Television for conflict resolution

Afdhel Aziz proposes a television programme which may help relieve the ethnic tension in Sri Lanka.

The apathy among many Sri Lankans towards the country´s ethnic conflict is obvious. Jaded by years of strife and false hopes, the public now finds the fighting an abstraction far removed from the rigours and chores of daily life. It is a subject for discussion by armchair generals, the intellectual debate having shifted to the rarefied climes of academia and power politics. The conflict has lost its relevance for the average man not directly involved in it.It is only when a tragedy strikes – such as a bomb blast at the heart of the metropolis -that he is temporarily drawn out of his shell of apathy to consider the war that has been raging in the north and east.

Rather than join in the apathy, one must look for ways in which the public can once more be engaged with the ongoing tragedy. Television, in particular, can be used to do this effectively, for it is the most potent medium because of the power of the visual image. Unlike print and radio, television requires little imagination on the part of the viewer. A lively television programme can make real the numbing aftermath of a bomb blast or the panic of a newly bereaved mother or orphan. It has the power to draw the man and woman on the street into the core of the issue.

People´s show
Any media programme that hopes to address the subject of resolving the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka has to focus on ignorance and intolerance. And while healthy dissent must be encouraged, the forum of debate should not be allowed to be turned into a party´s political broadcast or used for retelling of old arguments. Neither should it turn into a platform for demagogues out to use the television power for self-aggrandisement. The programme should instead concentrate on involving the people in every aspect – from conceptualisation to all areas of production and broadcast. For, if a show is not of and by the people, how can it claim to speak to the people and for the people?

A revolutionary format for a television programme dealing with the ethnic conflict would be a live call-in show with an independent moderator. The moderator would have to be unbiased but not unemotional, neutral but not detached. It should be someone who feels strongly enough about the subject to exhibit personal feelings, but professional enough not to let his personal views obscure those of the callers. S/he would have to be fluent in both Sinhala and Tamil so that the programme could easily shift from one language to the other. Simultaneous translations would have to be provided. Such a format, which would allow interactive participation, has the chance of engaging the people´s attention and helping revive a sense of tolerance in the audience.

If it is to have a sense of immediacy and grabbing power, the call-in show would have to be carried out live. At one go, this would eliminate the problems of government censorship and also free the programme from the chains of sponsorship – big business does not like controversy. Ideally, the broadcast should be sponsored by civil society organisations which have no vested interest in the outcome of the war.

As the programme gains a viewership, the avenues of communication between the media and the viewers could be broadened by using the range of interactive options available: everything from mail and toll free phonelines, to more sophisticated media like email and a website featuring transcripts with links to resources and information on the subjects discussed on the show. The last two would also help draw the Sri Lankan expatriate community worldwide into the body of the show.

More importantly, however, the soundtrack from the programme could be broadcast on shortwave radio so as to reach the rural areas where  access to television is limited. Alternatively, the format of a village meet-   ing can be used, not unlike those used so successfully in the 1996 presidential campaign in the United States using the virtues of videoconferencing and teleconferencing to link communities in various parts of the country to one main centre. Today, the technology is there, in South Asia as in North America.

Seven-second delay
The relative anonymity of call-in shows allows for free expression. While there is always the danger of racists or bigots calling in, this can be tackled with alert screening mechanisms. One simple method is to ask callers for a phone number and an address, which is then verified before they go on air. There are other methods too, such as the commonly used seven-second delay, which allows obscene callers to be automatically cut off before their words are broadcast.

Another format for a television show that may help redress the intolerance among communities is a simple multi-language educational show aimed at young Sri Lankans. Presenting them with ethnic role models who act in harmony with each other provides positive examples of how cultures can get along in peace. Care must be taken not to use stereotypes, since that would only intensify the problem. Rather, the programme should seek to present information about the various cultural traditions and backgrounds in an open and entertaining way.

A key aspect of this show would be its multi-lingual format. For example, a piece on Sinhalese Buddhist rituals could be done in Tamil, while an exploration of the life of a Tamil schoolgirl in the eastern province could be done in Sinhala. This would avoid the ghettoisation of cultures, and help both sides recognise similarities and celebrate differences. An essential feature of this show would have to be a Sinhala-Tamil language segment where simple words and phrases are translated.

Communication between the two communities is divided by the barrier of language – if that barrier is gradually lowered, it could be the first step towards mutual understanding and tolerance. Television, as a medium which uses both the visual image and the sound wave, is ideally suited to make a difference. If only we make the decision to use it.

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Himal Southasian