SRI LANKA: RELIABLE ACCOUNTS
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 28 Aug 2009
The conversation, in Sinhala, is casual, punctuated by laughter as well as the background noise of heavy weapons. Two young men, naked except for a strip of cloth covering their eyes, their hands bound behind their backs, are made to sit. Each has his back to the soldier who is about to become his executioner. With sickening finality, each is felled by an assault rifle bullet to the head and keels over in a pool of blood. The bodies of at least eight other men lie round about.
It’s a rare image of the brutality of the assault, by Sri Lankan armed forces, on the north-east of the country in their final offensive against the Tamil Tigers in the early months of this year. Screened by the UK’s Channel Four News programme, whose correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, was earlier thrown out of the country, the pictures were smuggled out by Journalists for Democracy, a multi-ethnic group of Sri Lankan émigrés and refugees who campaign for press freedom.
It illustrates a phenomenon that has “redefined, broadened and fragmented” the media of conflict, creating a “capacity for scrutiny and new demands for accountability”. The words are from a fascinating new book (1) by Nik Gowing, who served Channel Four News with distinction as Diplomatic Editor, and is now the senior presenter on BBC World.
There are, Gowing writes, “hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears… [even] in the most remote and hostile locations”, in the hands of people he calls “information doers… [who] shed light when it is often assumed officially there will be darkness”. Two recent episodes serve to illustrate the case, he argues: the violence in Sri Lanka, and Israel’s assault on Gaza, which preceded it by a few months. Paradoxically, it was the plenitude of information doers among the Palestinians, and their relative paucity among the Tamils, that accounted, in Gowing’s view, for a disparity in the salience each case was able to attain in international media and political discourses. Channel Four News reporter Jonathan Miller made the point, on air, that the defeat of the Tigers had been “a war without witnesses”, until “a soldier with a mobile phone” unwittingly supplied the outside world with these new images.
As the sourcing of important material becomes more obscure, however, it begs another question: what can be regarded as a reliable account? Miller entered the caveat that has become routine in such situations – that there is no way to supply independent verification of the events depicted in the video. Watching the unexpurgated version, now widely available on the web, leaves little room for doubt in this particular case that what is taking place is indeed an extra-judicial killing by the military.
However, the Sri Lankan authorities assiduously kept journalists from international media away from the conflict zone, having, in the previous few years, terrorised local editors and reporters with arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and beatings, while many were mysteriously killed amid persistent rumours of official complicity. (Sri Lanka languishes at number 165, out of 173 countries, in the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders). Now, the same authorities who have treated journalism with such contempt are seeking to keep information in the realm of contestability, through the cynical technique of rebuttal.
The country’s High Commission in London declined to supply anyone to be interviewed by Channel Four News, since a spokesperson could not very well avoid giving further ‘legs’ to the story in response, offering other media new ‘lines’ to report. Instead, it issued a statement, “categorically denying” that the armed forces were responsible for “atrocities”. The rules of journalism oblige reporters, from that point on, to refer to the killings as something that “apparently” happened, but that these are allegations Sri Lanka “rejects”, even though it has provided no evidence to back its version of events. To rebut a story does not require it to be refuted.
A similar syndrome is underway with regard to the massive Internal Displacement Camps in which as many as 300,000 Tamils are now incarcerated. The Sri Lankan government portrays this as a benign situation, drawing attention to periodic releases of batches of detainees – such as a group of six hundred-odd Hindu priests – in an attempt to distract attention from the substantive issue, that these people are being held illegally and – in the words of the US State Department – “against their will”. Judge Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a statement at the end of the hostilities back in May, calling for “full access to independent monitors”, as a safeguard “crucial to ensure due process and humane treatment for detainees”, and for “freedom of movement for the very large majority of displaced people who do not pose security threats” to be “granted as soon as possible”.
If the Hindu priests can be allowed to return to their homes (or their families, if their homes were destroyed) the obvious question is, how come the rest can’t? Especially as conditions in the camps are now dramatically deteriorating because of monsoon rains. Paton Walsh was ejected after recording disturbing testimony from aid workers, whose identity was disguised when they appeared on television, about the treatment being meted out to the detainees by their military overseers. Since then, in the absence of independent monitors, there can be no confidence that abuses are not continuing unchecked. Claims have trickled out, for instance, in recent days, that individuals are being spirited away in so-called Dolphin Vans, never to be seen again.
They’re convincing because they follow a long, dismal and – in recent years – deteriorating record on Sri Lanka’s part. The monitoring group, Human Rights Watch, notes “the government’s failure to carry out impartial investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for the numerous human rights abuses committed by both sides during the conflict. There have been serious ongoing violations of human rights, and the backlog of cases of enforced disappearances and unlawful killings runs to the tens of thousands. Only a small number of cases have ended in prosecutions. Past efforts to address violations through the establishment of ad hoc mechanisms in Sri Lanka, such as presidential commissions of inquiry, have produced little information and few prosecutions”.
