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Sunday, 19 July 2015

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Of media and mediums

The jewels of autocratic ambition and superstition are much in display once more after a brief respite post January 8. But, just as much as occult paraphernalia is again clutched and brandished, there is a reassuring counter-balance: the paraphernalia of cyberspace and telecommunications, the iconography of Facebook and Twitter.

Even as fetish mini-sceptres and auspicious gemstones are flaunted on one side of the on-going contest for governmental power, the fortunes of Sri Lankan governance - fortunately, for its long-suffering citizenry - are being more dictated by the science and technology of post-modern social communications and the rational discourses that now dominate public discussion on the other side of the electoral contest.

Despite all the efforts of many groups of citizenry and collaborating political movements combined in efforts to defend democracy and the state-system, that most dangerous drift towards dictatorship based on xenophobia and tribalism that was reversed on January 8 has begun again thanks to the vagaries of a revived democracy.

Most Sri Lankans celebrated the political change in January as a victory of reason over superstition, of republicanism over neo-feudalism, and policy-based government over arbitrary rule. Many Sri Lankans who failed to sense the urgency of the crisis and voted elsewhere, have subsequently opened their eyes to the brink that the country had been taken to in the mad rush for plunder and prestige.

In this era of recovering democracy and a resurgent institutional governance, the re-opened doorways of free public expression and debate have, by default, allowed the reiteration of ethno-centrism, of authoritarian culture and a desperate politics based on vendetta and bigotry.

A brave news media once, in the face of threats, determinedly telecast racist attacks on communities and property, and exposed the racial hate-mongers whether in saffron garb or, previously, in jungle camouflage.

Today, exhilarated by the post-January freedom, the news media must nevertheless fulfill their duty to democracy by providing spaces and platforms for the fearful innuendo and metaphor of those very same advocates of ethnic dominance and hatred.

In the fervour of parliamentary elections, the news media, as a market-based industry competing for audiences and advertisers, cannot but saturate the airwaves and print pages with as much information about politics as it can persuade its audiences to consume.

The entertainment of political jousting on-stage and on-screen, when broadcast in print and electronically, is all the more impactful given its magnification a million times over in imagery, sound and, headlines. Media producers and workers must be sensitive to the propagation that they undertake even in the simple act of reporting and commenting on a mass scale to mass audiences.

The challenge before the news media industry - both private and public sector - in this history-making parliamentary election is not merely about being careful about bias for and against political parties and candidates. It is not enough to be non-partisan in terms of party politics. Nor is it sufficient to avoid ethnic, caste and gender biases and phobias.

The on-going political process in this country today is no longer simply about a conventional change of power in government. It is about fundamental civilisational paths and systemic choices for our island society. Even as electoral contestants have the right to propagate their policies and vision, at the same time, the news media, who are the purveyors of all the messaging, must be cautious as to the social impact of that messaging.

The news media must be aware that it was a population impressed with politically privileged occultism and ethnic prejudice that remained apathetic when media studios were bombed and burned, when journalists were beaten and terrorised, when media moghuls were intimidated.

Should the media continue to nurture such cultural obscurantism? Should it give platforms to ethnic bigotry and the cult of autocracy?

As an important socio-cultural structure in society, the media has its own choices to make - at the level of ownerships, the professionals as well as its audiences that consume the messaging of their choice. Just as much we can choose our news media channels, we must be alert not to get hoodwinked by sundry occult mediums who claim to translate mystic power into political dominance, nor their power-hungry disciples.

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