By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

The English cricketer Moeen Ali, who incidentally is also the vice-captain of the team, posted on his Instagram page a thought-provoking quote: “If you are not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”. The quote is attributed to the American Muslim human rights activist Malcolm X.

The post obviously refers to media (TV and newspapers) reporting the ongoing conflagration between Israel and Hamas. Moeen initially posted the quote along with a Palestinian flag in an apparent show of support for Palestine. He later deleted the Palestinian flag and replaced it with a photo of Malcolm X.

Whether one agrees with Moeen or not, he needs to be lauded for having the courage to say publicly what he believed despite the negative response it would evoke in a non-Muslim country and particularly given his status as the vice-captain of the English team. It would be interesting to know whether the rest or a majority of his teammates who are not Muslim think along the same lines.

The BBC Refusing to refer to Hamas as Terrorists

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has also been heavily criticized for not describing Hamas militants as “terrorists” in coverage of the recent attacks in Israel. The UK Defence Secretary said the BBC policy is “verging on disgraceful”. The Defence Secretary said, “They are not freedom fighters, they are not militants, they are pure and simple terrorists, and it’s remarkable to go to the BBC website and still see them talking about gunmen and militants and not calling them terrorists.” Several other current and former UK politicians endorsed the views expressed by the Dence Secretary.

The BBC responded, “We always take our use of language very seriously.” The veteran BBC reporter John Simpson said, ” Calling someone a terrorist means you are taking sides and ceasing to treat the situation with due impartiality. He also said, “British politicians know perfectly well why the BBC avoids the word ‘terrorist’, and plenty of them have privately agreed with it over the years.

Many Sinhalese living in Sri Lanka as well as overseas have been very critical of the BBC and other overseas media channels for how they reported the civil conflict in Sri Lanka that spanned over 25 years. Most felt that their reporting was biased against the Sinhalese and the government. As to how many Sinhalese who now support Palestine would welcome the stance of the BBC would be interesting! The perception that the foreign media is biased was well illustrated recently when President Ranil Wickramasinghe lost his composure during an interview on Deutsche Welle, a German channel. He accused Western governments and media of hypocrisy in demanding an international investigation into the Easter Sunday bombings. He questioned whether they have investigated with foreign judges in their own countries.

Terrorists versus Freedom Fighters

The best all-encompassing definition of Terrorism I came across is “The calculated use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population, thereby bringing about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence services, and police.” (Brittanic).

A Freedom Fighter has been defined as ” a person who uses violent methods to try to remove a government from power. It is often said that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist.” (Cambridge Dictionary). This is precisely what happened in Sri Lanka when, during the conflict, for nearly all Sinhalese, the LTTE were terrorists, and for most Tamils, they were freedom fighters.

Downside of taking sides based on media reports

As in the rest of the world, in Sri Lanka, too, particularly among many English-speaking Colombo folk with no previous interest or knowledge of the Middle East, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has caused strong opinions to be formed and expressed.

Most have done so based on videos and news reports aired over local and foreign TV channels. Certainly, atrocities that result in the murder of innocent civilians need to be deplored. Visuals and newspaper reports of young children and older adults being killed are repulsive and deserve our condemnation. There is no place for such atrocities in a civilized world.

However, the problem lies when those at the forefront of such condemnation do it selectively. It is certainly not the first time children and elders have been killed by indiscriminate bombing and shootings during raids in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Ukraine or elsewhere by all parties involved in the conflict.

Based on media reports that are not balanced, it is quite natural and convenient to conclude who is right and wrong. This is precisely what Moeen was saying in his post. Whilst condemnation of atrocities against civilians is in order, there is a need to study and understand why there is an ongoing conflict, why it arose, and the reasons for the non-resolution.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been ongoing for several decades. This is where the media needs to play an important role in ensuring balanced reporting and highlighting the hypocrisy that prevails, particularly regarding civilian casualties during conflicts.

UN-mandated sanctions on Iraq and consequences on children

Famously, in an interview in 1996, Madeleine Albright, who was an American diplomat who also served as the US Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, said when asked by Lesley Stahl, the interviewer, “We have heard that half a million children have died in Iraq due to the UN-mandated sanctions”. Her reply was, “a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it”. It was a shocking admission by a senior government official of the callous attitude towards the lives of young children.

Albright later criticized Stahl’s segment as “amounting to Iraqi propaganda”, saying that hers was a loaded question. She wrote, “I had fallen into a trap and said something I did not mean”, and that she regretted coming “across as cold-blooded and cruel”. She apologized for her remarks in a 2020 interview with The New York Times, calling them “totally stupid”.

The figure of 500,000 has been subsequently challenged and disputed. Incidentally, Lesley Stahl’s interviewing skills have resulted in two other high-profile Presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy (French) and Donald Trump, walking out of the interviews, unable to withstand her probing questions.

Political ideologies clouding the issue

At times, political ideologies get in the way. For example, in my teens and early 20s, as a committed socialist and a student union activist, I was pro-Palestinian despite not having studied and understood the root cause of the conflict. It was natural for socialists to dominate trade unions, and the underdog was expected to be supported! Four decades later, I am no longer a socialist nor a supporter of trade unions and am somewhat ambivalent about the Palestinian issue.

Undoubtedly, the civil conflict that prevailed in Sri Lanka for nearly 25 years has taught me that these are complex issues and that determining who is right or wrong is a difficult task. During the conflict, many of us (Sinhalese and Tamils), while unhappy with civilian casualties, still believed they were a sad consequence of fighting a war.

Media Responsibility

The conflagration between Israel and Hamas has once again reinforced that media reporting goes a long way in forming public opinion. Most viewers and readers accept what is reported as the truth and form an opinion. In light of that, it is essential for the media, considered the fourth estate in a democracy, to be independent, impartial and balanced in reporting.

“Responsible reporting refers to the ethical practice of gathering, compiling, and presenting information to the public in an honest, accurate, and fair manner. It’s an approach to journalism and content creation that prioritizes truth, accountability, and the potential impact of content on the audience and society at large.”

In my view, in Sri Lanka, the reporting by most television channels that have the broadest reach is biased and certainly not conducive to religious and ethnic harmony in the country. None of the television channels can claim to be politically independent. There is no attempt made to give a balanced view on any controversial topic despite the tagline ” We Report You Decide”.

I fail to understand why television channels feel that they should broadcast speeches or voice cuts of politicians and religious persons that undoubtedly create racial and religious disharmony in our country. Are they unaware they provide these people a platform to propagate disharmony and that these are counterproductive to our nation?

It is also sad and depressing that those responsible for the country’s economic mismanagement are still given air time and are allowed to go unchallenged on our television channels.

As to why TV news should include visuals of politicians visiting places of religious worship is perplexing. As these visits should be considered strictly private, what is the purpose of allocating resources and airtime to broadcast them?

There is also a lack of investigative journalism in our newspapers and television. It is observed that whilst certain acts of corruption are highlighted, they are quickly forgotten, with the media and the public moving on to the next headline.

“One of the roles of the media is to act as a watchdog or gatekeeper of the public. For instance, in countries marred by corruption, nepotism and other vices from the government in power, the media holds the government accountable for its actions. The media will hence highlight and even investigate political issues that are of public interest and bring them into the public limelight.” (mediacentre.org)