Colombo, Media and Communications

I want to be an activist! : Lindsay Ross, Sanath Balasuriya, and the Glamour of Complacency

Ten years ago at a meeting with the media industry professionals of Sri Lanka, the Colombo Declaration of Media Freedom and Social Responsibility was drawn up. A review conference is currently being held at the Sri Lanka Press Institute to look back upon the developments that have occurred within the past decade.

At the first session of the event, two interesting observations were made by two of the panelists. The first was by Lindsay Ross of the Commonwealth Press Union. Lindsay observed a certain amount of complacency that is growing within the young journalists. She attributed this to the (somewhat) safe working spaces that have been created by the older generation of journalists. The second was by the co-chair of the Free Media Movement, Sanath Balasuriya. Sanath spoke of the glamour in the media industry that new journalists are attracted to, and attracted by.

Lindsay also spoke passionately about the previous generation of journalists who were and are the activists. The ones who call for change within the sphere of journalism, change in the space that journalists work in, and the environment in and for which they work. The most visible manifestation of the glamour factor for me, came when a student of journalism exclaimed after listening to Lindsay, “I want to be an activist!”.

While understanding that both the points raised by Lindsay and Sanath are serious concerns, I have to unfortunately conditionally agree with both Lindsay and Sanath. Even with the extremely risky situation that reporters of defence matters face, the area remains an aspiration for a lot of new journalists. So is politics. During the times that I’ve been a young journalist myself, I’ve been trying to observe the reasons as to why.

With all the media hype and coverage attached to incidents of harassments, arrests, abductions, and even killings. Veterans such as Iqbal Athas, Keith Noyhar, Tissanayagam, Poddala Jayantha, and even Sanath himself are idolized by us newbies, the same way a schoolboy cricketer may aspire to be like Sachin Tendulkar. This is one portion of the crowd. Whilst some would (rightly argue) that aspirations are a good thing, this sometimes can be blind as well.

At the same time, there are the complacent bunch. The type of reporter (as opposed to journalist) who would be more than happy to wait for editor to assign them a piece of news, oft a press conference of some sort, go there, take notes, eat, come back, write (based heavily on the media release) and hand in the story. Or the type of writer (as opposed to journalist) who would spend a comfortable amount of time in a feature story, and then hand it in.

When both types (the glamour seeker and the complacent writer) are taken out, you’re left with a handful of journalists. The ones who would go out and find the story. The ones who would see the newsworthiness of a sack of rotten potatoes. The one who uses the proverbial pen (or the current keyboard) as a tool of activism. One who sees and informs, but at the same time identifies where change is needed and calls for the change.

The advocate for social justice.

The activist.