Saturday, May 18, 2024

Some tears are less newsworthy

A note on media representation of conflict in Sri Lanka


This and other tears were shed for loved ones slaughtered in cold blood by the LTTE when its cadres pounced on villagers in Gomarankadawala while they were harvesting paddy. This tear, this gaze is no less poignant than any other provoked by the determination to push forward political agenda using violence. No tears need to be shed this way but in terms of media ethics it is imperative that no tear goes unnoticed, that no tear is conferred with the unhappy tag ‘under privileged’.
Pix courtesy Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi


There is more than one side to a story and this we all know. We also know that journalists are not endowed with that elusive thing called perfect neutrality. While we hear the dictum ‘facts are sacred, comment free’ often enough, the need to sell news often pushes the journalist to coat fact with comment or brush it with colour and tone, however slight, and thereby influencing the intended reader to react and absorb in particular ways. The better reporter, however, is persuaded to obtain not just all the main versions but portray them with appropriate weight. With regard to the conflict in Sri Lanka such reportage has largely been the exception.

The National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT) is by no means ‘neutral’ in how it views the conflict. We have our views, our understanding and our preferred utopia. We do not demand that everyone, least of all journalists, subscribe to it. We respect the right to disagree and hold that where there is no democracy, no freedom of speech, no respect for human rights, no right to dissent, there can be no peace. If the path to peace is as or more important as is the objective or destination, we take the position that to the
extent that de-escalation of military engagement is important, democratization too is a veritable non-negotiable.

It is here that there is a fundamental difference between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). No government is perfect and the Government of Sri Lanka is certainly not. On the other hand, governments can be democratically thrown out, they can be criticized, and moreover the aggrieved citizen can take recourse in the judicial system. Even in the imperfection that the citizens of this country inhabit, there is a general perception that governments cannot get away with anything and everything. Not so in the case of the LTTE. Having conferred upon itself the titles ‘liberator’ and ‘sole-representative of Tamil aspirations’, having access to a well stocked armoury and operating in a community that is unarmed and incapacitated in many, many ways, the LTTE can and does operate as a law unto itself. In places where they are in control, the question mark has been erased from all discourse. Dissent is not tolerated. Violation of human rights goes Without a word Of protest for one word askance is all that it takes for the ultimate punishment to be meted out.

This, one can argue, is just another opinion and for those who doubt we recommend a thorough study of the conflict as well as the LTTE and not a cursory glance at the literature or news reports or statements issued by the LTTE and its front organizations.

We take the position that the situation in Sri Lanka and especially the portrayal of incident and comment is lacking in honesty of reportage and rigorous cross-checking of claims, not to mention that the stories are often wrapped in emotive material that in the long run serves only to obscure the picture.

This document, then, has been designed to alert you to some of these issues. As we said at the onset we are not politically neutral but we believe there is good journalism and bad journalism even in this world where objectivity is a myth or at best something that is sought but never found. We believe that a lie has been circulated and circulated often enough to make the ininformed or less-informed reader believe it is true. There is a ground-reality, however, that does not lie. Yes, it is not immediately obvious or amenable to immediate capture, but in the end it endures. Cover up helps purchase time and sometimes time is what is needed to destroy communities and landscapes.

The NMAT appeals for responsible journalism and appeals to the sense of goodness in the journalist in the name of all those who have for one reason or another lost their voices during the long years of this conflict. The NMAT insists that one tear is no less tragic than another, one life no less precious than another, and that where these things are glossed over humanity suffers many deaths.

In this you will find some very recent commentary on the portrayal of the conflict in the international media as well as a critique of those who claim to espouse the cause of a free media and feign neutrality.

We invite you to read all this with suspicion and come to your own conclusions but we are hopeful that in the very least you will resolve to read and voice opinion in a more informed and responsible manner afterwards.

Some tears are less newsworthy

A note on media representation of conflict in Sri Lanka


The title of this booklet, ‘Some tears are less newsworthy’ is of course a bit cynical. It is true, though. It all depends where it happened, when it happened, how it happened etc. There is nothing to say that all tears should be captured and reported to the world. on the other hand, isn’t it also true that certain newsworthy tears often go unnoticed or, even if notice, unreported? We believe this is true of the violent conflict that has engulfed Sri Lanka for over to decades now.

