Photo courtesy Sri Lanka Brief
The guns are silent and the bones buried beneath the sands of the beaches of Mullivaikkal are replete with a story, but the tales they must tell are drowned in a cacophony of half-truths and downright lies that block the healing of the hearts and minds of the men, women and children who were felled in those sands, and amongst those who survived.
It has been five years since the security forces of the Sri Lankan state defeated the forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in a battle that ended a brutal 30-year war. It was a conflict that profoundly changed Sri Lanka forever and horrific in the toll it took on the average citizen.
The final stages of the conflict has been the subject of controversial documentaries, countless articles, several books, resolutions before the United Nations and some international investigation. But five years after the last bullets were fired on those beaches of Mullivaikkal, the narratives emerging in the public eye remain deeply flawed.
Sri Lankan Media
Right through the many decades of the conflict Sri Lanka’s media reported on incidents, battles and political negotiations through the narrow perspective of the ethnic group their media organisations targeted. Reports in Sinhala referred to soldiers as martyrs and LTTE cadres as terrorists, while for Tamil media the same young men and women were “fighters” for a separate state.
Most Editors and media directors failed to lead their teams in a professional manner that would have ensured balanced reporting of the conflict. Rather, they revelled in producing biased news stories that further distanced the parties to the conflict. The few media persons who dared challenge the government in a bit to bring out more balanced reportage were branded as being unpatriotic, threatened and maimed and driven into exile.
When one of Buddhism’s holiest of shrines in Anuradhapura was attacked in 1984, the Tamil language press jubilantly claimed that “our boys have now gone as far as their ancient capital.” But they failed to state that the nearly 340 killed were mainly unarmed women and children who were praying and meditating peacefully at the shrine.
Similarly, the silence on the part of the Sinhala and English media, when unarmed civilians were cowering in terror and seeking escape from the relentless shelling by the army, during the last stages of the war, was deafening.
As a result the voice of the victims on both sides have not been heard. They were not heard throughout the long drawn out conflict, nor are they being heard today. Instead, members of the media continue their biased and unprofessional conduct, contributing to further erode even an attempt at uniting the two groups. Jumping in on the bandwagon are many government sponsored “pretend journalists”, who are happy to use the pen to write spurious articles, and appear or radio and television programs that promote communal and anti-religious sentiments. These so-called journalists thrive on one-upmanship, enjoy government favours and are blind to the damage they are inflicting on the multi-ethnic, multi-religious fabric of the country.
Except for the nationalist Tamil media – particularly Tamil newspapers based on the Jaffna Peninsula, the rest of the reporting by the Sri Lankan media on the post-conflict situation with regards to the Tamil issue has been largely pro-government and pro-military.
Thus they have dismissed the allegations of human rights violations and/or war crimes against the government security forces as part of the terrorist plot by separatist forces. They have also readily painted the international processes demanding an independent probe into alleged atrocities committed towards the end of the conflict as unwanted interference by foreign powers whose governments are unduly influenced by the presence of overseas Tamils in their countries.
In the highly militarised post-war Sri Lanka it is clear that the government dare not cross members of the armed forces, to whom they have bestowed police powers. The media too shows reluctance to investigate any excesses committed by the forces. It is to be noted that the local media lampoons all politicians – including President Mahinda Rajapaksa – but are careful to avoid the lampooning of military personnel, and especially, Defense Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Even the so-called privately-owned media tows this line. It would not be incorrect to state that almost all private media organizations in Sri Lanka, have close links to powerful leaders in government and act as proxy state-media.
The most popular Sinhala-language newspaper in Sri Lanka is the Lankadeepa which is privately-owned and sells around 200,000 copies per day. It rarely criticizes the government and never takes on the military. Part of the reason for that is because it’s editors believe that the Sinhala readership is largely pro-military and it would be damaging to its success and it’s circulation to pay heed to any information that challenges the military’s narrative. In contrast the only newspaper in the Sinhala sphere in Sri Lanka which provides room for alternative ideas, the Ravaya, a favourite among academics and journalists sells and which sells around 15,000 copies per week hardly reaches the larger population. Despite its shortcomings, privately owned television stations attempt to discuss issues of government corruption and the antics of the Bodu Bala Sena through their weekly programs. However, since only government media broadcasts are available island-wide, any effect that the private media may have is almost nil.
The influence that the many websites which publish some balanced articles also meet the same fate, firstly because most are published in English and don’t reach or reflect thoughts from the grassroots, and owing to censorship imposed by the government.
