For over 30 years, Sri Lanka suffered through a violent ethnic-based conflict that killed an estimated 90,000 people. Since peace was declared in 2009, the government has attempted to rehabilitate and integrate those who fought with the defeated Tamil separatists. However, continuing suspicions and discrimination present obstacles for Tamils seeking to make a future in their country.
Because the conflict made it difficult for journalists from different backgrounds to collaborate and learn from each other, Internews has begun a program to support and strengthen cross-productions, where stories are produced by a team of journalists from different ethnic and language backgrounds.
Small teams of young multi-ethnic journalists are asked to identify an issue they want to cover and a location they want to travel to, and then provided with a small budget to use public transport to go to the field, conduct research, interview and produce a story, while being mentored throughout the process. One Tamil speaking and one Sinhala speaking journalist trainer provide guidance to the journalists.
One team of four journalists – Tharidu Jayawardana, Idunil Ussgoddarachchi, Udaya Karthikan and R Indumathi (two of whom were Tamil, two Sinhala, two female and two male) – traveled to Killinochchi, a city in Northern Sri Lanka where many Tamils live, to research how former Tamil Tiger fighters are faring after the conflict. They wrote the story, “Then They Held Guns, Now They Battle Hunger Pangs.”
“Sathyan [a resident who lost his limb in a mine blast] says that the Tiger badge is hard to shake off, it’s stamped on the former cadres like a branding. He wants to apply to get a prosthetic, but to obtain an Rs 50,000 grant, he needs certification from his village representative. But the form has a line that says the aforementioned has at no time worked against the Sri Lanka government or Army. With Sathyan’s background, the government official is reluctant to sign the form.”
Selvi joined the Tigers when she was 19 because her brother was a cadre who had died in battle. She returned to Killinochchi hoping for a new life.
“But she was in for a rude shock. Her own villagers rejected her, she was used commodity. For some she was a former cadre with the Tamil Tigers, sullied by blood and gore, for others she was a woman brainwashed by the government. All of them rejected her, some even called her a whore.”
The story was judged best by the mentors out of ten stories produced by eight teams. The story was published in the popular Sinhala daily Lankadeepa, in one of the major Tamil newspapers, Virakesari and the Sunday Thinakkural, and in two English language papers, Sunday Leader and the Daily FT. For their efforts, the team members were each awarded a smartphone sponsored by local e-commerce site Takas.
During the following two weeks, all ten stories were published in 13 newspapers.
The mainstream Sinhala language newspapers had been reluctant to carry stories about rehabilitated former Tamil combatants because they do not have the resources (such as reporters who know the language and region), they lack the background and they feel that these issues are not important because they don’t impact the majority community.
Internews’ Journalist Sprint addressed these issues by forming teams comprised of both Sinhala and Tamil journalists and training the journalists to produce well-researched and written stories that did not take political sides. The comments that the stories received spoke to the impact that the stories had on both communities.
The readers were mostly sympathetic to the situations of the Tamils in the story. “Some very heart breaking stories. I feel very sorry for them. The Government must pay more attention to them and implement a sustainable livelihood program,” said one reader.
Another commenter said, “A very valuable article. This issue must draw the attention of authorities and society. A sign of an advanced society is to solve existing problems and ensure that no new problems are created.”
Although the reader reactions varied, the majority understood that these rehabilitated men and women need help and had been forgotten – “This is a very sensitive story, I feel their plight, authorities should pay more attention to these, how they can make a living should be really looked into,” one reader wrote.
Others also felt that the long-term impacts of the conflict should be addressed without making regional differentiations. This reaction is not frequently seen in majority language press on minority issues. On the other side, there were a few people that expressed fear that the Tamils could have taken over the country.
While the story production process was critical, an important outcome of the activity was for the journalists from across geographic and ethnic backgrounds to meet each other and learn to work together. Internews is currently planning the second Journalist Sprint which will be held towards the end of January 2016.
Sri Lanka’s media landscape changed overnight with the election of President Maithripala Sirisena at the start of 2015. The media space has started to open up, and Internews has been able to support and strengthen journalism without any restrictions.