The entire world loves a rebel for there is something romantic and heroic about someone who challenges the status quo. The entire world loves a rebel, but it would not be inappropriate to add the caveat. ‘as long as that
rebel is doing his rebelling in some other country, in some far away place where one will not feel the impact in any way’.

Velupillai Prabhakaran is a rebel. He fights for a cause or at least claims to. He speaks of historical injustices suffered by Tamil people and argues that the only way to correct these wrongs is to carve out a separate state from the island of Sri Lanka. We do not dispute his right to read history in any way he wants. Prabhakaran can perceive injustice and dream up the utopia Of his choice, we do not deny him that. Whether he can substantiate his claims and whether his utopia is tenable is another matter. But all this is secondary. What is important is that he calls himself a rebel and is portrayed as one for the most part.

When does a rebel cease to be a rebel?

Do rebels remain rebels all their lives? Does not the substantive practices adopt by a self-proclaimed rebel sometimes bring that label into question? Under what circumstances does a rebel cease to be a rebel? And should that happen is it not the responsibility of the media to notice the transformation and report it? Time passes, things change, If Prabhakaran could legitimately
wear the badge called ‘rebel’ then, does he still deserve it? Where a man who claims to be fighting for the Tamil people himself brutally kills Tamils who do not see eye-to-eye with him, where he refuses to let the people decide for themselves what they want and what they do not want, where ‘The Cause’ demands that villagers are hacked to death, that the lives of innocent civilians be claimed in bomb explosions, that certain areas should be ethnically cleansed of other communities, where children are recruited for combat purposes, thereby pulling the rug under the feet of the future of the community, can one really argue, ‘Rebel then, rebel now!’?

These are questions which require sober reflection. We have concluded that the term ‘Tamil aspirations’ has been hijacked by Prabhakaran. It has become an easy alibi for actions that do not sit well with the high ideals associated with the term ‘rebel’. The reasons for conflict may or may not have changed, but when the self-proclaimed freedom fighter himself, by thought, word and action, does things that clearly imposes limits on freedom not to mention perpetrate horrendous crimes against humanity, he concedes whatever moral high ground he may have enjoyed at the outset. This does not mean of course that the reasons for the conflict no longer exist, they very well may. However it means that such issues demand a different forum of engagement, a different form of dialogue and probably different players as well.

You may believe that Prabakaran still a rebel. You have every right to things so. We are only inviting you to a sober consideration of the fact. Don’t believe us. Take a look around the territories of hurt, the landscapes war and us yourself, ‘can all these blamed on the government or Sinhala people? does not he who would fight at the drop of a hat bring upon these places the inevitable horrors of war, death destruction, dismemberment and dislocation? Does he not know that the movement he provokes war, he invites the decimation of the people whose interest he claims to represent, especially when the “enemy” is described as and inhuman chauvinist?’

Let the stories tell the story

“More than 65.000 people on both sides have been killed since the Tamil Tigers began fighting in 1983 to create a separate state for Sri Lanka’s 3.2 million Tamils, alleging discrimination by the countrys 14 million Sinhalese. ”

This is the current ‘end note’ of almost all news stories on the conflict posted on CNN, BBC, Reuters, AR AFP etc. A few years ago ‘Tamils’ was followed by ‘the majority of whom are Hindus’ and “Sinhalese’ with ‘the majority of whom are Buddhists’.

The above ‘end note’ is not incorrect except that not all Tamils actually live in the areas marked for the ‘separate state’ longed for by the LITE. It is nevertheless incomplete. For example, the following is edited out. so to speak, of the caption: ‘Most Sinhalese and significant sections of the Tamils allege that the LTTE is a terrorist organization which has by its actions lost all legitimacy to represent anyone’. The assumption that is expressed in the above caption is that the LTTE is seen as a legitimate entity by Tamils who without exception subscribe to its agenda. Read this again and again, day after day, for many years, and what do you get? We leave the conclusion to you.

