The road to Mutur
Real Voices Radio covers communities in Sri Lanka that often go unheard.

The road to Mutur

Arthur Rhodes travels with radio journalists in Sri Lanka who find tsunami-affected communities under the international and local media radar

By Arthur Rhodes
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Eastern Sri Lanka --- They say it's one of the worst roads in the country. This dry and cracked twenty-five km. stretch has been eroded by years of relentless monsoons; its maintenance has been ignored through decades of war and biased party politics. We have already had to stop once to settle our somersaulting stomachs and let the nausea pass.

Shaken and jolted, I hold my jaw tight so I don't bite my tongue the next time we drop into another bottomless pothole. The sound inside the van -- which feels like it is going to rattle apart, like the road poses an actual threat to the integrity of the vehicle -- is near deafening and makes casual conversation impossible. We all choke on the dust creeping in around the closed windows.

Over the noise, the three women with whom I am traveling -- two reporters and their producer -- yell to be heard. They are talking about what they expect to find at the end of this road.

I strain to listen over the van's crashing progress.

Mutur is a tsunami-affected island nudged into the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. Many of its residents work in the nearby city of Trincomalee, but for the last ten days their commutes have been hamstrung by an inoperable ferry. The only other way off the island is where we are now -- on one of the worst roads in the country.

Real Voices Radio (RVR) is traveling to Mutur to investigate the effects of the transportation crisis. They have also heard rumors about an understaffed hospital and poorly run tsunami refugee camps.

RVR is the first Sri Lankan project of Internews Network, an international non-governmental organization with independent media projects in over 50 countries. The organization arrived in Sri Lanka after the tsunami hoping to build a community radio forum for tsunami-affected people.

The two reporters, Naleena Abdullah and Rathika Devakumar, have both been working with RVR almost since its start five and a half months ago. Naleena is a Muslim woman and university student. She discovered radio when the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (SLBC) sponsored a workshop at her school last year. Rathika is a Tamil who teaches science to teenagers. For the past nine years she has been writing news for the regional paper Thinakaranil from her hometown of Batticaloa. Last year she started phoning in five-minute radio reports to a private station in Colombo.

There are very few Muslim women working as journalists in Sri Lanka. Naleena -- 27 and dressed in the niqab, a traditional outfit that covers all but her hands and face, always wearing the headscarf, or hijab, and a broad smile -- says that as a Muslim woman it is her responsibility to set an example for the young girls coming of age today in Sri Lanka. She says that as a reporter she can encourage young women to accomplish more with their lives.

"The young girls in this country, especially the Muslim girls, need good examples to follow," Naleena tells me one night after she has finished her editing. "When they see me doing this job they realize that they can think for themselves; they see that they can be independent in their lives, that they do not need to rely on anyone else."

She says that it can be dangerous to be a reporter, that some people get angry about what she reports. There is a lot of violence against women in this country, she says. There is a lot of violence against journalists too.

But Naleena is not afraid: "I must be a guide to the next generation."

Rathika, 31, went into journalism as an alternative to studying law, a dream that ended when her father died eleven years ago. After his death, Rathika's family had barely enough money to get by and spent years fighting the garment factory where he had worked to release his pension. Rathika says that it was her own experiences with poverty that made her want to become a journalist. She saw the news as a way to tell the stories of people like her and her family, a way to help.

Naleena Abdullah interviewed women in a Muslim refugee camp.

Rathika tells me that as a female reporter she often faces discrimination from men who do not believe that she is capable of doing her job. As a Sri Lankan Tamil she has known intolerance all of her life. She says that it is her responsibility to meet these challenges -- to do her job the best that she can.

"I am a reporter," she says. "Not a woman. Not a Tamil."

Still, Rathika hopes to return to her law studies -- "Law is another way to help people." -- but knows she will never give up journalism. Usually stoic and reserved, Rathika cried when her first report was broadcast. It was her voice; she had never heard it before.

Professional training and expansion of skills is an integral part of the Internews program. Using sophisticated computer software, the reporters learn how to edit and produce their own pieces and have daily discussions about professional skills such as interview techniques, cross-referencing facts and honest reporting.

"It is paramount that we get proper training for journalists in Sri Lanka," says Sunanda Deshapriya, head of Sri Lanka's Free Media Movement. "Very few of our journalists know the basics of writing or ethical journalism or proper use of sources. Better training is one of the most important things that we can do to move ahead."

In another part of the Trincomalee district, on a different assignment, are the two other journalists attached to RVR's East-Coast mobile production unit.

Sisirakuamara Menikdiwela -- he goes by Menik -- works as a controller for the SLBC broadcast studio in Jaffna. He is Sinhalese, part of Sri Lanka's ethnic majority, and says that his experiences as a journalist, especially with RVR, have taught him to better understand the problems faced by Muslims and Tamils.

In the last five months Menik has traveled over 50,000 km. up and down the island's East Coast, in areas heavily populated with Muslim and Tamil Sri Lankans. Even though Sri Lanka is only about 600 km. at its longest point, it is an area of the nation he might never have come to on his own.

The northern town of Jaffna, where Menik works, has been a heavily disputed area since the beginning of the conflict in 1983. He tells me that the commanding general and government officials in the area constantly vet his work "for security purposes."

Menik says that he and his colleagues in Jaffna very rarely seek out reports that engage local voices. His time with RVR has shown him how important it is that these people are not ignored.

