A single source conflict

Indian correspondents based in Sri Lanka were mindful of the sourcing problem created by the fact that the war zone was out of bounds to the press. ADITI RAVI and SEVANTI NINAN scan one month’s coverage in five newspapers.

The Hoot did a one month monitoring of six English newspapers in India earlier this year when the Sri Lankan army was closing in on the LTTE, to look at the extent and dimensions of the coverage, and the number of perspectives reflected. The period of monitoring was January 24 to February 24, 2009.

The coverage is  a reflection of  how much India’s domestic politics is entwined with the conflict in Sri Lanka, particularly that of the state of Tamil Nadu. Perhaps primarily for this reason the Hindu’s coverage, headquartered as the paper is in TN, was the most voluminous.

The newspapers taken were  The Indian Express, The Hindu, The Times of India,  The Hindustan Times and Mail Today.

Research: ADITI RAVI

Analysis: SEVANTI NINAN.

Tracking  the mainstream Indian press at a stage this year  when the Sri Lankan army had begun closing in on the Tigers, is illuminating in some ways. First, a story unfolding over one month had two points of origin, Sri Lanka and India. Where Sri Lanka was concerned, this is overwhelmingly a single-source story, despite the easy availability of  Tamilnet, the website which gives the LTTE’s version of events.  The primary source of information as the tragedy of a trapped citizenry unfolded, was the Sri Lankan government and military.

Secondly, where India is concerned, this is a North-South story. Northern newspapers certainly have to take note of a state and its chief minister working themselves into an emotional frenzy over developments affecting the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. But they focus when they can much more on “India’s” response, based as they are in Delhi. What gets Tamil Nadu space in the national press, particularly in the tabloid Mail Today, is the self immolations. The Hindu has such voluminous, multi-dimensional coverage, you scarcely notice its coverage of cases of self immolation in Tamil Nadu, which grew in number with the Sri Lanka army’s advance into the LTTE held areas.  The Hindu being primarily a Southern paper, has had by far the most coverage, and continuing coverage from Chennai, Delhi and Colombo, since it has a correspondent in that country. On at least 12 days over the month the number of small, medium  and big stories carried ranged from 4 to 7 a day.

In statistical terms the Hindu and the Times of India, which also has an edition in Chennai, led the coverage.

NEWSPAPER

NO. OF STORIES

The Hindu

The Times of India

The Hindustan Times

Indian Express

Mail Today

111 104

81

60

57

45

Newspaper

No. of Page 1 stories

Hindu

The Times of India

The Hindustan Times

Indian Express

Mail Today

15 stories, 2 briefs

5 stories, 6 briefs

7

4 stories, 2 briefs

none

Newspaper

No of Editorials/Comment

The Hindu

The Times of India

The Hindustan Times

Indian Express

Mail Today

2, one op-ed

1

4, one op ed

2

none

On most days, the choice of coverage and pictures was fairly identical.  Overall all papers were informative, with the most comprehensive chronology being provided by the Hindustan Times on February 2nd, when it traced the milestones in this war, beginning with the Act passed in parliament in 1956, making Sinhala the only official language.

Indian correspondents based in Sri Lanka were mindful of the sourcing problem created by the fact that the war zone was out of bounds to the press. Briefings were by the Sri Lanka military personnel, or ministers, or diplomatic sources. The singular exception, occasionally was the odd  UN official who would talk to reporters about what they were witnessing.

B Murlidhar Reddy of the Hindu handled this on most days by beginning his account with the word ‘claimed’. He would also quote Tamilnet wherever possible, sometimes in an obligatory way, at much less length, to balance the account.  But he was  the only correspondent who tried to  systematically balance his reporting. The government-LTTE   conflict was complicated by the fact that  the “other side” was a terrorist organization. Journalists hesitated to give their version big play. Not surprisingly, on most days the two versions were totally contradictory.

For instance, on February 11, 2009  the Hindustan Times carried a report by its Colombo correspondent Sutirtho Patronobis titled “19 civilians killed in Lanka”. The story gave both versions: the army’s allegations that the LTTE had fired on civilians attempting to cross over, and  the Tigers’ allegations that 38 civilians were killed in Sri Lankan army shelling. However, the same day the PTI’s TV Sriram reported only the military version, which the Indian Express carried. The Times of India’s correspondent K Venkataramanan used an interview with a Colombo based human rights organization to get across a  picture of the truth regarding civilian deaths. The paper carried it on its editorial page. (February 2, 09).

Patronobis being the only Indian  correspondent in Sri Lanka who wrote a newsletter during this period, (‘Sleepless in Sri Lanka’) was also able to provide commentary outside of news reports on the problems aid workers and journalists faced during the fighting.

Editorial comment across Indian newspapers was more or less on the same lines, urging the Sri Lanka government  to display sagacity in handling the post- Tamil Tigers challenge regarding devolution of power. The most outspoken criticism of Sinhala chauvinism and the dangers of perpetuating it after the war came in an op-ed article in the Hindustan Times by Ramchandra Guha, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

This period of monitoring saw frequent use of the term ‘endgame’, with a  question mark. The two and half months which have passed since the end of the monitoring period show how prolonged the predicted endgame has been.

Source : http://www.thehoot.org

NEWSPAPER

NO. OF STORIES

The Hindu

The Times of India

The Hindustan Times

Indian Express

Mail Today

111 104

81

60

57

45

Newspaper

No. of Page 1 stories

Hindu

The Times of India

The Hindustan Times

Indian Express

Mail Today

15 stories, 2 briefs

5 stories, 6 briefs

7

4 stories, 2 briefs

none

Newspaper

No of Editorials/Comment

The Hindu

The Times of India

The Hindustan Times

Indian Express

Mail Today

2, one op-ed

1

4, one op ed

2

non

e

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