needs and grievances, the media became the voice of the politically powerful.
''The media was basically a tool of the power elite. It reflected the thinking of the power brokers and was not that concerned about the victims or the reconstruction effort,'' Thilak Jayarathne, lead researcher and author of the study told IPS.
Taking the example of a story written for a national English weekly which dealt with housing, Jayarathne pointed out how it only represented the views of the government agency and an non-government organisation (NGO), without any proper verification, according to the research. ''The most important actors in the story -- the tsunami victims are missing, thus denying voice to the people who were affected and powerless.''
Jayarathne told IPS that this was a pattern that was common to all local media in reporting the tsunami and blamed the country's media culture, rather than individual journalists. ''I think it is a problem with how our newspapers work. This chap was given two phone numbers by a superior and set a time to hand in the story. That is not the way it should be done.''
There has been criticism of the media coverage of the long-term reconstruction effort so much so that several agencies, including the United Nations bodies, to sponsor training programmes for journalists.
The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) is funding a series of eight such workshops in the worst-hit areas in Sri Lanka, conducted by the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. During preliminary discussion sessions, regional journalists have complained that they did not receive adequate support from their head offices to pursue tsunami-related stories.
Also, of late, there has been a reluctance on the part of editors to take on tsunami stories so that newspapers are not overburdened.
Jayarathne said that overtly-politicised reporting would definitely have an impact on long-term tsunami reconstruction policy decisions because the ground needs were not being clearly conveyed to the policy-making centres in the capital.
''We have a reporting system that is very Colombo-centred and politicised. And we also don't have professional full-time journalists working in the outstations, leading to a lot of slack reporting,'' Sunanda Deshapriya, from the media advocacy group Free Media Movement said.
Deshapriya felt that media reports in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami had been effective but lost track thereafter.
''It is very likely that the tsunami coverage followed the pattern, at least after the first week of national solidarity and shock when the politicians politicised the tsunami,'' Johan Romare, a Swedish consultant working with the College of Journalism, in the capital, said.
Deshapriya warned that the pressure to push tsunami stories out of the pages would increase when the campaigning for presidential election intensifies in the coming weeks.
''Tsunami stories now will be reported from the eyes of the politicians. It will not be the victims who will get a voice, instead politicians will hold the mike,'' Deshapriya said.
One issue has been the tendency in the Sri Lankan media to focus too much on the political power game in Colombo. Instead of publishing stories on the reconstruction work and human stories on what is happening in the tsunami struck areas, the papers are using space to refer to, and speculate on party politics.
''Of course, the political game per se has to be reported. But, it seems like Sri Lankan media fails to keep the politicians accountable by following up on what the government is actually doing. By that, media becomes more of a platform for the political debate, than a watchdog scrutinising the work done by people in power,'' Romare said.
In the past, government-owned media has come under heavy criticism for toeing the line of the party in power. However, during the study, researchers found that private media was equally guilty of touting hidden agendas. ''We could not observe any differences between government media and private media on the approach to the story. There is a myth of the private media in this country, but if you look closely, you can see the embedded agendas,'' Jayarathne said.
While efforts are underway to address the lopsided tsunami reporting, the Transparency International study recommended major overhauls inside media houses to stem the rot.
Jayarathne, who was Director at the College of Journalism before he took up the study, warned that the patterns that were visible during the study were not limited to tsunami reporting alone. ''It is a pattern that we have come to expect from the media, especially when covering important national issues like the conflict,'' he said.
''We wanted to know if the journalists in this country are reporting the news with an agenda,'' said J.C. Weliamuna, chief of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL). ''The study found that the media in Sri Lanka, irrespective of policy differences, engages in propaganda for parties which they prefer.''
''When we talk about media reports in general from sites of conflict, it is clear that more often than not, the tendency is to report from a selected vantage point, rather than from that lofty and often, unachievable objective of objectivity,'' said in an introduction to the report.
The nine months since the tsunami may have added to the erosion of public trust placed on the media, the report warned.
''The sad outcome of this catastrophe is that the public in turn, increasingly distrusts journalists, even hate them. And it will only get worse. The majority of Sri Lankans would not think the media cares about the people. It seems that journalism is disappearing,'' the last paragraph said. (END/2005)