Getting at the truth of Sri Lanka’s civil war

Who cares about human rights when it’s hard to get the story?

[The original of this article appears on the BBC College of Journalism site. You can read it clicking the following link: Who cares about human rights when it's hard to get the story?]

The 30-year Sri Lankan civil war ended last year with government forces crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels. Some reports say there may have been as many as 30,000 civilian casualties in the final months of the war. Calls for an international war crimes inquiry were rejected by the Sri Lankan government, which set up its own “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”.

Who cares – especially when governments make it hard or dangerous to get the story? Should the Western media be doing more in places like Sri Lanka?

The war brought allegations of atrocities committed on both sides and feelings are raw among Sri Lankans of all backgrounds. A discussion at the Frontline Club shed some light on issues of censorship, journalism and state power in times of bitter conflict.

The moderator, the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, had recently recorded a series of HARDtalk interviews in Sri Lanka. The Frontline audience saw a Channel 4 News report by Jonathan Miller from last year, showing what were alleged to be cold-blooded killings of Tamil prisoners by Sri Lankan soldiers. The video’s authenticity had been challenged, unsuccessfully, by the government as part of an information war.

Jonathan Miller said his and other Western news organisations had tried hard, and sometimes taken physical risks, to cover the war and its aftermath. But the Sri Lankan authorities’ restrictions on the media had made it an information “black hole”.

He cited reports that 15 Sri Lankan journalists had been killed over the past three years. Violent attacks and abductions were still going on. In the past year alone, 29 others had been forced to flee.

At almost every turn, points raised by Miller and other critics were contradicted by another invited speaker, Douglas Wickramaratne, a political analyst and president of the Sinhala Association of Sri Lankans in the UK.

He insisted that Sri Lanka is a real democracy with an independent judiciary; that no sovereign state would accept the interference of an international war crimes investigation; that Sri Lanka has freedom of the press, with a diverse and critical media; and that the West was hypocritical when it complained about the Sri Lankan government’s conduct of a war against an enemy which had used child soldiers and suicide bombers.

Britain, he argued, had passed emergency laws and adopted a shoot-to-kill policy against suspected terrorists after a much smaller number of deaths from one day of terrorist bombings in London.

The debate provided a stark example of how two incompatible views of a complex situation can co-exist. It demonstrated how an information war is a competition to define the terms of the argument. And it made clear how in such situations the role of independent news media – both local and global – is crucial.

So, should the Western media have done more to report human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. And should Western governments have done more to prevent them?

Yes and yes, said several speakers.

[link to full article]

A video of the Frontline debate ‘Sri Lanka: could the West do more about human rights and press freedom?’ can be viewed here.

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