Citizen Journalism and the Numbers Game

Sri-Lanka-war

Image courtesy Hill Post

Kath Noble recently published two articles in The Island, which were reproduced on Colombo Telegraph. [i]

Bring on the Usual Suspects

Some of the reactions to what Ms Noble wrote were depressing but, sadly, not surprising. The usual suspects came up with the usual polemic. Says Dev: “This is absolute rubbish – mere speculations and prejudices! This is a shame on journalism sans facts.”

Many comments on such threads display a similar cognitive dissonance. Commenters seem unable to distinguish between reporting and advocacy, between explanation and justification. Some assume that a view quoted by the writer is the view held by the writer.

Dev calls for facts. It depends what you mean by facts. Colombo Telegraph’s motto is “In Journalism truth is a process”. Dev seems only interested in facts that fit his predisposition but accuses Ms Noble herself of “mere speculations and prejudices”.

He does not seem to have grasped that Ms Noble  is reviewing a publication[ii] written by someone else. That publication itself surveys various “facts” put forward about the numbers of civilians killed in the final months of Eelam War IV.

When I wrote about the Marga Institute seminar on The Numbers Game,  another commenter displayed an ambivalent attitude to facts: “Numbers don’t matter, it is the truth that matters”.

Higher and Lower

Those who accuse the IDAG-S report of whitewashing GOSL  bizarrely overlook the inconvenient fact that the estimate that the report eventually settles on is actually HIGHER than  some of the estimates put forward by Tamils, even LTTE sympathisers.

Unlike Ms Noble, I am not an Oxford graduate in mathematics. I struggled to pass O-level maths, scraping through at the third attempt. Although Ms Noble cites IDAG-S’s figure as 15,000 dead, the way I read the report, IDAG-S say the number of deaths could have been 18,000. That is not insignificant. I acknowledge that even the lowest figures I represent a lot of human pain and bereavement. I would never say “only 18,000 civilians were killed”.

Compare this with lower estimates by Tamils:

  • Navi Pillai’s press release saying “as many as 2,800″ could have been killed.
  • Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.
  • Rajasingham Narendran said: “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”
  • Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute estimated “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.
  • Dr. Noel Nadesan: “roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. [iii]

Whitewash by IDAG-S?

Usha S Sri Skanda-Rajah wrote: “I know where these apologists for Sri Lanka are heading – to exonerate Sri Lanka, demonize the rebels and declare any civilian deaths were due to the rebels and collateral damage – Nice try!”[iv]

There are some words in the IDAG-S report which do not sound like the words of government apologists. This is what the authors of the IDAG-s actually say:

“The respective proportions of civilians killed by the LTTE and the government forces is difficult to work out. Though it is probable that more were hit by government forces than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”.

“Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

No Good Deed

It  was saddening but not surprising to read some of the comments about the Marga seminar. There was the usual Pavlovian reaction. According to some commenters, the whole event was just an excuse to whitewash the government. This view ignored the fact that people (such as Jehan Perera and Pradeep Jeganathan) who are not normally seen as government stooges attended. A subsequent meeting was attended by the Canadian High Commissioner. Jeevan Thiagarajah  attended a third meeting.

What Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke actually said at the first seminar was that  it was important that we address the moral responsibility and accountability of all actors in the conflict. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of civilian casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures could only inhibit the healing process. Many who spoke at the seminar said that there is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life but feared that the  current situation did not hold out much hope for  genuine reconciliation. There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. It was agreed that victory parades are not a helpful form of commemoration. Remembrance and mourning were advocated. There was a consensus that civil society must engage with the GOSL,  focusing on the LLRC recommendations on the  process of collective atonement,  and  that leadership on this needs to be given by the President.

At the conclusion of the seminar, the question was posed: “How can we engage in the international debate and how can civil society encourage  the implementation of LLRC recommendations on issues relating to humanitarian law and civilian casualties?”

It was sad that such unexceptionable sentiments should unleash such hatred. [v] Why should a plea for atonement, remembrance, mourning, accountability, reconciliation be met with anger? The Marga Institute itself was smeared, without any substantiating evidence, with being “sleazy” government apologists. Amar Gunatilleke responded: “Let us get on with our work on reconciliation. Let’s help the victims and do whatever we can for them. I am not sure whether we are medically qualified to attend to dementia or any other type of mental illness of others who refuse to move forward. Maybe it is their bitterness that has eaten into them”.

E-Bile

Despite its  apparent success in rebuilding the nation after an indubitable  genocide, the Rwandan government has been criticized by human rights groups. President Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression but underestimating the importance of stability and economic progress. Rwanda is covered with memorials to the genocide. In spite of this enforced “remembering” there are also “silences”. No history is taught in schools because there is no consensus on what to put in the national curriculum. Rwanda’s current economic success comes at a price: speech about ethnic groups and the government is now extremely restricted. Vicious verbal battles similar to those on Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph between Tamil separatists and Sinhala chauvinists would not be allowed in Rwanda.

