Al Jazeera Journalism Review

SRI LANKA outside
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA - An anti-government demonstrator shouts slogans at police officers ordering them to leave a seafront tent camp that became the focal point of months-long nationwide demonstrations, amid Sri Lanka's economic crisis, on August 4, 2022 [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

‘We have to walk miles to cover the news’ - journalism in Sri Lanka

The ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka has been widely covered by international media. But what is life like for journalists in the country right now?

 

“Please give me a little time.” It was a common response from journalists in Sri Lanka who I approached in a bid to find out what life is like just now for journalists amid the mounting economic and political crisis in the country.

Sri Lanka has long been a popular tourist destination for rich foreigners - and is reflected as such in international media. But the bureaucratic processes that go into running a Global Southern democracy, and the hardships endured by ordinary working people including journalists there, often go overlooked.

Sri Lanka is currently more than $51 billion in debt to foreign entities, but it suspended all debt payments in April as it struggled to even procure necessities such as fuel, food and medicines. In fact, the grave financial crisis has extended into a developing sociopolitical conflict, especially with the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other top government officials, as well as massive protests sweeping the nation.

Citizens struggle to make ends meet due to a shortage of fuel and food. Even when stores do have essential supplies, people don’t have enough fuel to drive to them. As top officials try to flee the country in private jets, there have been reports of individuals dying while standing in long queues to get fuel as police and military try to maintain order.

The crisis in Sri Lanka reveals patterns about how events happening within seemingly small nation states in the Global South can and do affect the larger world. More importantly, it shows that solutions for such crises cannot come from affected states in isolation from the rest of the world, especially since economic crises in southern global democracies can often be traced back to larger systemic patterns of inequality, capitalist exploitation, as well as a colonial history that likely affects bureaucracy and politics in these nations today.

Journalism is a challenging craft to practice even at the best of times, which is why it becomes easy to overlook the struggles that journalists face during times of conflict and crisis. 

'Like living in the 1970s'

The journalists I contacted in Sri Lanka told me they hoped that the situation would de-escalate with time, and that they might be able to get back to me with clearer responses once that happens. Needless to say, things got worse with each passing day, and I did not hear back from many of the journalists I tried to get in touch with for interviews.

The little time, resources and energy that reporters working in Sri Lanka have left after they have fulfilled their primary duties - which have been affecting them as much as the next citizen - they choose to invest in practising their craft. 

Journalism becomes even more important when it is under threat, and perhaps, no one understands that better than journalists working in situations where journalism has become threatened.

One such journalist working in Sri Lanka that I contacted was Hasitha Wijewardhana, working at TV Derana. After my initial messages to him, Wijewardhana got back to me after about a week. He apologised for not being able to respond earlier: “I was busy with the situation. Please give me a few more days.” He never managed to get back to me.

I did manage to speak to Hasini Ekanayake, who is a journalist at Swarnavahini Media Network, about how the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka has affected journalism in the country.

“It almost feels like living in the 1970s when everything was rationed,” she tells me. Ekanayake adds that due to the fuel shortage, there has been a lack of public transport and work schedules have had to change a great deal as a result.

Reporters have tried to limit travelling as much as they can and work as much as possible on computers, setting up virtual meetings or interviews. However, this crisis-induced inability to carry out field work has greatly affected journalistic output in the country.

Ekanayake also says that due to the fuel shortage, journalists have had to walk miles to cover news in some cases. In addition, since most journalists depend on a monthly salary, she said that the spike in inflation has made living costs unbearable for many journalists in Sri Lanka.

“Everything becomes political. Political decisions play a crucial part in day-to-day lives of people and the overall economy,” she said, adding that non-essential services have been hit the worst. Since journalism is not always considered an “essential service”, journalists face additional difficulties when trying to do their job.

“Travelling issues due to the fuel crisis, regular power cuts, and high cost of living directly affect journalism in the country,” she says.

'Journalism loses its purpose'

A shortage of paper has also had a severe impact on journalism in Sri Lanka. Since March, many major newspapers have announced that they will be available online only or have suspended publication altogether.

Digital poverty affects a large number of the population. As not every citizen has access to personal devices or the internet. In this instance, changing the production of a newspaper to an online-only format will mean that many citizens will lose access to their daily consumption of news. 

If journalism does not reach the masses, it loses its purpose. And in this manner, both the digital divide and information inequality will continue to expand further until they reach alarming levels.

The other side of digitisation is the role of social media in journalism, both as a platform for production and consumption of mass media. Ekanayake emphasises that social media “has become powerful” and that while sometimes it can be beneficial, other times, it is being used to spread misinformation. 

She says that because of social media, in the future “journalism will be in the fingertip of every citizen”, which is concerning in times of crisis. When authentic, objective journalism is unable to reach the masses, social media will take its place, leading to potentially catastrophic consequences in an already shaky situation involving conflict or crisis.

From my interviews, it seems that many journalists in Sri Lanka fear the media will not be able to bounce back from the current crisis. According to Ekanayake, a great deal will depend on “how the government manages to overcome the current crisis” and whether laws regarding the spread of fake information through social media channels are enforced or not.

While journalism as an institution in many countries around the world is given the least resources, it is most adversely affected in countries that need to be extra careful about distributing their resources. This means that the availability of equipment for video and sound recording, transportation facilities, and even the salaries of working journalists are likely to take a serious hit. 

Ekanayake believes the government should be doing much more to support the work of journalists - particularly during times of crisis. Citizens “must be constantly informed” about socio-economic issues developing in the country. 

However, most journalists feel their work is taken for granted, not just by the government, but by ordinary people as well.

The fight is for survival right now, and with the ever-evolving crisis in the country, conclusions have become increasingly hard to make.

Abeer Khan is an Indian journalist and academic

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance

 

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