‘Fear. stalks Tamil port of peace’
This is the title of a story filed by one Soutik Biswas of BBC, reporting on incidents that took place in Trincomalee. Consider the choice of words. Two things are implied. First that Trincomalee is a city that is exclusively inhabited by Tamils. Not true. The majority are in fact Sinhala people. Secondly that the Tamils are peaceful and by implication the Sinhalese are not.

The truth is that ‘LTTE’ and Tamils’ are not synonyms and each community is as peaceful as the other but like all communities can be provoked to acts of violence and indeed racial violence. In this case the LTTE exploded a bomb in the Trincomalee market which is dominated by Sinhala traders. The Sinhalese reacted. It is alleged that the Army and Police looked on. If they did. they were absolutely wrong and action should be taken. In fact proceedings have been initiated in this regard. There is a difference between situations where crime goes punished and situations where criminal activity is engaged in as right and with impunity. The former is the
case of the Government and the latter that of the LTTE.

In any event. can we claim that Biswas was innocent, that Biswas was not trying to discolour the picture in some way? NMAT believes we cannot.

‘Thousands of people have fled their homes in north-eastern Sri Lanka as the military launched fresh air strikes on Tamil Tiger targets. About 40,000 people were moving north to seek safety in the jungle, local officials told a BBC correspondent.’

The said BBC correspondent clearly did not question the validity of the statement nor thought is important to question the credentials of the source. The correspondent did not say who this ‘official’ was, whether it was a civil servant or an LTTE representative. It was later revealed that there were only 16,000 persons living in the said area and that only 5000 had fled. It was later revealed also that the LITE had requested all Tamil people to leave their homes and live in and around LTTE camps.

The logic of the air strike is of course open to question. That 5000 people were forced out of their homes is a tragedy. It is a tragedy that many are responsible for, not just the Government of Sri Lanka. The LTTE had killed over 70 members of the armed forces in a period of three weeks and had just attempted to assassinate the Army Commander. Even a rank outsider would conclude that the LITE has to share at least something
of the blame.

On the other hand, this is by no means an exercise in apportioning blame. It is a comment on horrendous reporting. The correspondent cannot take refuge in deadline excuses. Bad reporting makes all reports and all reporters suspect. There are standard that need to be maintained. And, in the case of conflict reporting, one incorrect report can generate unanticipated tragedies because the human being, being a human being, is a creature whose reason is often swayed by his or her emotion.

Who is an extremist?

Many of the aforementioned news services are fond of adjectives. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka, was dubbed a ‘hardliner’ and a ‘hawk during the run up to last year’s presidential election. Some went even further, calling him a Sinhala Extremist, a chauvinist, and pinning an anti-peace tag to his name. His main ally, the People’s Liberation Front, better known by its Sinhala acronym, JVR is consistently described as a Sinhala extremist party. So too the lesser ally, Jathika Hela IJrumaya (all of whose members in parliament are Buddhist monks).
The ‘hard’ line they have taken has been one of treating the LTTE and the Tamil people as distinctly separate entities. They have not said no to negotiations with the LTTE but have taken the position that terrorism should be called terrorism. They have rejected a federal solution to the conflict and have offered valid reasons for their position which they claim they are prepared to substantiate and defend. In the end theirs is another
position. as or more valid than any other. They have articulated these positions democratically and not at gun point.
Now let us suppose that these individuals and parties are actually anti-peace, actually racist, chauvinist etc. By the same token, what are the appropriate adjectives for the LTTE? One man’s terrorist, we know, is another’s freedom fighter, but surely a foreign correspondence has enough intelligence to describe what he or she sees in terms that are understood?

Call girls and call boys of Fourth Estate

This is the editorial of The Island of April 29, 2006. It is in NMAT’s opinion a sober reflection on the complicity of certain sections of the media and media personnel, local and foreign, in the LTTE’s propaganda Project. It calls to question the ethic of impartiality that journalists are supposed to be guided by in reportage.

One day an elderly elephant heard a strange noise and he summoned his two sons. “Go look what’s on!” he said. The two calves went whence the noise had come and found two hunters wending
their way through. They ran back to their father panting. “Papa,” one calf said with the other agreeing, “forty hunters are coming!” The elephant family ran for dear life.

Now the question: Why did the calf say there were forty hunters, whereas there were, in fact, only two of them?

