Sinhalese reporters aid war effort

[TamilNet, Friday, 04 July 1997, 23:59 GMT]
The predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan government is manipulating information about the war in the Tamil homelands by banning reporters from the area and issuing false reports about events occurring there. The government is assisted by the fact that most agency reporters are Colombo based, Sinhalese and on its side.

The major news agencies, including the international giants, Reuters, Agence France Press and the Associated Press, are based in Colombo, a few hundred miles and a world away from the reality of events in the Tamil homelands. The government has banned them from visiting the war zones of the island for over two years.

While the Colombo newspapers cater to the Sinhalese population of the island, and in the rush to sell copies will write in such a way as to appeal to local anti-Tamil sentiment, the agency reporters are working for international agencies, with a different audience.

Whilst it is understandable that, being human, journalists can never be entirely free of bias, they are generally perceived by the international community as being impartial in their reporting.

However, the Sinhalese reporters based in Colombo, instead of challenging the ban on their entry into the war zones, work to promote the government's misinformation as news, and support its version of events when there are conflicting reports.

Even Tamil areas that are relatively accessible are not visited by the agency reporters to investigate the widespread abuses of human rights by Sinhalese troops in Tamil territories. Even though some of them have staff in Vavuniya, from where they monitor the Tamil Tigers' 'Voice of Tigers' radio service, there is little effort made to ascertain the truth by visiting the affected areas.

In fact, the very ban itself, is cited as justification for not highlighting the reports of wide scale destruction of Tamil villages, the choking off of food and medical supplies to Tamil areas and the civilian casualties caused by deliberate bombing and shelling of population centres by Sri Lankan security forces.

This is not merely due to a lack of enthusiasm. The Sinhalese reporters are writing about war between the Tamils and Sinhalese. This is comparable to US reporters covering the war against the Viet Cong, particularly in the early stages, when less thought was given to the fundamentals of that conflict.

The simple fact is that, being Sinhalese, they deeply believe in what their government is doing in the Tamil areas, and passionately want their (Sinhalese) nation to win the war against the Tamils.

They even consider it their duty to support their government by reporting the 'truth' (which their government tells them) about events in the Tamil areas. They feel they need to do this so that international observers understand the 'real' reasons for the conflict, and make the 'correct' decision to support the Sinhalese government in its war.

Put simply, the Sinhalese reporters regard this conflict as their war, too.

In any case, if any reporter was open-minded enough to question the ban on the press, the persistent reports of civilian casualties, and to evaluate the fundamentals of the conflict from the Tamil view point, he or she would probably be arrested or harassed by the Sinhalese government for being a 'traitor.'

The reporters' inherent loyalties mean they trust their government is right in its aims and objectives and the methods it employs to pursue those goals. Their loyalty to the Sinhala-Buddhist cause makes them reluctant to highlight information that would damage the government's image abroad.

Since early last year, there have been persistent reports of 'disappearances' in Jaffna, the Tamil cultural capital with a population of 250,000 Tamils currently under occupation by approximately 40,000 Sinhalese troops. Details have appeared regularly in press releases by the LTTE, listing names and places and in Tamil newspapers in Colombo. None of these reports have ever been carried by the agency reporters. Even when Amnesty International published reports and urgent action appeals with details of the disappearances (from their own sources), only fleeting coverage was given.

However, government reports of LTTE atrocities against Sinhalese civilians get prompt and widespread coverage. The 'news' is based on government press releases, and very little effort is made to verify these. Often these incidents 'occur' when foreign dignitaries visit the island, and the reporting of alleged LTTE atrocities is given an impetus.

For example, when British diplomats were taken on a tour of Jaffna by the Sinhalese military in January 1997, the LTTE was alleged to have killed several (Tamil) civilians and a couple of soldiers on a Jaffna causeway. It later emerged (from sources within a Tamil militia opposed to the LTTE), that the civilians had been mown down by other soldiers as a reprisal. However, whilst the former report was carried by the agency reporters, the second was not.

With much of the world's press relying on the international agencies to report accurately on events in the island, the Sri Lankan government's propaganda has exceptional reach. The handful of loyal journalists ensure that the government's preferred image is publicised, and information that might damage it is carefully screened out.

The only sure way for the world to see if the Tamil people on the island are being wiped out or being liberated by the Sri Lankan government is for the international press to be allowed in freely, to witness for itself the true nature of events in the Tamil homelands.

Until then, the truth will continue to be a casualty of this war, as it is being deliberately manipulated by those who should be its champions.

Some examples where agency reporters have supported the Sri Lankan government Below, we list a few of the instances where reporters working for international news agencies have actively sided with the Sri Lankan government in manipulating the coverage of events on the island so as to promote the government and discredit the LTTE.

Agency staff have suppressed news that might have been damaging to the Sri Lankan government.

