Developing the Language of Peace and Reason

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

(January 03, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) Long years of war have had a terrible impact on all areas of Sri Lankan life and one of the major areas to suffer from the war was the media. This was only natural. The war on the military front is also fought on the propaganda front by all the parties involved in the conflict. Therefore it was naturally a period in which the audience, the people, mostly got exaggerated and distorted versions of the reality which was designed to meet the needs of the war and also to respond to the propaganda of the other party. The LTTE has a formidable propaganda capacity and therefore it was natural that the state competed in this area for defeating the propaganda of the enemy.

A propaganda war creates deep hard attitudes in media personnel as well as in the audience itself. People become accustomed to creating the type of propaganda that is suitable for the war and the audience develops an appetite on behalf of their side in the war. In all publications people begin to see something said either in one’s favour or against the side he supports.

By May, 2009, the war was over. However, the hardened propaganda attitudes still remain. Besides the remnants of this hardened practice there is also the deliberate utilisation of the propaganda habits, now, not for the purpose of the military war but for political wars where the state tries to utilise the media in favour of keeping its point of views in from of the people as against those of its political opponents. Using the same war mentality political opponents in a democracy begin to be portrayed as enemies as is usually done in the war. Instead of developing a discourse to deal with diverse political views in order to develop a consensus in the population for the objectives that are to be achieved in the economic, social and cultural fronts all debates continue to be used against enemies with a view to destroy them.

The functioning of a democracy requires a discourse that is geared towards the development of rational views. It is an assumption in a democratic debate that no one can claim to be a repository of correct views. The ideas that are needed in order to develop the necessary discourses to resolve the existing problems that exist in the economic, social and cultural spheres requires the encouragement of the expression of ideas by all. During a time of peace the social discourses are those of encouragement of persons to participate with freedom and without fear. Intimidating people not to express their ideas as it is possible that such expressions would be understood to be opposed to the government or to powerful persons is counterproductive to democratic discourse.

Even a political debate during an election should not be conducted in an atmosphere of extreme antagonism that gives the impression of a war. The expression of opinions, even in an election is part of a democratic discourse. It is the right of the voter to be able to know the ideas of anyone who claims that they have a right to be selected as the person suitable to represent him.

An election in a democracy is about representation. The persons who ask for the citizen’s vote are, in fact, asking for the right to represent them. The right of representation cannot be demanded by force or by intimidation. Those who desire to represent others are, in fact, soliciting the favour of the voters and instead of intimidating the voter they should convince him of their usefulness to him in the future.

Therefore the use of the media in democratic discourse, even during the time of an election should be one of peace and should be conducive to a proper rational conversation. The voter should be provided with reasons and factual data and he should be treated as supreme.

Unfortunately even the present election in Sri Lanka is being conducted, not in the manner of such a democratic discourse but by creating extreme tension all the time. The voters are being demanded to act with gratitude to the government. Instead of those who represent the people who want the right of representation being grateful to the voters for considering their views the reverse process the attempt to intimidate the voter is taking place in a severe manner.

It is therefore the duty of those who are dealing with the media to act in a democratic spirit and let all the parties to the election know that it is their duty to provide proper information to the voters rather than to try to force them to vote for one or another party.

If this election is for dealing with peace and to resolve the problems of a time of peace then the election itself should be conducted in a peaceful manner and a beginning should be made for democratic discourse within the country during this time. The reports received by the election monitoring organisations and the police clearly show the allegations of violence that are being made by the various parties to the election. It is the duty of the election commissioner to play a greater role in getting the message to the nation that this election is one for the selection of leaders for a democracy and that it should be conducted in a peaceful and fair manner. The election commissioner should leave the issue of violence to be decided after the election but rather should take a more proactive role in maintaining an atmosphere of democratic discourse throughout the period of the election.

If there is no peace before the election, there will be no peace after the election.

# # # About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.