Well, we don’t want to keep you guessing. The answer is: The calf was a liar! Then why on earth did the other one repeat that lie? Well, it was very weak in arithmetic.

Replace the first calf with LTTE propagandists and the other with the foreign press, and then you have a better picture of the international media coverage of the air strikes on LTTE targets in
Sampur the other day. The LITE said 40,000 people were fleeing and some of the Colombo based foreign journalists swallowed the lie, hook line and sinker. They lost no time in disseminating the Goebbelsian lie across the globe. What they didn’t realise was that Sampur has only a population of 16,000!

Let it be added immediately that our sympathy is with those civilians who were harmed and displaced for no fault of theirs, regardless of their numbers. War is hell as we have been saying repeatedly in these columns and it must be avoided. That’s why the LTTE, which is all out to thrust war on the state, must be stopped in its tracks.

In the aftermath of the tsunami disaster, when the entire world rushed to our help, BBC had the audacity to interview an LTTE sympathiser who said when the killer waves came pummelling everything on their way, he had first thought the SLAF aircraft were bombing his area. “You know they usually bomb churches and schools,” he said to a seemingly dumb interviewer of BBC, which boasts of Hard Talk. All what a discerning listener gathered was that BBC couldn’t find someone, for an interview, who knew waves from bombers.

We don’t fault BBC as a whole for broadcasting such mistruths, half-truths, untruths and diabolical lies. It is like setting a bus on fire because of an errant driver who runs over a pedestrian. We blame its correspondents and programme directors who are behaving in a manner suggestive of hubris and chutzpah and wonder why such irresponsible swashbucklers are allowed to cover matters that are sensitive and have the potential to set a conflict-torn country on fire. And those worthies are trying to teach responsible journalism to their Sri Lankan counterparts. We would rather learn honesty from a fraud or chastity from a whore than journalism from them.

Some of those potentates are actively engaged in politics and functioning as propagandists of some political leaders in this country. Unless the leaders of their choice come to power, they vilify the successful others and paint Sri Lanka raven black. There are, of course, true professionals
among themand we raise our editorial hat to those ladies and gentlemen who have done their profession proud!but the sordid operations of some among them have tarnished their image as well. All it takes to spoil a pot of milk is a little bit of cow dung! (Etymologically speaking, the word ‘dung’ has a Celtic origin!)

Those know-alls in the garb of foreign correspondents peddling not-so-hidden agendas are no better than carrion crows trailing hyenas in the bush looking for carcasses and corpses. They are blind to anything positive about the country where they work. They have mistaken their mission here for heightening the conflict by lionising Tigers. BBC once produced a
documentary on Black Tigers and the only purpose it served was to project those mind-erased killing machines as heroes. But it didn’t show the faces of even Sinn Fein leaders until they mellowed their stance. A CNN correspondent once tried to ‘balance’ a story on child combatants saying that both the LITE and the government recruited child soldiers!

One may wonder whether the brand of Journalism that some foreign correspondents practise is an extension of the foreign policy of their respective countries. For example, the international terror network of the I-TTE is coordinated by a British citizen from LondonAnton Balasingham is his name. The British government does sweet little or nothing about his operations and permits even celebrations of terrorist events on the British soil, where the outfit is (nominally?) banned. During the tsunami disaster the British Navy took an LTTE leader to one of its warships off the eastern coast! Later the British claimed they didn’t know he was an LTTE leader. Poor British intelligence! BBC appears to be following the same policy towards the LTTE, which is on a campaign to divide a Commonwealth nation.

The World Press Freedom Day is being commemorated in Colombo on a grand scale. The press must have unbridled freedom the world over and no stone should be left unturned in our efforts to achieve that noble goal. But freedom sans responsibility, like power without control, means disaster. Hence the need for holding the journalistic call girls (and call boys)irrespective of the colour of their skinat bay without letting them bring the noble profession of journalism to the same level as the oldest
profession in the world. The sooner it is done, the better it is for the genuine practitioners. With rancour and malice towards none.