- Following an unsuccessful naval engagement (see below), Sri Lankan military helicopters attacked and incinerated Nachchikuddah, a Tamil fishing settlement on March 16, 1996. At least 16 civilians were killed and over 64 seriously wounded. A Tamil Minister protested to the president, as did government officers in the area. However, most agencies did not cover this story at all.

- Through much of last year, the LTTE had regularly announced (via its daily press release) the numerous ambushes and attacks its troops were carrying out in the Sri Lankan army occupied Jaffna peninsula. The army's hold on the area has become increasingly less secure, but the vast majority of the LTTE's military activity in the region was hidden. (The Colombo press has recently said the government's grip on the peninsula had been reduced to Jaffna town).

- The LTTE's daily press releases have also been detailing the continuous murders and rapes being carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the north and east of the island, particularly in Jaffna. None of these were reported except in some cases when Tamil MPs protested in parliament.

(The Sri Lankan government wants to promote an impression that the situation in Jaffna is 'norma.' Over a year has passed since the area was occupied. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have documented over 600 disappearances of Jaffna youth).

- Hundreds of Tamil youths have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for lengthy periods without charge in Colombo. The LTTE has reported this several times in its press releases. The Colombo based news agencies have never reported or investigated it. (Human rights organisations have confirmed the arrests).

Agency staff ignore events reported by the LTTE, unless it is to confirm government reports.

[Quite often, the government version of an event is presented as truth, while the LTTE version as a 'claim'.]

- When the LTTE announced in a press release that members of a Tamil militia working with the Sri Lankan army were hijacking food lorries and disrupting the international aid, one agency obtained a quote from a Sri Lankan government officer that the LTTE was hijacking aid, and wrote the report such that the government's version was given credibility, while the LTTE claim was present as a dubious 'claim'. (The hijacking of food by the pro-government Tamil militia is a well known practice, dating to the time they worked with the Indian army to fight the LTTE)

- On March 15, 1996, the Sri Lankan navy was engaged by the LTTE's Sea Tiger unit. The LTTE said that one SLN vessel had been sunk, another badly damaged and a third captured. The government admitted to the loss of one boat. The government version was carried by the news agencies and the LTTE version completely ignored. (The LTTE has since released video footage of the captured boat.)

- Through much of last year and this year, the LTTE has been warning that the amount of food being allowed into the Tamil areas was being severely restricted by the Sri Lankan government. Most of these reports, though based on figures issued by the international aid workers and the government's own civil servants, have rarely been reported, unless sufficient quotes from government spokesmen have been obtained to challenge it.

(Documents published by the government's own officers in the affected areas show that less than 70% of the MINIMUM food requirements of the Tamil refugees have been allowed in.)

- On 23 March last year, the LTTE attacked an army patrol in the East. The LTTE said they had killed 40 soldiers. The agency reporters carried the government claim that far fewer had died. (Jane's Defense Review said that 70 soldiers were killed.)

Agency staff promote the Sri Lankan government's preferred image of the LTTE: as bandits or terrorists

[The LTTE in fact has a standing army of over 10,000 troops and a similar number of auxiliary personnel, and deploys artillery and armour in its operations. It is highly rated as a fighting force by Western defense analysts]

- Through much of last year, some agency reporters also referred to the Tigers as terrorists in their own writings, quite apart from the government spokesman's quotes. This practice has stopped recently, but other bias is present. One agency continues to refer to the LTTE as 'gunmen,' thereby deliberately giving a criminal impression.

- When the LTTE radio said they had killed 727 soldiers in various ambushes and attacks on camps from January to April 1997, one news agency reported this as "the LTTE said "they had massacred 727 soldiers in fighting since the start of 1997".

- Sri Lankan government claims of LTTE atrocities are reported with enthusiasm, and no effort is made to verify claims. For example, an army claim that the LTTE had machine gunned a bus and killed several people was carried immediately. However, in another instance, another bus in the region drove into a mistaken army ambush. Fortunately no one was hurt in the hail of bullets. The possibility of a similar mistake occurring in the previous case wasn't even considered, nor was the story verified.

- Repeated attacks have been carried out by unidentified personnel on Muslim villages recently. The army blames the LTTE and this is the version regularly carried by the agency reporters. (The attacks occurred at the time the LTTE was attempting to form an alliance with the Muslim community. This has been successfully established, with the mediation of the Red Cross.)

- One news agency carried a story that quoted an Amnesty International report as saying that the LTTE had used rape as a weapon of war. This was denied by Amnesty International and no such statement is present in the AI report quoted. (The agency has not issued a correction).

- The deployment of thousands of women in combat by the LTTE is presented by agency reporters as 'evidence' that the LTTE is short of troops. (In fact, the LTTE's women's brigade has been developed since 1987, as the organisation has institutionalised equality between the genders. Women form 25% of the LTTE's strength and have matched their male counterparts in all aspects of the LTTE's operations.)


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