For the past three decades, journalism in Sri Lanka has been dominated by men, and as a career it has generally been discouraged amongst women. Things are changing and female journalists are now employed in nearly all newsrooms in print, broadcasting, as well as electronic and online media. Furthermore, the issues covered go far beyond food and fashion: Women are now taking an increasingly active role where issues such as education, conflict and human rights are concerned.
However, the number of female journalists in high ranking, decision making posts is still alarmingly low. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), even though women make up 40 per cent of Sri Lanka’s working journalists, they only make up 3 to 5 per cent of editors, heads of departments and directors.
It was against this backdrop that the Sri Lanka Press Institute commended Hannah Ibrahim, Editor of the Sunday Standard and Champika Liyanarachchi, Editor of the Daily Mirror for being the first Sri Lankan women to become Editors of mainstream newspapers. The ceremony, organized by local NGO, Women and Media Collective, took place on the 30th January 2007 and was attended by special guest Mrinal Pande, a well known broadcaster and novelist and the current editor of Hindustan. The event was also a chance for Mrinal to reflect on how journalism has changed for women over the past twenty years: Ã¢Â€ÂœI do realize that I must have been standing out like a sore thumb when I started way back in the 80s. I’ve had people opening the door to my office and saying Ã¢Â€Â˜oh a woman editor’ as though I belonged to an extinct species!Ã¢Â€Â
So why is it so important that more women go into professional journalism? According to Hannah Ibrahim, Ã¢Â€ÂœThere are some issues that, as a woman, you take up with more of a sense of sensitivity than a man would take up.Ã¢Â€Â In the current media landscape, in which the press is splattered with defamation and hatred on a daily basis, perhaps that is just what is needed: A little sensitivity. On the other hand, war is not pretty, and perhaps this hard line and fierce masculine approach is closer to the truth than one that looks at the issue through rose tinted spectacles. But what Hannah Ibrahim was referring to was probably not the approach, but the content of contemporary journalism. In the case of Sri Lanka, the journalism that is fuelling tension between the different communities, encouraging divides rather than diversity.
2006 saw a sharp increase in media coverage laden with nationalism, and also saw a rise in racial debates on internet blog sites and chat forums. Whereas on the one hand it is important that the media provides a space for free expression, it is also vital for journalists to spread messages promoting peace, in order to transform cultural identities towards a more inclusive society in which reconciliation can be established on a long term basis. For this to happen, all voices need to be heard. So with this in mind, the issue at hand is not whether women are more sensitive than men, nor is it whether women make better journalists than men. What is important is that equality is encouraged in all sections of society to ensure that everyone has their say, and furthermore, that there is a means by which these different voices can communicate with one another in a constructive way. According to Champika Liyanarachchi, Ã¢Â€ÂœThere are a lot of responsibilities. We have to play the role of catalyst in the people and also there’s a role for us to play in highlighting issues that have plagued the country.Ã¢Â€Â Issues such as the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lanka’s minority groups; What these groups are doing in their communities to help foster peace and diversity; What do all these different ethnic groups have in common? How are the widows of war victims coping? How are landmine accident victims rebuilding their lives? These questions are simply not addressed as they are overshadowed by mainstream media feeding on stereotypes, misconceptions and mistrust.
By and large, very few female journalists take an active role in peace journalism, mainly due to the fact that the majority of women do not have the decision making powers and have limited opportunities in the media field. However, it is important that more women are encouraged to join the journalism field and are also given more freedom and more chances to report on sensitive issues, many of which the male dominated Sri Lankan media has so far failed to draw attention to.
By Nia Charpentier
Listen to a YATV podcast of this story at http://radio.voicesofpeace.lk/page.php?0/v/331