Image from Channel 4


The UK based Channel 4 documentary, “Killing Fields”, possesses an interesting characteristic. It has the power of accentuating the prejudices and biases of viewers. The reaction found on a variety of forums is arguably more illuminating than the documentary itself.

Those who feel the Sri Lankan government has done no wrong, are further convinced that there is an international conspiracy and the entire documentary is fake. There are those who are convinced that the Sri Lankan armed forces are evil. There are also those that believe the documentary is evidence of the need for a separate Tamil nation and are busy distributing DVDs to Western politicians. The remainder are horrified by the footage and can not watch the entire documentary.

With the broadcast of the “Lies Agreed Upon” [1]  documentary by the Sri Lankan television station Ada Derana [2] , we now have two very one-sided documentaries. Only together can any semblance of balance be achieved.

Callum Macrae, producer and director of the Channel 4 documentary, defiantly asserted, “… this film was accurate, this film was carefully researched, this film did not take sides in that war, we were as critical of the LTTE as the Sri Lankan government.” [3]  The question remains, is the Channel 4 documentary a work of journalism, advocacy or propaganda?

The promotion, introduction and narration of the Chanel 4 documentary contain a number of factual errors and omissions [4] . Let us examine the factual errors relating to displaced civilians propagated by the narration by Jon Snow.

Displaced Civilians

Jon Snow blames the government entirely for the displacement of civilians:

“These were civilians driven from their homes by government forces who appeared to see all Tamil civilians as virtually indistinguishable from the fighters of the Tamil Tigers.”

On January 28, 2009, Human Rights Watch reported:

“The LTTE has long prevented civilians under its control from fleeing to government-held areas. As the LTTE has retreated into its stronghold in the northern Vanni area since the start of a Sri Lankan army offensive in October 2008, the rebel group has forced civilians deeper into territory they control. An estimated 300 local staff members of the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations are trapped in the Vanni because the LTTE refuses to allow them to leave for safe areas. Altogether, an estimated 250,000 civilians are now trapped in the small part of Mullaittivu district that remains under LTTE control.”  [5]

Human Rights Watch states “the rebel group has forced civilians deeper into territory they control”. This directly contradicts the claim by Channel 4 that “[t]hese were civilians driven from their homes by government forces…”.

If you pay close attention to Jon Snow’s narration you will notice that figures relating to the number of displaced civilians is consistently inaccurate.

January 2009

Jon Snow claims:

“By the end of January 2009, the remaining Tamil Tigers and as many as 400,000 civilians were now trapped by Sri Lankan government forces.”

However, many sources contradict this claim.


“Monday, 26 January 2009

The military says it is now advancing into the 300 sq km (115 sq mile) triangle of land in which the Tamil Tigers are still operating. There are thought to be about 250,000 civilians in the area in which the rebels are still operating.” [6]

Human Rights Watch:

“January 28, 2009

Altogether, an estimated 250,000 civilians are now trapped in the small part of Mullaittivu district that remains under LTTE control.”  [7]

Washington Post:

“Thursday, January 29, 2009

The United Nations and the ICRC said 250,000 civilians have fled to dense jungle terrain where fighting is raging in the 115 square miles still controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers.” [8]

The UN Advisory Panel report also contradicts the claim by Channel 4:

“125. At the outset of the final phase, on 13 January 2009, the Government website reported that, according to independent verifications, the number of civilians in the Vanni was between 150,000 and 250,000. The United Nations estimate at the time was 250,000 (although its subsequent estimates were higher).”  [9]

The higher subsequent estimate is captured in footnote 54:

“100. From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ, from all directions, including land, air and sea. It is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 330,000 civilians in that small area.54

54 United Nations Documents generally reference a number of 300,000 whereas the Additional Government Agent estimated that there were 330,000 civilians left in the area.”  [10]

At the end of January the United Nations estimated 250,000 civilians and then later revised it to 300,000.

February 2009

Jon Snow claims:

“By the 12th of February, the old No-Fire-Zone had been virtually abandoned and the government announced a new one about 7 miles long on a narrow sand-spit. As many as 400,000 people flooded there and found themselves trapped …”


“Feb 1, 2009

The United Nations says up to 250,000 non-combatants are trapped in the area. The Sri Lankan government says the figure is closer to 120,000.”  [11]


“Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

The army offensive has pushed the rebels into a 300 sq km (110 sq mile) corner of jungle in the north-east of the island, which aid agencies say also holds 250,000 civilians.