During the communal riots of 1985, in which many Muslims were chased away from their homes under threat of violence, Hameed Hussein and his family fled their hometown of Badulla for the East Coast. After twenty years they still have not been able to return. Someone else is living on their land.

In the early 1990s Hameed became a freelance print journalist. He wanted to write about peace. He says that of all of the problems that the country faces, peace is the single most important issue.

He tells me that new media, such as RVR, can "highlight the feelings and the thoughts of the different people." Communication, he says, can reduce misunderstanding.

Finding a niche outside Colombo

At the end of August, corruption watchdog Transparency International released a report condemning local media coverage of tsunami-related issues as biased and indifferent to the needs and voices of affected people.

What was supposed to be a study to examine how the private and public press covered the tsunami became a general indictment of media practices in Sri Lanka.

The report found that media coverage of the tsunami -- rather than supporting and giving voice to affected people -- "served as an instrument of political action" and "creat[ed] propaganda for parties and groups which [media outlets] prefer."

That the media in Sri Lanka serves the interests of economic and political elites; that it ignores the voices of the poor, and that it will unabashedly do so even in a time of national emergency and tragic disaster -- this, the report says, is the state of media in Sri Lanka today.

Internews arrived in response to the tsunami, but Matt Abud, RVR's program director, believes that "the tsunami just showed the depths of the problems that were already existing here."

Rathika Devakumar found 60 beds for 65,000 people at the hospital in Mutur. (Photos by Arthur Rhodes)

"If the Sri Lankan media was already here supporting regional journalists and covering regional voices, and if the government and the NGOs were getting people the information they need [about reconstruction], then there would be absolutely no reason for us to do this."

The RVR journalists' frustrations with their nation's media took root long before the tsunami. Hameed says that the press only covers what rich people and politicians tell them to cover. He says that people -- real people -- they don't want war.

Through the twenty-odd years of bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, over 65,000 people have died; almost all of them were civilians. Hameed says it again, almost harping now: "People want peace. All over Sri Lanka, Sinhalese, Muslims, and Tamils live side by side with one another. They do not start fighting until a politician tells them to," he explains. "These [politicians] only want power for themselves; they use war to get itů and the media spreads their message."

To Naleena it seems that the media aggravates the pre-existing biases of the people. She says that each outlet "just supports one party or one religion or one ethnic group. It just creates more and more discrimination."

"This kind of journalism harvests bad thoughts among people," she says.

"If I played many of the stories that we have played on RVR, [SLBC] would have fired me," says Menik. "You cannot go against the government."

The journalists and the shows' producers say that many RVR reports take a critical look at how the government has handled the reconstruction process. They investigate claims of inequity and corruption. They give voice to a mass of people who -- especially in the war torn east coast -- do not often look favorably on the government in Colombo.

"It's almost every day that we report something that would get pulled on a normal SLBC show," says Abud. "The only reason that we are able to play what we play is because we are funded by USAID [United States Agency for International Development]. And for whatever reason, we are seen as having fresh ideas."

"[SLBC] wants to do something different," he says. "They just don't know how to do it and often, for political reasons, cannot even experiment with new ideas and materials -- like reaching out for the voices of people outside of Colombo. This opened a niche for us."

In Mutur

In Mutur, Rathika heads for the hospital while Naleena goes to the school to talk to children and find someone who can guide them to one of the town's many refugee camps. They will meet afterward to cover the camp and ferry story together.

I accompany Rathika to the hospital. Later, Naleena and I visit a tsunami-refugee camp where we find a large group of Muslim women. Together the three of us visit the broken ferry. Later in the day, I follow Rathika to a tsunami camp that has no clean water and only one toilet for over 150 people.

I want to know if any other journalists have been to visit the town. "No." I hear. Again and again.

"Why don't they come?" I ask.

Some do not know. Others are willing to speculate.

A man at the town hospital tells me that the people in Colombo do not care about the poor people -- about people in places like Mutur. Because the ferry was broken, he had to take a canoe in the unsure waters around Mutur. "It is very dangerous," he explains, "but I must get medicine for my daughter."

With earnest, he thanks Rathika for coming to the town to tell their story.

Every part of the town that we visit is like this. People thanking the women for their help. For listening. For reporting. For just coming.

Naleena speaks to the women in the Muslim refugee camp. One after another they come to talk to her, to tell her about the problems they face. She worries that she has been mistaken for an NGO worker or a representative from the government. Someone in a position of authority who will bring money or food or jobs. She tells them that all she can do is tell their story. They all nod gratefully. A near chorus of 'thank-yous' rushes out from the crowd.

The men working to restore the ferry say that they hope RVR can put pressure on the government to help them. "People cannot work," one man tells me. "We need help and no one has come. No one is listening. It is very good that these people have come to help us."

At the end of our day in Mutur, Rathika and I sit outside a refugee camp on a broken and leaking army-green sandbag, waiting for the van that will rattle us back along the long road from Mutur. She is telling me about what she found at the hospital.

"Four doctors for 65,000 people." She looks indignant. "Sixty beds for 65,000 people." She sounds angry and resentful, but far from wearied.

I ask her if she is proud of her job -- if she finds it rewarding. I ask her what she gets out of being a journalist.

"These people are just like us," she tells me. "It is like we are helping ourselves."