The impartiality of political commentators

Most news agencies seek to add colour to their stories by obtaining a comment from an expert or experts. In the case of Sri Lanka, the most quoted are Jehan Perera (National Peace Council), Pakaiasothy Saravanamuttu (Centre for Policy Alternatives), Jayadeva Uyangoda (Social Scientists’ Association) and Kumar Rupesinghe (Foundation for Co-exsitence). All these individuals roughly fall into a thin section of the spectrum of political views on the conflict, a section that is more or less sympathetic to the LITE to the extent that they gloss over LTTE atrocities and try to confer the LITE parity of status vis a vis the Government of Sri Lanka. Interestingly they equate peace to a federal arrangement but very rarely do they utter the terms ‘democracy. ‘pluralism’ or ‘human rights’. They are largely silent on the issue of child soldiers.

We doubt whether reporters always obtain the real weight of the views of such people, something that can only be assessed subsequent to investigating their stake in the issue. They are invested in the relevant politics in particular ways for very tangible reasons. And yet, the NMAT encourages and even insists that reporters seek the opinion of the above mentioned people for they do represent a certain class of perceptions albeit a slim one. However, in the interest of obtaining a proper perspective on the range of views, should they not elicit the views of others who are equally qualified (by virtue of both certification and intimate knowledge of the issues)?

We have seen how reporters are quick to grab statements issued by the LTTE and treat them as though they are articles of faith. We have no objection for everyone should have the right to articulate. The
question is, why don’t these very same reporters obtain
the view from the other side as well? Isrft ‘balanced
reporting’ a virtue any more?

The tears and anguish of mother who lost their children to forced conscription probably make a good story. That story has only
been scantily sketched so far.

The Free Media Movement and its discontents

Dharmaratnam Sivaram and Relangi Selvarajah: One life less worth than the other?

There is an organization in Sri Lanka called the Free Media Movement (FMM). The FMM was launched in the run up to the 1994 elections, mainly to support what was then viewed as the progressive forces led by Chandrika Kumaratunga. After the election the membership Of the FMM declined to the point that today it has only a handful of card carrying members if you will. The reason, some have pointed out, is that the FMM has evolved into an outfit that grossly misrepresents the conflict in the North and East, being patently partial towards the LTTE going to the extent of whitewashing its many and various atrocities.

The FMM is quick to denounce any untoward act perpetrated by the Government and to take issue with any statement that is deemed to be detrimental to media freedom and communal harmony. Its chief spokesperson, Sunanda Deshapriya, one can argue, is not a journalist in any sense of the word for he is a propagandist which is not the same thing. This is what is evident in the occasional columns he pens for Sinhala newspapers.

The FMM and indeed everyone should denounce any act that steps out of the legal framework. By the same token, should not the FMM rise above the conflict and not use double standards? An atrocity is an atrocity whoever perpetrates it. A murder is a murder.

Terrorism is terrorism. One human life is as precious as any other human life.

Al this is perhaps best illustrated in the different ways in which the FMM responded to two killings, that of Dharmaratnam Sivaram, the editor of the pro-LTTE website and widely read political columnist, and that of Relangi Selvarajah, a freelance radio and television presenter who has been at times critical Of the LTTE.

Sivaram was abducted by unknown gunmen and killed on April 28, 2005. This is what the FMM had to say.

“The Free Media Movement expresses shock and sorrow at the abduction and murder of journalist Dharmaratnam Sivaram and views this murder as a violation of broad
democratic rights and of media freedom.

The FMM expresses appreciation for his role as a journalist not on the basis of the views that he held but on the basis of the dynamism and diversity that he brought to Sri Lankan media.

The despicable manner of his abduction and murder point to the fact that his murderers and the political environment in which they operate are based on anti-democratic principles which allow a struggle to be carried on, not in the realm of ideas but in the realm of murder and mayhem. The assassination of not only media persons but of ordinary civilians who hold opinions that differ from your own has become a common practice in the Sri Lankan political arena over the past twenty years and grows like a cancer that overshadows our present.”

This statement was issued on April 30,2005, i.e. one day after Sivaram’s body was found. Deshapriya in his columns and comments given to the media did not hesitate to point his finger at the Government. The FMM organized a demonstration condemning the murder. Subsequently when it was found Out that the murder had been committed by a rival Tamil group, the FMM did not think it necessary to apologize for its
irresponsible conjectures.