The government says the number of civilians is closer to 120,000 and that the army has a policy of not firing at civilians.”  [12]

Al Jazeera:

“Sunday, February 08, 2009

Since January 1, around 17,900 have fled the fighting. Aid agencies said around 250,000 were inside the conflict zone before the exodus began, while the government disputed the figures claiming there were only 120,000.”  [13]

April 2009

Jon Snow claims:

“At the end of April the government claimed that there were just 10,000 civilians left trapped in the area. In fact there were over 200,000.”

The UN Advisory Panel report states:

At the end of April, United Nations estimates were that 127,177 civilians still remained trapped, whereas the Government said there were only 10,000 persons left at the time.  [14]

The New York Times published:

“April 24, 2009

More than 100,000 civilians fled from the combat zone earlier this week but the United Nations estimates that anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 civilians remain trapped on the sandy spit of land. Sri Lanka’s Defense Ministry said on Friday that 15,000 to 20,000 civilians were caught in the conflict zone.”  [15]

May 2009

Jon Snow claims:

“By now most of the No-Fire-Zone was overrun by the government and on the 8th of May they announced a new one, around 1 square mile in size. 130,000 people were trapped in this area”

The Age contradicts Channel 4:

“May 2, 2009

The UN estimates that up to 50,000 civilians are trapped in a narrow strip of coast where the Tamil Tigers are putting up a last stand. Government forces have said only about 20,000 people were still left in the area.” [16]

ABC (Australia):

“Posted May 09, 2009 13:41:00

The guerrillas have been confined to a five-square-kilometre area in the district of Mullaittivu and only three square kilometres of that would be the new “safe zone,” Brigadier Nanayakkara said.

The military estimates that up to 20,000 civilians are trapped in the small area where the Tigers are resisting a military advance.

The United Nations has said nearly 50,000 civilians could be trapped by the fighting.”  [17]

A foreign journalist in the war zone reported:

“May 21, 2009 10:42 IST

From April 20 to 23, over 125,000 civilians fled from the Tigers’s clutches and went over to the government side.

This was the defining moment when Sri Lankan Tamils emerged from the war zone. The LTTE and thousands of people were shrunk into a 12 square km area. The entrapment was real, but they didn’t surrender.
Outside the war zone the government declared 20,000 people were with the LTTE. UN agencies estimated the figure at 50,000, but there were actually 70,000 people with the Tigers.

The LTTE understood that the end had come, the game was over. Probably, Prabhakaran and a few of his men were in the last 500 square metre area. On May 15, 16 and 17, the last bunch of 70,000 people came out.” [18]

Why Inflate the Number of Displaced Civilians?

Gordon Weiss conveys the implications of inflating the number of displaced civilians:

“I think the only explanation is that it was deliberately misleading and I think that the reason for that is because they didn’t want to account for the number of people killed inside the siege zone.”

Channel 4, quite rightly, accuses the Sri Lankan government of underestimating the number of displaced civilians. Ironically, Channel 4 then deliberately inflates the number of displaced civilians, presumably to imply a larger civilian death toll. The Channel 4 documentary has lingered dangerously into the territory of propaganda.


Is it possible for an objective person to still think the Channel 4 documentary is a credible work of journalism? The producer/director believes that by criticising the LTTE he has provided balance. He completely misses the point that balance is achieved by conveying different points of view. It is clear that the Channel 4 documentary does not adhere to the principles of news and current affairs.

Maybe it was intended as a work of advocacy? Whatever the intention, the Channel 4 documentary is a combination of journalism, advocacy and propaganda. Those that are intent on burying their head in the sand and claiming it to be fake need to recognise that it does raise some valid questions that Sri Lanka needs to answer.

If you seek truth and justice, it is disingenuous not to acknowledge the factual errors littered throughout the Channel 4 documentary. Some media and advocacy groups have promoted the documentary quite passionately. It may be time for these groups to decide whether they believe that ’the ends justify the means’. These groups should also consider whether the short term gains by promoting this documentary will be negated in the long term. Have they not learnt anything from the controversial Nayirah testimony? [19]

Sri Lankans should watch the documentary, but beware of the factual inaccuracies in the narration. For those of us who are far removed from war, it unflinchingly conveys the horror of war. It should be a reminder to us all, particularly those barracking from a distance, why we should not walk down that path ever again. If you disagree, you should consider whether you are willing to take the first step, instead of asking others.