Censorship for the maintenance of  ethnic harmony is a quagmire. It should not be tried in Sri Lanka whatever happens in Rwanda.

Moderation in All Things

However, most reputable websites  have a moderation policy which forbids author abuse, obscene or offensive language and off-topic discussions. Only extreme libertarians would object to a website policing itself to eliminate hate speech that stirs up racial animosities. Whether a comment falls into any of those categories is determined by editorial judgement. Where do you draw the line between moderating and censorship?

The price paid for freedom of speech is that gangs of thugs, whose malevolence towards their fellow human beings is pathological,  pseudonymously prowl the precincts of the internet. The people who moderate do not always  know the difference and are, allegedly,  sometimes part of the gangs. Someone has privately suggested to me that many of the pseudonymous trolls are actually fakes manufactured by the editors to drum up interest.  An analysis of the UK Guardian’s on-line community by digital consultant Martin Belam suggests that debate is dominated by a tiny minority. (He estimated that a fifth of comments were left by just 0.0037% of the paper’s declared monthly audience.)

Freedom and Licence

I do not know Kath Noble well, but I would judge from her writing style that her skin must be at least as thick as mine although my head would be the thicker of the two of us. Those of us who spend a lot of time blogging get used to stupid attacks by people hiding behind a pseudonym. Such attacks are more damaging to the forum than to the writer.

One commenter on Ms Noble’s recent article spends a good deal of time discussing figures in a reasonably sensible manner and then loses it: “This is what happens due to inbreeding among you brahmins, some of you become retards. It is high time to diversified your breeding into other castes because the mutations in your DNA must have maximised by now due to the inbreeding, producing dumbasses like you.”

Would anyone behave like this in real life?

Remembering and Forgiving

How do we strike a balance between remembering and the infantile abuse that too depressingly often passes for comment on the websites of newspapers? How do we contrive a discourse that notes the mistakes of the past without allowing the armchair conflict junkies to encourage further mistakes to be made?

It came as no surprise to see the Marga Institute vilified as both pro-government and anti-government. People making such accusations relied on rhetoric rather than sense and did not make any useful contribution. Amar Gunatilleke wrote: “After going through 142 comments I could see only a handful of suggestions regarding the way forward”.[vi]

David Blacker commented about these keyboard warriors: “They are looking for platforms from which to spout rhetoric. When facts and actual invitations to action (such as Amar’s) are put down before them there will be either a deafening silence, or mumbled excuses. These people are charlatans, peddlers of snake oil, living off a diaspora desperate for hope.”


[ii] http://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice

[iii] I deal with the figures in more detail here http://pcolman.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/deadly-accountancy-part-2/

[iv] http://groundviews.org/2013/05/28/sri-lankas-numbers-game/

[v] http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/who-speaks-for-sri-lankas-tamils/#comments

[vi] http://groundviews.org/2013/05/28/sri-lankas-numbers-game/

  • http://colombotelegraph.com Colombo Telegraph

    Kath Noble recently published two articles in The Island, which were reproduced on Colombo Telegraph.?????

    We don’t reproduce Kath’s articles. Check you facts please.

    • Padraig Colman
      • http://colombotelegraph.com Colombo Telegraph

        So? What we say is we don’t reproduce her articles. We don’t take them from Island.

        • Padraig Colman

          @ CT

          I hear the deafening sound of hairs being split!

    • Padraig Colman
      • http://colombotelegraph.com Colombo Telegraph

        So? What we say is we don’t reproduce her articles. We don’t take them from Island.

    • Kath Noble
    • Padraig Colman

      An entity describing itself as “Colombo Telegraph” made the first comment in this thread. It said: “Do you research”. My research had indicated that Colombo Telegraph was run by Uvindu Kurukulasuriya. Before posting this article, I wrote to him asking for information and clarification. His initial response was “No problem”. Eventually he said “Not interested. Too busy”. He told me to write to “Colombo Telegraph”. I did so and got this response: “Sorry, CT is not belong to your interpretation.” When I persisted, the person, who refused to give a name, said “No time”.

      “Do you research” ?! I tried,

      • http://colombotelegraph.com Colombo Telegraph

        You tried??????

        “Kath Noble recently published two articles in The Island, which were reproduced on Colombo Telegraph”

        Have you researched about the above statement? The answer is no!!

        Yes, you wrote to us, but that 14 email conversation has no connection with Kath’s articles. So we are not going to discuss something irrelevant to this article here.

        Kind request; don’t mislead GV readers.

        BTW, we checked your statement with Uvindu and he said that a person called Michael O’Leary wrote to him and asked about CT, then he replied “No problem, but tell me who you are.” Then you said it is Padraig Colman
        Then Uvindu asked “Is it? then why two names and two emails? ”

        You wrote; ” I did not think that it was a mystery that the name on my bank account is Michael O’Leary and that I write under the name Padraig Colman….”