Now let us look at how the FMM responded to the murder of Relangi Sivarajah. Relangi was killed on August 12, 2005, along with her husband, at their home. It took the FMM seven days to issue a statement regarding these murders. It took the FMM almost two weeks to organize a demonstration that spoke Of the killings and even here the Case of Relangi was little more than a foot note in the overall thrust of the event, the alleged assaulting Of a Tamil journalist at a political rally.

But what did the FMM say?

Free Media Movement strongly condemns the killing of Journalist Relangi Selvarajah and her husband Selvarajah by unknown gunmen on 12th Friday, August 2005. They were both shot dead at approximately 1.00pm at Bambalopitiya, Colombo. Journalist Relangi Selvarajah Was a full time journalist at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation (sic) (SLBC) a few years ago and was working as a part time TV presenter at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Cooperation (sic) (SLRC) at the time of her killing. This killing too has the trademark Of the ongoing killing spree of rival Tamil armed groups. FMM condemns this murder on the grounds of right to life and journalist’s rights. Although FMM does not point the finger at any group for this killing, it notes that both of them are said to have close connections with anti LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) former militant group PLOTE. FMM as on previous occasion earnestly requests armed Tamil groups and movements to engage in peaceful means to sort out their differences and not to make journalists a target of their battles. At the same time FMM urges the Government to initiate speedy inquiry into the above killings.’

Note that there Was no ‘shock’ and ‘sorrow’ expressed here. Here is it about ‘differences between armed Tamil groups and movements’. In the case of Sivaram, the FMM observes that ‘his murderers and the political environment in which they operate are based On anti- democratic principles which allow a struggle to be carried on, not in the realm of ideas but in the realm Of murder and mayhem’. Do the murderers of Relangi operate in a different political environment? Is the point not worthy of reiteration? Is the life of one person worth more than another? What is the politics pertaining to what one might call relative immediacy? A member of the FMM is reported to have said that no one can tell if Relangi’s murder was politically motivated
by way of explaining the delay in issuing a statement. Surely the same argument could have been applied to Sivaram as well?

Sadly this has been the signature Of the Free Media Movement all along. The name is pregnant with so much potential, but its practise has been so suspect that it has served to give a bad name to ‘free media’ in the broader sense. 

Of tears, seen and unseen, reported and neglected

On April 23, 2006, around 4.50 pm, LTTE terrorists kidnapped and killed six Sinhala farmers. The attack took place in Kallanpattuwa, Gomarankadawala in the district Of Trincomalee. The farmers were working in their paddy fields when they were taken and shot. Four of them are students of the Gomarankadawala Maha

No one should be transformed in to a nondescript number.
but certain killings do that to some people.
Some murders are privileged. some poverty-stricken.

Vidyalaya, Eranda Sandaruwan Rupasinghe was 1 7, Lalith Kumara Dissanayake 16, Aruna Shantha 19 and Ajith Kumara 19. They were all students. Wasantha Kumara (29) was a farmer and Chaminda Prashantha Bandara (27) a Home Guard. According to eye Witnesses the attackers were young men whose ages ranged from 16-18.

This attack on civilians was not a one-off affair. The LITE has launched hundreds of such attacks on civilian targets and murdered in cold blood thousands. This is not the place to enumerate. What is important to understand is that this was a deliberate attack on civilians. In this sense it is qualitatively different from an air strike that focuses on a military target and in the process kills civilians. On the other hand, neither is less of a tragedy, especially for the victims and their loved ones.

There have been instances where the Sri Lankan armed forces have either reacting to an LTTE attack or for some other reason attacked civilians. These attacks are juicily gobbled up by the media and splashed around the world. This is good because such ‘exposure’ is a good deterrent.

The question is, how did the world miss the massacre at Gomarankadawala? What happened to those correspondents, local and foreign, who were waxing eloquent about the unrest in Trincomalee following the LTTE exploding a bomb in the market place?
Where did the poetry they are capable of hide? The massacre at Gomarankadawala merited no more than a couple of lines. The relevant correspondents apparently did not interview the survivors or the families of the victims. If they did visit the site, few thought it necessary to take photographs of tear stained faces.

