I hang around the Sunday Leader office. People from foreign news organizations drop by like it’s a pilgrimage site. I run into the BBC correspondent at Park Street, I hang out with some of the New York Times people when they’re in town. I enjoy having conversations with similar people, but in terms of covering a country I think it’s a bit off. A lot of international and local coverage tends to revolve around the same English speaking, NGO oriented crowd. However, the people you can talk to are not necessarily the people you should be talking to. If you’re talking professionally, that is, and not for fun. They could honestly get more relevant information from a random trishaw driver.
Not to sound bitter. These are my friends and generally where I hang out. I suppose one shouldn’t shit where they eat, but sometimes you just have to go.
The idea that we are representative rather than communicative is simply not true. It’s a circle jerk. The BBC interviews Sarvanamuttu. Sarvanamuttu’s CPA runs Groundviews. Groundviews publishes Kusal Perera. Kusal Perera writes to the Sunday Leader. The Leader interviews Sarvanamuttu. It continues, ad nauseum. It’s a closed loop. Then the western media comes in and talks to the same people. We read that and we talk about the same things. After a while you realize that the scene is constantly spinning and you kinda want to get off the ride.
I meet foreign journos when they visit and they often already have the stories written in their heads. The story for the past 30 years has been that Sri Lanka is fucked and it’s mostly the governments fault. Some people ask leading questions and act bored when they don’t get the answers they expect. Some of them actually hear stuff to the contrary and write the same story anyways. These are the best ones, many articles have zero sources in Sri Lanka at all.
That said, on a personal level many writers have experience in Africa or South East Asia or other places and understand the nuances here. The articles however, often come out the same. There is good journalism that comes out of here just as there is good advocacy work. The system, however, I think is bad. It is too much of a closed loop.
I won’t say that the process is corrupted, but it’s certainly boring. A lot of people with degrees and English work for NGOs, plus they also lack the political connects to work in government where they’d probably like to be. Those NGOs are funded by foreign governments which emphasize certain things. Say, human rights and abstract media freedom. Those donors often don’t want to hear anything else, they have their budgets, they have their priorities, ground reality shows up way too late in the process.
If you’re a grant writing person following the money you’ll end up doing a certain kind of work and supporting a certain sort of perspective. The goal is to help, I do believe this, but the how has already been figured out in some Geneva board room. And it’s often wrong. Or irrelevant. But always expensive.
So, what happens is that foreign organizations pay a lot of people to promote certain things. It flies people out to conferences to reinforce those things. Then foreign media comes and asks those people what they think. Then the foreign organization reads the papers is like, ‘shit, Sri Lanka looks messed up’. Well, of course it does. That’s the assumption you started with. It’s a circle jerk.