Sri Lanka Media Minister Decries Profit-Driven Nationalistic Coverage in South Asia

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HONOLULU (Jan. 19, 2017) -- Speaking to a group of Indian and Pakistani journalists gathered in Colombo recently for a dialogue on cross-border reporting issues between their countries, Sri Lanka's Minister of Mass Media called upon corporate media owners in South Asia to stop promoting nationalistic reporting to make bigger profits, saying that such news coverage becomes "part of the conflict" that prevents the region from reaching its global potential.

"The market value for nationalism is very high," said Gayantha Karunathilaka, Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media for the Government of Sri Lanka. "Politically and commercially driven media have to be replaced by good ethical and public-interest driven media." He blamed heavy competition, especially in television, as one of the factors driving nationalistic reporting.

Karunathilaka was addressing 32 journalists from 14 leading Indian and Pakistani media houses at the five-day dialogue that was a capstone event of the East-West Center's two-year "Improving Cross-Border Reporting" exchange and discussion program for Pakistani and Indian journalists. The program was supported by a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

The exchange program took journalists from India and Pakistan on reporting trips hosted by partner news organizations in each other's countries, where visa restrictions have generally made it very difficult for news outlets in the often-clashing neighboring nations to base their reporters. The exchange has resulted in more than 45 print and broadcast stories and many social media posts by participating journalists who continue to use this bilateral network to include neighbor-country perspectives in their reporting.

During the dialogue in Sri Lanka, Indian and Pakistani partner teams planned cross-border reporting projects to run in 2017. East-West Center Media Programs Manager Susan Kreifels said the journalists are very committed to pursuing these projects and that they have stayed in close touch through social media.

"The Indian and Pakistani journalists discovered more in common between their two countries than differences," Kreifels said. "They really connected both personally and professionally and developed close bonds."

Jabbar Chaudhary, a participating broadcast journalist from Pakistan who traveled to Mumbai and Delhi, wrote in the Pakistani newspaper Daily Times that the program was "a game-changer" for him. "Just one visit under this exchange enabled me to build a strong bridge with my Indian journalist friends. This sort of cooperation proved itself right and fruitful," Chaudhary wrote. "We can fence our borders but can't stop our voices to cross it.

Sri Lanka knows the impact that media can have on conflict. Karunathilaka said "agenda-driven journalism during 30 years of civil war" in his country helped drive the conflict, adding that nationalistic rhetoric was again becoming part of the country's "media language."

He said the Sri Lankan government is working to create an independent news media regulatory commission that would make it illegal to "push journalists to violate ethics" and instead encourage professional reporting.

Karunathilaka said he was happy to see Indian and Pakistani journalists pursuing cross-border work on "common-interest" stories that could bring new dimensions to the bilateral relationship rather than focus on antagonistic reporting. He urged the journalists to "take an innovative approach" in reporting about solutions to regional issues.

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