A resident from Gomarankadawala could ask, as Shylock did in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’, ‘if you prick us, do we not bleed’? One could ask, as we do, ‘are some tears less newsworthy than others? One could ask, ‘is not the propensity to privilege some stories, some versions, indicative of identifiable political loyalty? 

This is the signature photograph of the aftermath of any attack.
Some are picked up, some not. This was not

What kind of message does the media give such victims? We can think of one: ‘you people don’t count’. What would the media then say should some of those people decide that to be counted one has to give back as good as one gets? Any number of scenarios is possible.

There is a disconcerting thought that refuses to be footnoted: where similar incidents are taken to merit differential coverage, the relevant media personnel are deemed to have been unpardonably lax in professional duty. And, in situations such as this, such errors do not help, but instead add to the confusion and willingly or unwillingly have the potential to provoke unnecessary tragedy.

Suicide bombings and the world outside

This article, which appeared in the Sunday Times of April 30.2006, comments on the issue of media (mis) representation and double-standards when reporting on the LTTE and the Security Forces of the Government of Sri Lanka. The article follows the aborted attempt to assassinate Sri Lanka’s Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka. NMAT highlights certain sections for the purpose of alerting the reader to salient aspects of the matter.

Doubtless the so-called Co-Chairs who were to meet in Oslo on Friday would have issued their customary statement by the time this column appears.

Those acquainted with previous statements by the Co-Chairs and other international groups and organisations purportedly interested in bringing peace to Sri Lanka would not be surprised if this “Gang of Four” urged the government and the LTTE to desist from further violence, to show restraint and return to the negotiating table as the two sides promised in February.

It would be tragic for the country if it, they would say and it is of course true. One could expect the mixture to be as before, unless they have this time plucked up enough courage in the face of mindless violence not to fall prey to the blandishments and argumentative gobbledegook of Oslo trying desperately to save their diplomatic midwifery from ending up as another political abortion.

Naturally one cannot speak for Mr Velupillai Prabhakaran though it is not difficult to read his mind on his immediate and long objectives. One would also not be far off the mark concluding that the vast majority of Sri Lankans want a peaceful solution to this seemingly intractable problem so that they may live their lives without fear of being blown up or constricted by threats of violence.The recent local government elections in Sri Lanka saw the more virulently ‘nationalistic’ political parties suffering ignominious defeats and the people of the South supporting peace negotiations with the LTTE.

The South — and that includes Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and other smaller ethnic groups — mandated President Mahinda Rajapaksa to negotiate a peaceful solution that would meet the aspirations of the different communities without sacrificing the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Had the people thought differently they would have clearly backed the JVP and the JHU and any other chauvinistic party calling for a much tougher politico-military approach to the LTTE.

Yet the international community, if one might use that rather loose term, has failed to grasp the significance of this political development and has not ascribed to the people in the south the merit they deserve. 

At the same time those guilty of orchestrating the violence we have seen since the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa last November and the serious escalations thereafter have gone largely unpunished except for the pro-forma verbal condemnations that emanate from these worthies now and then.

This despite the fact that some of the major western countries that have an interest in steering Sri Lanka towards peace have themselves been the victims of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.

So where is the European Union that some seven months ago was threatening the LTTE with sanctions if it did not refrain from violence? Why this inaction in the face of grave provocations that actually is a slap to the collective face of the EU?

Besides the US, the victim of the 9/11 attacks, Britain and Spain suffered from terrorist bombings in recent years. Other EU nations such as France and Germany have also been subjected to various forms of terrorism over the years.

They have acted tough and some are doing so even now as new anti-terrorism laws come into operation. Yet they expect others to act with restraint and absorb the blows of terrorism (even when civilians and non-combatants are killed or maimed) instead of trying to eliminate or minimise the threat of such terrorism.

How many of these voices that call for restraint from the Sri Lanka government and the armed forces that have been the victims of a war of attrition conducted by those who simultaneously plead their commitment to peace, were raised in rage and outrage when western nations invaded Iraq? And it was not even the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks?
Did we hear Norway, the self-proclaimed architect of peace, unequivocally condemn the US and Britain for launching the invasion that has today turned virtually into a civil war in which innocents are being slaughtered daily?