        Yes you are correct, he was willing to help you, but he found that you have multiple identities. He said that he wrote to you; “but today I found you have two identities, I suspect may be more…..Send me a photo ID, then I may be able to answer.”

        The whole email exchange was about CT and not about Kath’s articles. So readers can decide.

        Sorry GV readers for this irrelevant discussion.

        • Inoka Karu

          So now the truth is coming out and the credibility of Michael O’Leary AKA Padraig Colman AKA (+++ other identities) is starting to be revealed and is GV going to continue to provide space for this character???

          [Edited out]

          While I usually disagree with J Fernando, but I too wonder what this guys background is (when he himself says he is not a journalist) so what credibility does he possess ?

          • Manjula

            What “extra” reputation would a “journalist” have on top of a “writer”? To me, most of the journalists write with an “agenda” and therefore have zero “reputation” from readers wthout an agenda.

        • J Fernando

          Wow, not sure what will come out next! This guy who accuses all of being merely “keyboard warriors” is himself a man with multiple identities hiding behind multiple names!

          [Edited out]

          • Manjula

            I wonder what is the big deal here with “two” identities specially when Michael openly talks about his true identity and pseudo name under his “profile”. I knew this long long time ago when I read one of his articles that I accidentally bumped on. Guys, what is your problem?

            What about all those people who appear under a pseudo name in this forum and other forums?

        • Hikz

          “My name in the real world is Michael O’Leary. I write under a different name because Michael O’Leary is such a common name that Google gets confused.Any search for “Michael O’Leary” is likely to come up with a lot of stuff about the multimillionaire CEO of RyanAir.

          I have been writing a regular column under the name Michael O’Leary for Sri Lanka’s leading business magazine Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD), since 2007.”

          From his about page.

          Not sure what Sherlock and Dr Watson here are getting excited about :-)

          • Off the Cuff

            Hikz,

            Was wondering why Padraig did not provide the link to his about page http://pcolman.wordpress.com/about/. Perhaps Google was too new a tool for Sherlock and Watson.

            Hope he wont stop writing to GV just because he was targeted by some.

      • Colombo Telegraph

        One more correction;
        Colman /O’Leary says; “When I persisted, the person, who refused to give a name, said ‘No time’.”

        Again half truth. What we said was;

        //colombotelegraph
        Jul 12 (5 days ago)

        to Michael
        No time, you should do more research and come, we are willing to help you. //

        • Swaminathan

          Is there no end to the half truths and manipulations of this Colman ? [Edited out]

  • Dev

    I would like Padraig Colman to go back to the “Colombo Telegraph” to READ again the comments. the comments you have subscribed to ME is not from me !!!! Its from someone who calls himself “Thiru” who then apologizes for typing my name in the name box when trying to reply to my comment which was…..

    “This is just another “number” from the “expert”

    If I remember correctly, the Bishop of Mannar never gave the 147000 figure as killed, he simply said they were “missing” -sloppy journalism if you ask me ”

    the “expert” I was referring to is the report writers !! I was perfectly aware she did not estimate the numbers !!!
    I called out Ms. Noble on her error with the Bishop of Mannar and said it was shoddy journalism and I say that of you too, please as I said go back and read the comments CAREFULLY!

    As for highlighting biases about only accepting numbers/views we like….Dr Dayan Jayatilleka comment is very revealing….


    This may be Kath Noble’s most important article yet, which is saying quite a bit.

    A non-Sri Lankan, Oxford-trained mathematician, Kath’s lucidly critical exegesis of ‘The Numbers Game’ dis-aggregation promises to get us closer to the empirical truth than we have ever been. I eagerly await the next part, and Kath’s own estimate of the figures.

    My reply to him was as follows:

    “So if this “A non-Sri Lankan, Oxford-trained mathematician” gives a number it is acceptable but if Cambridge educated Frances Harrison with MBA from Imperial College gives a number its unacceptable? LOL LOL

    I am not saying either is right but just wanted to show how silly your comment is !”

    • Swaminathan

      Thanks for highlighting both Padraig Colman’s sloppy reading (and journalism) and Dayan’s comment as I am not a regular reader of the telegraph.

      Will he apologize to you for accusing you wrongly?

      • Padraig Colman

        The sloppiness seems to be down to CT, Dev and thiru. No apologies here.

        • swaminathan

          Is CT responisible for your inability to read? Why pass the buck having done poor reading.

    • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

      Is Ms Harrison a mathematician and if so, how does her math match up with the computations done by Kath Noble?

