Women's Voices Should Be Heard, Heeded and Not Ignored!

by MarlenePerera

Women in Sri Lanka, whether juvenile or adult, face intersecting disadvantages in their representation in mainstream media owing to their gender and sexual identity. Mainstream media often breach standards of ethical reporting as they reinforce negative stereotypes and sensationalize issues of women. The recent technological development of media has not been profitably diverted to address this gap in gender justice. This under and mal representation hinder women’s engagement to reshape gender dialogue, change gender dynamics and ensure that their voices are heeded which is vital at all levels.

"The technological development of media has not been able to address the gaps in gender justice," said Mr. Sudarshana Gunawardana, Attorney-at-Law during an interview held at Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum (SDJF) while emphasizing the fact that in an era where all types of media have diverged into one digital platform, it is vital to initiate discourse on media and gender justice. In addition, the LGBTIQ[1] community faces even more discrimination by media since their issues are often portrayed in an unethical manner without being factual and unbiased. Utilizing women as a ‘marketing tool’ by mainstream media further exemplifies the narrow focus of gender-sensitive reporting in Sri Lanka. Are we satisfied being merely confined to International Women’s Day?

Gender inclusivity in Sri Lankan media…

When tracing the history of Sri Lanka, in a 2013 report by Global Media Alliance on Gender (GMAG) and Media, the importance of revising how gender should be portrayed in media with regard to social and digital media, women’s freedom of expression and access to information were highlighted. Moreover, the report raised its concerns on the relatively low number of women reporting stories in media which as a percentage amounted to only 37%. The media did not seem to challenge the stereotypical portrayal of gender but continued to adhere to it. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), highlights the urgent need for radical reforms in the media industry especially with its minimal, if not marginal portrayal of women.

In 2015, the country report titled ‘Media and Gender in Sri Lanka’ which was a part of the IFJ Media and Gender in Asia-Pacific Research Project clearly emphasizes the lack of gender inclusivity in Sri Lankan media and the increased need for thought provoking and insightful discussions happening in Sri Lanka regarding numerous hardships and issues confronted by women. The report further elaborates on the struggle of female journalists in combatting either non-conducive or unsafe working environments and many problematic working conditions such as the strong male bias in newsrooms and lack of opportunities for upward mobility creating a challenging workplace for women in the media industry. According to the Global Media Monitoring Project 2015, over the last 10 years there has been no progress in the proportion of political news stories that clearly challenged gender stereotypes, while stereotypes appear to have increased in social and legal news. As pointed out by the Country Report: Media and Gender Sri Lanka 2015, decision making roles in Sri Lankan media are still dominated by men. Resent researches conducted in the Sri Lankan mainstream media are reflective of a need to achieve radical reforms in societal values and in the media industry where women are largely considered as marginal figures, despite their contribution. 

GMAG report 2018 elaborates that the sphere of media is evolving and open to unforeseen changes with rapid technological advancement. It sets up new challenges and opportunities for female journalists in terms of ‘inclusion’ and maintaining gender sensitive reporting. After conducting 3 consultation discussions with gender and media experts in the field in 2018, SDJF observed that there is a lack of prominent gender visibility in Sri Lankan media in terms of portraying the courageous aspect or positive stories of women in Sri Lankan media. This non-sensitivity to gender perspectives in numerous reporting issues such as ethnic violence, disabilities, disasters and post war rebuilding in the mainstream media need a broader focus.

Has gender inclusivity been successfully addressed in Sri Lankan media?

In 2006, five prominent media organizations in Sri Lanka namely, Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU), Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA), Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (SLTMA) and Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF) have got together for a worthy course of promoting a charter to enhance gender equality in Sri Lankan media. Later in 2014, the same charter was adopted as a ‘regional charter’ by the South Asian Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN). When tracing the process of developing this charter, it was evident that it has been a close door policy where the procedures were solely confined among the above 5 organizations. Most surprisingly the members who have endorsed the charter failed to provide a copy of the charter. In addition, this charter lacked an effective mechanism to monitor compliance most of the charter could not ensure buy-in from media institutions.