An eyewitness account from one of the camps is to be the centrepiece of an event we’re staging at the University of Sydney, titled, ‘Sri Lanka’s human rights emergency: how and why it is being hidden and what we can do about it’. That, and plans for an event at the Australian parliament in Canberra, have exposed us to another technique used in efforts to control the flow of information reaching the public, namely, flak. It’s familiar from the well-known ‘propaganda model’ conceived by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman to explain why the content of news, in commercial media, often seems so convenient to the rich and powerful. Flak works by “conditioning the media to expect trouble” whenever they take on corporate interests, Chomsky and Herman say (2), acting as a deterrent to any such endeavour.
Meeting the well-established concerns over Sri Lanka’s egregious record on press freedom, and the difficulty of access for journalists, the event is co-sponsored by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, based at the neighbouring University of Technology, Sydney. The ACIJ is researching the coverage in Australian media and, while results of the study won’t be released for a while, it’s expected to show that statements, interpretations and claims by the Sri Lankan government have predominated.
We do not, therefore, provide explicitly for representatives or supporters of the government to have their say: the events are, essentially, a way of bringing to wider attention important narratives of and testimonies from the conflict that have been – and continue to be – subjugated and suppressed.
In response to one of the many flak emails received, I set out the justification for this by quoting from my book, Peace Journalism. The passage is about an imaginary conflict between two neighbours, but it captures the principle we are applying to the present issues in Sri Lanka:
· “One neighbour may be powerful enough to circumvent any discussion by the mere hint of force.
· There may need to be a process of empowerment for the other neighbour before any of the other outcomes can become a realistic option.
This may have to take the form of intensification of the conflict, especially if the powerful come to feel they can afford to overlook the legitimate claims and grievances of the less powerful” (3).
Intensification is conceived, in this context, as part of a non-violent strategy, as when, for instance, Gandhi publicly made salt in defiance of the British Raj in India, or Rosa Parks refused an instruction from a bus driver to give up her seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. In order to permit any prospect of dialogue and eventual reconciliation, there must be some form of justice. So Tamils in Sri Lanka, and in diasporas in places such as Australia, now need to be empowered to articulate their claims and grievances, and realise their human rights, through non-violent means.
It is this aspect of the planned events that has become the focus of flak, including a letter to the University’s Vice-Chancellor about the “abuse” of the institution’s resources to “promote political agendas”. Among the speakers are to be two medical doctors who have worked in hospitals in the area formerly under Tiger control, Sam Pari and John Whitehall; Bruce Haigh, a former Australian Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo and John Dowd, former Attorney General of New South Wales who is also an eminent international jurist. The views of these distinguished humanitarians are dismissed, in the letter, as “ardent Tamil Tiger sympathizers”; Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as “biased”.
The writers clearly occupy a parallel universe, but the intention of this barrage of communications is, I surmise, not to convince, but to try to deter us from our purpose, and to send a message to anyone concerned to raise these perspectives that they will have to run the gauntlet of smear and abuse, being called upon to explain themselves to their superiors and so on.
We persist, chiefly because there seems to be no alternative but to take international law into our own hands. Representatives of the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations recently met David Holly, a senior official from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to ask the Australian government to call for the IDP camps to be shut down and for the people in them to be allowed to return to their communities. They were told, in return, that “Australia will continue to call upon the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps are administered in line with international standards, and to ensure that international observers, particularly International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations personnel, have unimpeded access to the IDP camps”.
Other aspects of the briefing, however – not officially released but reported by AFTA representatives who were in attendance – help to explain why Canberra has been so pusillanimous in pushing through on this call. Sri Lanka is seen as a fellow “island in the Indian Ocean”, with which Australia has enjoyed strong trading relations since “time immemorial”, and the priority is for these to become stronger still; nothing can be allowed to get in their way. It’s a perfect microcosm of neo-liberalism, where the functions and responsibilities of governments are subordinated to the overriding priority of helping business to make more profits.
No wonder Australia is not prepared to make any part of its relationship with Colombo conditional on these demands being met: there’s been a bit of hand-wringing now and then, but that’s it. Canberra has made no public comment on how it used its vote at the International Monetary Fund on a $2.5bn loan package for Sri Lanka, unlike several other countries, including the US and UK, which announced they had abstained in protest at continuing concerns over human rights. Neither has Australia joined the European Union in backing Judge Pillay’s call for an independent investigation into war crimes allegations on all sides.
That’s a call that will acquire fresh urgency with the release of the Journalists for Democracy video. Sri Lanka has promised a “military investigation” but that’s clearly another form of rebuttal – hold open official ‘doubt’ pending its results and hope the fuss dies down in the meantime. The hundreds of millions of eyes and ears provide evidence: raw, but worthy of proper follow-up by trained professional observers, from both humanitarian organizations and the media. Only then will we be able to get an account we can regard as reliable, and until that time, relations with Sri Lanka must be made conditional on proper investigation.
(1) Gowing, Nik, 2009: Skyful of Lies and Black Swans, Oxford: Reuters Institute
(2) Herman, Edward and Chomsky, Noam, 2002: Manufacturing Consent (2nd edition), New York: Pantheon Books, p 27
(3) Lynch, Jake and McGoldrick, Annabel, 2005: Peace Journalism, Stroud: Hawthorn Press, p 42
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Aug 2009.
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