Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Post-War

Fighting the PR War

The ongoing campaign by The Times to discredit the recent military victory by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces over the LTTE seems, at times, relentless. Not a day passes by without Jeremy Page, Marie Colvin or Catherine Philp lecturing on alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka. I usually despise the shrill hysteria and the ‘me against the world’ mentality that envelops my countrymen when faced with criticism, but on this occasion I feel it is warranted. In a world where innocent Afghan and Pakistani tribals are killed on a regular basis by unmanned Predator drones in the name of fighting terrorism, the West, quite unbelievably, finds the moral high ground to preach to Sri Lanka. No matter how good the intentions may be, the West just cannot ignore the irony of preaching what they do not practice.

The Times’ campaign is a sad example of the depths to which modern journalism has plummeted. Journalists are now not content to merely report news and provide readers with information to form their own opinions. They are often the source of news themselves, these self-appointed media celebrities. It is no surprise then that two of The Times’ journalists made the news in recent years in Sri Lanka. First, Marie Colvin enters LTTE held territory illegally in 2001 without informing the Sri Lankan authorities and then gets caught up in an SLDF ambush of the LTTE. She then accuses the SLA of deliberately targeting her. This is a ridiculous claim as she assumes that the junior infantrymen who took part in the attack knew who she was and were targeting her. That protagonists in a war usually attack each other was a fact that escaped her I suppose. Then, earlier this year, Jeremy Page was deported from Sri Lanka for not possessing a valid visa. Both of these journalists now write with a decidedly anti-Sri Lankan slant, liberally lacing their articles with unverified facts and figures. In fact, Jeremy Page even called for tourist boycott of the country in a recent article. The Times is currently attempting to escalate their petty vendetta by involving India, accusing that country of being ‘complicit’ in the killing of 20,000 Tamils. This figure has been disputed by the UN itself.

I hold no brief for the Sri Lankan government, which, unfortunately, is growing more despotic by the day. The trampling upon of media freedom and civil liberties was justified under the pretext of war not just by the government, but also by a significant section of civil society who argued, quite wrongly in my mind, that human rights and media freedom were secondary to the goal of crushing terrorism. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy seems to be controlled by individuals who pander to the government’s nationalistic mindset by rabid attacks on any individual or institution who dares question anything the government does or comments on a relevant situation in Sri Lanka. Granted that some of these individuals and institutions are busybodies but then diplomacy is not called diplomacy without reason. However, for all its warts, I don’t believe the Sri Lankan government is racist, which is exactly what The Times et al are implying through their allegations of ‘genocide’. It is incredible that the nations who gave us that terrible term ‘collateral damage’ don’t seem to understand that people die in war. It is unfortunate and, yes, the SLDF could have done more to reduce civilian casualties, but death is a fact of war. I can’t imagine the US or the EU calling for a ceasefire when they have Osama Bin Laden cornered in cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan so expecting the SLDF to do so is hypocrisy of the highest order. The GOSL, though, has played into the hands of the West through its draconian regulations regarding the coverage of the war. It gives the western media a readymade excuse when accused of one-sided coverage. A smarter move would have been to give them the necessary access, possibly embedding them with the troops like the US and the UK armies did in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we could have had them on our side cheering a rare triumph over terrorism. Sadly, common sense is not something the GOSL seems to have.

We cannot afford to burn our bridges with the West as we need them, at the very least, for economic reasons. They are the market for our biggest sources of income; tea, garments and tourism. Though the GOSL did the smart thing in taking aid and military assistance from whichever country that gave it, I don’t see any long run benefit in being allied to Iran and Libya without having excellent relations with the EU and the US. Playing off China against India is probably the only silver lining in our foreign policy storm cloud but I wonder how much of that was planned and how much was a result of us having nowhere else to go. What we now need is a PR offensive with two primary objectives. The first would be to directly counter specific allegations such as those made by The Times, as well as those made by institutions such as the UN. Most of these allegations are based on flimsy evidence and it should not be too difficult to counter them. The difficulty would lie in ensuring that our rebuttals receive adequate coverage. The second objective would be a diplomatic campaign to repair the damage done to our relations with the EU and the US. Although Rajiva Wijesinghe and Dayan Jayatilleke have spoken out recently, I am not convinced it is part of a grander plan. For Sri Lanka to successfully counter all the negative press it has been receiving it has to act now and use the above mentioned gentlemen, along with others of similar calibre, as our voice to the world.

Ultimately though, the success of this campaign would also depend on how effectively we can ‘walk the talk’. The GOSL needs to sort out the issue of the IDPs quickly and transparently, and needs to table the long awaited political solution. The GOSL also needs to start its own investigations into possible violations by the SLDF, not just in this last battle, but in the entire conflict. If the SLDF’s actions have indeed been above board, then it has nothing to fear from such an investigation. In fact, even if found guilty of minor violations, the very act of auditing itself would boost its reputation and strengthen the institution of the SLDF. This last suggestion may not go down well with the ‘armchair patriots’ but the fact is that no army in the world is without its rotten apples. [For example, Israel recently conducted an investigation into the conduct of the IDF in the most recent campaign against the Hamas and this is important for two reasons. One, Israel is arguably the nation most under threat from terrorist attacks and, two; there is an extremely strong connection between the military and civil society due to compulsory national service. Despite this, some of the soldiers involved felt free enough to talk about certain violations committed by the IDF during the Gaza conflict at a university gathering and the media, in general, was objective enough to report it and free enough to demand an enquiry and get it. This example also clearly undermines the GOSL’s implicit position that a war against the LTTE could not have been waged with a free media looking over its shoulders]. Without the deeds to back up the words, any attempts to counter the prevailing anti-Sri Lankan sentiment would unfortunately turn out to be as farcical as the claims made against us.