In the case of the “private” media there seems no choice but to co-exist with the government. The state controls nearly 70 percent of the economy and is the single biggest advertiser. There are no laws –such as in India which regulate the government advertising which ensures a fair distribution based on circulation figures. Arm twisting the private media is a common occurrence and has been the practice for many decades. Any private media outlet which runs afoul of the government will have state advertisements (which makes up an important part of the company’s revenues) pulled, and thus causing a catastrophic effect on its survival. All major business conglomerates in the country have no option but to work with the government. There have been instances when large scale businesses have been pressured to pull out advertising from media organisations that have been critical of the government.
Therefore, it is in the interest of the private media outlets, to tow the government line. So, between a government controlled media which rarely if ever publishes undiluted reports, and privately owned media split between those that also carry government versions only and a few others that give a mish-mash of the details, the actual facts, which would help the public make informed opinions are usually lost forever.
In the reporting on the final phases of the war, on one side we have the mainly foreign and anti-government press whose coverage is based primarily on interviews with survivors of the carnage at the end of the war, some aid workers and anonymous sources.
On the other side is a strident almost single voice that all the critical reporting on the last months of the war are instigated by the pro-LTTE diaspora –“the LTTE rump” – and as inimical forces, should not be believed. For instance government spokesmen dismiss the “No Fire Zone” documentary produced by Britain’s Channel four as a “work of fiction.”
The truth – or even an approximation of the truth – perhaps lies in between. Eventually historians, we hope will get to it, but right now we believe it is interesting to go through some of the most significant events in the reportage and ask some questions.
No Fire Zone
Perhaps the work of journalism that has stirred the pot the most has been the controversial documentary produced by Colin McRae and his team at Channel 4. It has been screened in many locations across the world, Amnesty International has embraced it and McRae’s already well-known reputation has been enhanced by the fire and brimstone surrounding the documentary.
As mentioned earlier, the film has been dismissed as fiction by the government. Fiction it is not, but it is certainly a construct. Fundamentally, all the actual footage of the conflict in it’s original form has been obtained from other parties – the LTTE, the government and a few other sources. A critical examination reveals the tone of the coverage. Where we see Tamil civilians in considerable strife, all the footage is from LTTE sources, a fact that the documentary clearly states. Those familiar with LTTE propaganda units know that they send their cameramen into situations where their subjects are caught at times of extreme emotion, deeply anguished and hysterical fear and grief. This makes for good television, but certainly does not reveal that the average civilian probably lived in as much fear of the artillery rounds of the Sri Lankan Army raining down on them as the fear of the quick bullet to the head from LTTE cadres intent on maintaining their human shields. Repeatedly we are told that hospitals and other safe zones were shelled, but the possibility that the LTTE was directing artillery at the front lines from civilian areas cannot be discounted. Both actions – that of the Army firing into safe zones and the LTTE firing out of them can never be condoned. To be fair the documentary does make these points in its narrative.
What Channel4 gathered or were provided with after the initial documentary is more interesting. These were videos that definitely came from deep within the government side. They were videos and stills shot by soldiers. The infamous cellphone videos showing naked blindfolded men being shot execution style as well as the notorious photos showing LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirabhakaran’s son, obviously had been obtained and leaked by someone who had the complete trust of the military. It would be a separate but fascinating story to find out how that material made its way to the hands of the Channel4 team.
This issue has now become internationalised mostly because the Tamil diaspora has been able to move political actors in western countries. At the same time the government has encouraged the perception – again reinforced by the state media – that the government leaders, particularly military leaders and the President were being punished for “saving the country from terrorism,” by the Western powers held hostage by the Tamil diaspora.
Apart from this documentary, there have also been several books published on the final days of the war and its aftermath; Still counting the Dead by Frances Harrison, Cage, Gota’s war etc. The Cage attempts to narrate stories from both sides of the conflict. While well documented, the subjects featured in Still Counting the dead seem to have all had some connection to the LTTE. A few stories of civilians unconnected to the LTTE would have helped give the book a better flavour.
For its part, most local media outlets depending on whose side they are on, either condemn these efforts as outright lies or as LTTE sponsored propaganda or as authentic occurrences. That has been the pattern throughout.
The only newspaper in the country that has been analysing the Geneva process and the role of the country’s foreign policy has been the Sunday Times.
Just as we enter the close of the fifth year since the end of the war, government reports stated that there has been at attempt to revive the LTTE. The report was swiftly followed by news flashes that three members of this new group had been killed by government forces. Unfortunately, there has been no attempt by the journalists to examine and investigate this story. Instead the governments version was reported. Herein lies the tragedy, we remain unquestioning.
Finally to serve the media consumer and the reconciliation process media has to shake off its subservience – or perceptions thereof. Those overseas must make the effort to show that they are not influenced by forces opposed to genuine peacemaking and those inside Sri Lanka must call to question the propaganda spewed by the government and others intent on keeping racism alive.
Rasika Manobuddhi, Arjuna Ranawana & Kshama Ranawana
This article is part of a larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.