Truth and nothing but the truth can fight terrorism | Sunday Observer

Truth and nothing but the truth can fight terrorism

The truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war and that certainly seems to be the case as Sri Lanka embarks on its second war against terror, this time against Islamic extremists.

This week, the Director General of Information informed media heads to refrain from publicising photographs or videos of swords and knives which are being seized during special operations carried out by the security forces. It has been suggested by the authorities that parents would fear to send their children to schools after seeing such photographs and videos.

Just as much as the war against Islamic terrorism is different from the war against Tamil terrorism that began almost forty years ago, policing of the media in the two conflicts need to be vastly different.

The Eelam war was initially fought mostly in an era where a few newspapers, two government owned television stations and a state-run radio station were the main sources of news for the public. Regulating this flow of information was relatively easy. When the government of the day thought that was necessary, a ‘censorship’ was imposed.

Those were the days when newspapers had to submit their ‘copy’ to the government appointed censor who would then approve or disapprove the news item. Some newspapers vented their frustration at this practice, leaving vast blank spaces in their newspapers with the tag ‘censored’ attached to them.

A newspaper once defied the censor by running a story in the negative, giving a detailed account of what had not occurred, thereby conveying the impression that the event had indeed occurred, but evading the censor’s wrath!

That is history now. Means of communication have grown exponentially since then, with the invention of the internet. The advent of social media has only accelerated that process. The public obtains their news not from reading a newspaper or by watching news bulletins on television, but literally having it at their fingertips, by swiping their smart phones. It is a twenty-four hour news cycle and anyone with a smart phone is a potential ‘reporter’.

In such an era, what are the consequences of instructing media outlets to ban photographs of swords and knives being seized? Would it be a calming influence on the public or, on the contrary, would it lead to the public relying increasingly on social media posts- where the authenticity of information is even more suspect because each ‘keyboard warrior’ has his or her own ideology and agenda and the information they post would be biased accordingly?

What next? Would the Government request that the names of suspects be withheld? Or, would it request that places identified as potential targets not be publicised because the public will keep away from those locations? Where is this strategy of withholding information heading? Also, how practical is it in today’s world, where there is near universal access to information?

The Government banned social media in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. It can be argued that it was necessary because the information available at that stage was sketchy and unreliable and social media was exploding with various theories. However, even if that was an essential measure at that time, it was necessarily a temporary measure- a permanent ban on social media is simply not practical in this day and age. Three weeks after the Easter Sunday carnage, the country is in the throes of a fear psychosis. We as a nation do need to overcome it. However, that can be achieved only by providing as much accurate information as possible- subject, of course to considerations of national security- and not by pretending that raids are not being conducted or that swords and knives are not being unearthed.

There has been concern that the constant flow of information with revelations of detections made by the armed forces in their hunt against Islamic extremists can lead to a backlash against the Muslim community. Indeed, there have been several incidents where Muslim citizens have been at the receiving end of such attacks.

If the Government loses the hearts and minds of the Muslim community- just as successive governments did with the Tamil community- this battle too will be lost, because it will marginalise the Muslim community and push some of them towards extremism.

The solution to such a scenario is not to restrict the flow of information but to educate the public that every Muslim is not a potential terrorist. The Muslim community too has a role to play in condemning acts of terrorism committed in the name of their religion. None of this will be achieved by the banning of photographs of knives and swords!

It is bad enough that the authorities blundered in ignoring the warnings it received about these attacks. Its subsequent attempts to deal with the fallout too have left much to be desired. Initially, it was announced that the attacks were a response to the mass shooting of Muslims in Christchurch in New Zealand. That country was quick to respond, pointing out that the Christchurch incident had occurred only five weeks earlier and the scale of the Easter Sunday attacks would have taken many months of planning. Again, Sri Lankan authorities became the laughing stock, soon after being ridiculed for ignoring multiple security warnings.

The fear psychosis currently gripping the country can only be eliminated by carrying out extensive measures to flush out extremists. Experts have suggested that while this menace could still be nipped in the bud, it would take some time to do so. The immediate suspects may be detained in a few weeks but elimination of the network of terror- which must surely exist, to co-ordinate attacks of this nature- would take longer.

The only way the Government can restore confidence in the public that they are safe is not by simply announcing that a particular number of suspects were detained or that so many mosques were raided, but by providing accurate information about the prevailing situation- as much as possible, without compromising the nation’s security

In this exercise, the truth may sometimes hurt, but it is still necessary.