Sri Lanka Media Watch, Channel 4 and independent journalism

By Savi Hensman
November 17, 2013

As pressure mounts on the Sri Lankan government to investigate war crimes, its response, along with that of its supporters at home and abroad, has been to try to discredit all critics.

UK-based Channel 4’s reports of horrific abuses by state as well as rebel Tiger forces were “unprofessional, prejudiced and inaccurate”, according to Sri Lanka Media Watch. It is part of Engage Sri Lanka (http://engagesrilanka.com/), which has published Corrupted Journalism: Channel 4 and Sri Lanka. This attacks “yet another example of a self-selecting, white western élite, on the basis of flawed ‘advocacy’ propaganda, seeking to interfere in the internal affairs of a developing country emerging from decades of civil war.”

For some time, Engage Sri Lanka has been busy promoting the government line abroad. For instance the defence ministry links to an earlier attack on Channel 4 [*.PDF Adobe Acrobat file] , in 2011 (http://www.defence.lk/news/pdf/20111221_UnprofessionalisRevisited.pdf).

Some have gone further recently in trying to smear film-maker Callum Macrae, trying to link him to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam though he condemned their atrocities too. Bandula Jayasekera, Sri Lanka’s consul-general in Sydney, Australia, tweeted (http://www.cpj.org/blog/2013/07/doubts-as-sri-lanka-says-commonwealth-me...) that Macrae was “nothing but a Mercenary with blood money over you and the Chief Propagandist of the LTTE terrorists overseas”.

Many killed in aerial strikes supposedly targeting militants were “innocent civilians, including women and children”, according to Channel 4. A United Nations special rapporteur “told Channel 4 News, if these allegations are true, the personnel who operate the deadly drones and their superiors could potentially face prosecution for war crimes, if international humanitarian laws are violated.”

To advocates of the Sri Lankan government, this may seem evidence of this television station’s pro-western bias and persecution of innocent governments fighting terrorists. But in fact the quotes refer to US drone strikes near the Aghanistan-Pakistan border (http://www.channel4.com/news/cia-drone-strikes-a-legal-war).

Channel 4 also reports on the misdeeds of the Taliban, whom US and British soldiers have been battling. As an independent broadcaster, part of its task is investigative journalism that may upset the UK government and its allies, along with other overseas regimes, rebel groups, commercial companies, corrupt officials and any number of others.

Veteran journalist Jon Snow helped to shine the spotlight on abuses in Sri Lanka, where mass killing of civilians and mistreatment of prisoners towards the end of the civil war has been much-criticised by the UN and international human rights organisations also known for robustly challenging western governments. He has been one of the targets of those for whom any criticism of the Sri Lankan governments is akin to heresy.

When the UK government joined in invading Iraq a decade ago, the BBC among others brought evidence to light which questioned the truthfulness of the state’s claims and legality of the war. The then Prime Minister’s director of communications, Alistair Campbell, stormed into the Channel 4 news studio, determined to discredit journalists who dared to make “a fundamental attack upon the integrity of the government, the Prime Minister, the intelligence agencies” and who should “just accept for once that they have got it wrong”.

Jon Snow held his ground, pointing out that allegations that the government had not told the whole truth were backed by credible evidence, and questioning “the extraordinarily intemperate language which is coming out on behalf of the Prime Minister in your name. 'The story was a lie, it is a lie.'” Snow called for an end to “obfuscation and diversion” by the UK government.

“Get your facts right before you make serious allegations against a government,” Campbell demanded. But later, when more evidence emerged, Snow turned out to be right.

This is not to say that Channel 4’s coverage of Sri Lanka, or any other piece of investigative journalism, may not have flaws. Yet the Sri Lankan government’s approach of intimidating or physically silencing local journalists who dare to challenge it, and making evidently false allegations about those overseas who raise similar concerns, may be counter-productive for those seeking to promote its cause internationally.

Engage Sri Lanka’s 2013 publication Corrupted Journalism: Channel 4 and Sri Lanka (http://www.corruptedjournalism.com/book/Corrupted%20Journalism.pdf) cites evidence from former UN official Gordon Weiss and journalist Frances Harrison (both attacked in earlier publications) and University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) about the role played by the Tigers in the destruction near the end of the war. Channel 4 is criticised for downplaying this.

Yet “LTTE Is No Excuse For Killing Vanni Civilians”, UTHR(J) pointed out in 2009 (http://www.uthr.org/bulletins/Bul47.htm). “Whatever the Government’s spin doctors say,” its treatment of civilians trapped in the war zone “bespeaks extreme callousness.”

While Macrae clearly condemned the Tiger leaders’ terror tactics and destructiveness, he probably did not adequately convey the extent of their responsibility for the tragedy that took place. Though those chiefly to blame are mostly dead, some people are still in denial about the harm they caused – a mirror-image of those wedded to the view that the Sri Lankan government is guiltless despite all evidence to the contrary.

At the end of the day, barbaric behaviour by rebel forces is no excuse for similar criminality by state forces, or vice versa. If healing is to take place and national unity built on firm foundations, recognition of past abuses of power, and commitment to defending human rights for all, are important. Independent investigative journalism has a role to play.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector. Her family background is in Sri Lanka.

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