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The Problems with Reporting on Sri Lanka

October 24, 2010

The Problems with Reporting on Sri Lanka

First published: 28-10-2007


Just a few months ago the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) became the first terrorist group in the world with its own air force. The issue caused a major scramble amongst the press of the world to get pictures and find stories on the new development. In a short time images of the modified light training craft were beamed around the world. The smiling pilots were shown smiling from the cockpit and so too were the bombs. The press was so driven for the desire for images and the story that they took them from pro LTTE websites. In some cases the stories pretty much echoed what the site had laid out in their propaganda. The journalistic integrity of doing this may be questionable but many correctly responded that no one else had the story.


All the official Sri Lankan government websites made no mention of the air attack on Colombo despite world headlines screaming to for a response. As the Sri Lankan Government postulated how to respond the official LTTE version of events was dominating the airwaves. Weeks later the gap of information supply was recognized by the Sri Lankan Defense force as they announced that they would make a greater effort to publicize their version of major war events as they happened, instead of weeks later.


Punch for counter punch in a propaganda war is to be expected when the stakes of the ongoing civil war include the battle for financial support. News travels fast but often the entire truth travels much slower. Even with the mechanism of obedient and censored news it is impossible to control all information. Missing pieces of information gets leaked via word of mouth and people rarely believe the official message from either side. This has created an opening for the propaganda websites. I won’t link those sites here as this is just inviting trouble. Unfortunately what may look from the outside as a reasonable display of a war situation can also be a one sided barrage of thinly disguised accusations and justifications. The attitude on some web sites screams about injustices in order to solicit support for fundraising, political agitation and armed retaliation. “Our Brave Soldiers…” is a common statement. “See the face of this suffering child…” is another common statement that can precede the justification of violent actions or the denial of well known ones.


The general indicator of whether a site is a news site or front from another group is how quickly they try to glorify one side as angels and the other as the devil incarnate. The clever sites do no mention the violence but instead happily take money that will more than likely contribute in some way to the violence. These days it is extremely hard for many organizations to raise money for charity because the instant assumption is that it will be used for buying weapons instead.


Politics permeates everything in Sri Lanka, even the apolitical. To get a job some people feel the need to use the influence of a politician. Politics also permeates the population outside of Sri Lanka. Most people may wish to stay out of the fray but they also know people who are involved. The roots of radicalism sometimes go deep.


It would easy for me to run off a dozen inflammatory stories about Sri Lanka, due to the amount of information that get passed to me, but it would also be foolish. What some people may think is a huge fight on a blog is barely a whisper in comparison to what it could be. The true radicals are not the uneducated village idiots and inbreeds that you may expect them to be. Instead they are very well educated, often having attended university and occasionally having doctorates. These are the cream of the intellectuals dedicated to a questionable cause. The only real high point is the fact that they are vastly outnumbered by intellectuals who not radicals.


Rumors can often abound and morph in to common gossip. When a friend says that someone we both know is now involved with the JVP it is a difficult thing to hear. When another friend explains how a person they met spent twenty minutes singing the praises of the LTTE and calling its leader a saint it become a little disturbing. The stories are unsubstantiated but the consequences of them being true are enormous, thus the ability to see these people outside of radicalism is very hard to fight.


This is especially difficult whenever the issue of peace talks comes to the fore and how to get some of these radicals to see each other as humans before they see them as a dehumanized political problem. The problem of rumor and disinformation is vivid when you see hostility and accusations fly. Peace has no value for some people because it will destroy their status in the radical’s pecking order and so they will try to derail any effort at peace. “Better to be a master in Hell than servant in Heaven.”


Things that I have personally seen and found very disappointing have been: Branch stacking of local radio stations to control its news agenda; character assassinations of people who can help negotiate peace; bringing silent observers from radical groups to sit in on meetings; the hijacking of orderly agendas to bring up a litany of side issues and diversions; Using a peaceful platform to provoke an angry response; rewriting and retelling of history to favor one side. The list goes on.


News travels fast with radicals but the truth moves slower. It seems obvious that people who think that they are clever because they can make a few quips on a blog are really kidding themselves.

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