Why is Sri Lanka being treated differently when its people are equally victims of terrorism as those of western countries? Are Sri Lankan lives cheaper or expendable while western lives are sacrosanct and must be safeguarded even if it means invading countries that have proved to be involved in the attacks?

Why has the situation facing the elected governments of Sri Lanka which is far more democratic than some other nations favoured by the west, not been fully appreciated by the outside world even at a time when terrorism is being roundly condemned?

The reasons are to be found both within and without the country. A systemic failure in our communication policy that blows hot and cold and handled by persons who seem to be more interested in designations and the perks of office than bringing coherence and professionalism into it.
It is also to be found among oft-quoted NGO- wallahs who thrive on monetary handouts from donors in Norway. Sweden, Britain, the USA to mention some and sing when the big brothers abroad wave the baton or distribute their favourite hymn sheets.

Consider this last paragraph from a news report from The Times of London the day following last week’s suicide bomb attack. “Jehan Perera, the head of the National Peace Council think-tank, said that both the Tiger attack and the government response were acts of war.”

I don’t know if and where this Perera chap studied international law but he finds guilty not only the aggressor but the state that defends its interests, territory, nationals and property
against a perpetrator that still claims to adhere to the ceasefire it signed.

If Jehan Perera’s comment is the view of this think-tank (apparently funded by Norway), then obviously it needs to start thinking again.

The foreign media are not much different when it comes to distortion and not seeing the larger picture.

Last Wednesday the BBC website carried a story about civilians fleeing from air strikes and quoting its Colombo Correspondent Dumeetha Lutra whose reporting I have had occasion to comment on before. What is interesting is the remark carried separately from the main story under the headline “Have Your Say.”

It quotes somebody named Ajantha Rajasinghe of Colombo who says: “No one here believes it is a suicide attack as the headquarters is heavily guarded and all are searched even if they are pregnant.” Does this chap actually exist? How he concluded that nobody believed in the suicide bomber attack surely beggars belief. If the BBC took the trouble to highlight such unmitigated nonsense, then obviously it thought that view was worth carrying. So why did its Colombo Correspondent not follow up this obviously interesting angle?

some tears are less newsworthy
• 20 A man grieves over the loss of a son (above)
and so does a mother (below).
The former is a Sinhalese the latter a Tamil.
Certain things transcend identity,
but that is something that
certain journalists seem to forget.

It did not as far as I know and so this doubt, once cast, was left hanging dangerously in the air. That is not all. On air Lutra spoke about the bombing and shelling of I-TTE bases and immediately afterwards referred to killing of some farmers. She did not mention they were Sinhala farmers killed by the Tigers, thus leaving the impression that they were victims of military shelling.

On Wednesday night BBC World television invited me to its studios at 1.30 or so in the morning. I could not go due to an injury. The BBC was interested in the civilians fleeing their homes. What it did not seem to know, possibly because it had never been reported by its correspondent that for several weeks pro-LTTE organisations had been urging civilians to seek “protection” in LITE areas.

The LTTE is increasingly exposing Tamil civilians in the hope that when war comes it could use possible civilian casualties for its own international propaganda. The world seems unable to see the ploy. 

By way of conclusion

There is a difference between balance and slant. There is always a privileging that takes place, consciously or unconsciously. This is natural. However there is nothing to say that the media cannot get better, cannot attempt to piece together a fuller picture of event, explanation and version.

There is a point beyond which atrocity cannot be explained away. There are acts which cannot be described in any other way other than ‘terrorist’. The device called colouring, so important to market a story, cannot be differentially applied to similar situations. It is unethical to introduce the emotive in one instance and insist on the bland in the other when two events have the same signature of tragedy inscribed on them.

The media has a role to play, an important role in fact. Consequently, any irresponsibility on the part of the media can translate into an exacerbation of conflict.

In an ideal world tears would not ensue from eyes on account of the kinds of tragedies the island of Sri Lanka has known in the recent past. Until such time, let not the tears that are shed be robbed of their dignity and meaning by a privileging that is so slanted that it insults the very purpose that the Fourth Estate is supposed to serve.

National Movement Against Terrorism
45/4 Jayasinghe Road, Kirulapone, Colombo 6, Sri Lanka
Telephone: (94) 011-2813026


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