Over the course of time, none of these initiatives were successful owing to challenging constraints in implementing such a charter. Lack of gender visibility in news increased gender-based violence, non-inclusion, ethical violations in news reporting and lack of women at decision making positions of media institutions were some of the key constraints which hindered the implantation mechanism of the charter.

In this backdrop, having recognized the need for ethical reporting and including women and other gender issues in the media content, SDJF had a fresh participatory initiative to develop a Media Gender Charter for Sri Lanka.

Increased importance of a Media Gender Charter

Women’s voices and their participation at all levels have become more important than ever. Increased participation of women will certainly help in distancing negative gender stereotypes which could in the meantime help in the peace-building process of Sri Lanka. "Although there was a gender charter few years back, it did not contain any provisions on how to introduce it to the media institutions and implement it" stressed Ms. Seetha Ranjani, a senior journalist as a part of the expert interview series held with SDJF. It was further felt the need to have a proper implementation mechanism which is as important as developing a fresh Gender Charter in order to ensure that the provisions in the charter actually refine how gender is portrayed in Sri Lankan media.

A great leap forward…

As the first step of commencing work with regard to drafting a gender charter for Sri Lankan Media, SDJF identified that it is important to identify and create a community of interest among interested parties. It was done by conducting a series of video interviews and opening up written comments among media personnel, gender experts, academia, researches etc. The expert interview series have been uploaded to the official SDJF YouTube channel and shared via SDJF Facebook platform.

In a fresh initiative to ensure fair gender portrayal in Sri Lankan media, in 2018, Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum gathered more than 56 individuals representing media owners, media outlets, senior editors, senior women journalists, media associations, unions, institutions, university and civil society actors from 3 different consultations and drafted the content for the proposed Media Gender Charter. The 3 discussion rounds brought some key concerns of fair gender portrayal, inclusivity, equal opportunities and safe working environment. In this context the experts further acknowledged that none of the provisions would be implemented without a proper implementation plans, learning from the past attempts to develop a similar document. Therefore, the team discussed the possible ways in which to get the media organizations and the outlets in the process of developing a charter and focus more on an implantation strategy, lobbying, advocacy and training.

Therefore, as the second phase, targeted one-to-one interviews with a wide range of editors/sub editors were held in print and other media outlets to gain their inputs to further refine the charter. In addition, 10 regional consultations were conducted to have a more profound understanding of the changing media dynamic in Sri Lanka and to identify the understanding of regional journalists about gender sensitive reporting. These discussions enabled us to comprehend that underlying patriarchal values or male dominant media in most occasions show women in poor light while glorifying men. Closely evaluating the perspectives of regional media associations and individual experts, it was evident that women are often objectified, victimized, very much shown with the body image, and seen as a commercial commodity.

Currently, the consultants involved with the Media Gender Charter are working closely to amend the developed charter based on the inputs of consultations held so far. While the Gender charter covers the core rights that are already ensured by several legal instruments, it was felt that more emphasis should be given to accountable mechanisms. Charter should push all the media organizations have a compliance system in place. As a result, SDJF and local consultants who are involved with the gender charter are currently working in developing a set of checklists and guidelines for media institutions about the importance of maintaining gender sensitive reporting. Once the charter is finalized, it will be open for general public to get their valuable inputs to the charter.

In development of this important document, SDJF facilitated the engagement with wider stakeholders and conduced further consultations in order to ensure that the document is an inclusive and participatory instrument to all media institutions. The primary aim of implementing this Media Gender Charter is to make it a user-friendly set of guidelines to all media institutions to practice gender sensitive reporting. Media organizations have the freedom to adopt the charter according to their own need in maintaining these standards. For media to accurately produce coverage, both diverse and complete, it should reflect the world as seen through women, man and other gender identities.

[1] Media for Gender Justice ꞁ Bhoomi Harendran ꞁ SDJF, (2018, October 10) [Video] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-CAxsG050c

Yamini Perera