  • Anpu

    Kath Noble – “But this approach opens up the possibility of much higher totals, so people like Frances Harrison are still perfectly happy to describe its results as ‘credible’.” http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/a-genuinely-credible-estimate/

    Frances Harrison – “Nearly four years on there is no agreed death toll, even to the nearest ten thousand lives. That’s why an international investigation is required to establish the truth about what may be one of the least reported but worst atrocities of recent decades – both in terms of the speed and the scale of the killing.” – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/frances-harrison/one-hundred-thousand-peop_b_2306136.html

    • Padraig Colman
      • Anpu

        Mr Colman – I could not find the time to read those articles. Sorry I am not going to email you. Simple reason – I do not wish to identify myself. I am sure you would not wilfully put my name on the net. But accidents happen. I am living in a safe place. But my close relatives are not. I do not wish to create any problems for them.

        • Padraig Colman

          Dear Anpu,

          You are proving my point here. From some of our more recent exchanges I get the distinct impression that in real life you are a decent fellow with whom I would probably get on well. However, when you put on a mask and prowl the internet you take on a different identity and feel emboldened to attack people you have never met.

          In good faith, I gave you my e-mail address and invited you to have a conversation with me away from the hub-bub of the comments threads. I can understand you reasons for not wanting to engage in an e-mail correspondence with me.

          After some considerable time has elapsed you say: “I could not find the time to read those articles.”

          That is typical of the power without responsibility nature of comment threads. I seriously believed that if you read my lengthy and balanced articles about my perceptions of the situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka, we might understand each other better.

          I tried. You have plenty of time to make comments but not enough time to consider my reasoned arguments.

    • Pubudu

      Thanks for the links. We do need to find the number of dead even to the closest 10000

      I wouldn’t expect an apology from the likes of Padraig Colman , Dev, so don’t hold your breadth

  • Padraig Colman
  • Inoka Karu

    Dear moderators:
    I am repeatedly appealed to you to control hellion characters such “off the cuff”, Padraig Colman and J Fernando as they constantly drift away from topic and also cause animosity on GV and arguments that have no relevance to the topic at hand.

    Padraig Colman simply regurgitates previous articles with comments from others peppered in-between (and that too erroneously as clearly shown here; which is a cardinal sin for a journalist who should be doing fact checking not once but multiple times).
    Surely we can find journalists of higher caliber amidst us? Surely surely surely….expected better from GV and Sanjana Hattotuwa.

    • Padraig Colman

      I am not a journalist. However, I do check my facts and apologise when I make an error. You should not hold your “breadth” waiting for an apology to Dev. I quoted a comment from CT which was attributed to Dev. Case closed.

      • Inoka Karu

        Your reply to others and myself is truly revealing as to your character. All I can say is “what a man and what comments ” beggars belief

    • J Fernando

      I agree, we have many wonderful writers/thinker among us, we may disagree but at least they have thought through their ideas. People like Malinda Seneviratne, Fredrica Jansz, Dr Dayan, Dr. Rajiva W, Tisaranee Gunasekara and Jeyan Perera are some names that come to mind. Some are involved with the government others are not but they all write well giving their own perspective.

      What is Padraig Colman’s background? his he being provided space in ground views because of his country/region of origin? There is and not all will admit still some “preferential” bias in us Sri Lankans towards Europe/USA as compared to places like China or the far east. I hope that this is not the only qualification this guy brings to ground views.
      He admits he is not journalist, and it shows with his poor work, so why continue to entertain him?

      • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

        If you know of any Chinese who can write as well as the author, please encourage them to submit content to GV. The submission that this forum is biased towards writers from a particular geographic locale or nationality is absurd. There is of course open bias – towards intelligence, and informed debate. We often fail in this on comment threads, but live in the hope that things will improve.

    • Burning_Issue

      I too cannot fathom as to the objectives of Mr Colman. He claims that he is not a journalist and an elderly gentlemen; if he is bored and would like to dabble in Sri Lankan complexities so be it. I have no time for such nonsense!

      • Padraig Colman

        Dr Johnson said to James Boswell: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”.

        Farewell!

  • Candidly

    Cognizance should also be taken of the figure of 468,000 internal refugees that the UN High Commission for Refugees on their website state have returned to their places of origin within Sri Lanka since the end of the war in May 2009. Approximately 300,000 of those will have been those from the government’s displacement camps for people from the final war zone itself. That leaves approximately 168,000 from elsewhere within Sri Lanka returning to their places of origin. It seems reasonable to suppose that most of those are people returning to the north, although some may be people displaced by flooding, etc. Separate figures for the different regions of Sri Lanka are not publicly available, although the UNHCR probably have them.

    If correct, these figures may go a long way to explaining the Bishop of Mannar’s 146,000 “missing people”. It is indeed a “numbers game” unfortunately for some people. More cool rational thinking based on reliable and valid facts and less emotion would help a lot in this situation and contribute greatly to the on-going process of re-establishing harmonious ethnic relations.