Reading the news about the war in Sri Lanka can be frustrating. The local papers are unreliable and sensationalistic. Some of them are about as truthful as Us Weekly. This is understandable, given the threats to journalists in the country.
The international news is better, but not always. Because there are no journalists in the war zone they have to rely on the Sri Lankan government, or the Tamil Tigers for information. The BBC acknowledges this in their articles, and seems to do a decent job of staying neutral. The Economist articles have explained the situation in depth, including the history behind the conflict.
The New York Times coverage of the war is very disappointing.
Their articles use broad generalizations and minimize the diversity of culture and opinions within the country. Yesterday’s article, “Sri Lanka’s Tamils Voice Misgivings, “http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/21/world/asia/21lanka.html?ref=world, (obviously I don’t know how to properly insert a link), was guilty of this.
Here were some of the errors and generalizations I found:
The Tamils are closer to 18%, not 12%, of the population in Sri Lanka. About 12% of the overall population is Sri Lankan or Jaffna Tamils, and 6% are Indian Tamils who came over during the British colonial period, many of them to work on tea estates. However, a full census hasn’t been completed since the 1980’s because of the war, so numbers may be inexact, and may not include the northern and eastern parts of the country where many Tamils live.. This could be one reason that many papers are reporting that the Tamils are 12% of the population.
The article says that the Sinhalese are Buddhists and the Tamils are Hindus. In fact, many Sinhalese and Tamils are Christians. The article also neglects to mention that the country has a sizeable, 8%,and important Muslim population living throughout the island.
The reporter refers to Jaffna as a town in the North. Jaffna is the cultural center for many of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, and before the war the city was considered to be the most educated in the country.
Writing about what may seem like small errors in the news, I feel a little like an old lady yelling at the TV. But I think it’s important to point out the ways that the New York Times has essentialized Sri Lanka’s rich and complex culture(s). It makes me question the quality of their reporting on other topics. I should also point out, that most of the Times articles were reported from Delhi, thousands of miles away from Sri Lanka.
The net effect of this kind of reporting is to make the war sound like it is between two homogeneous ethnic group, the Tamils and the Sinhalese, rather than showing the situation as complex and nuanced. Sri Lanka may be small, but it is not simple.