Managing the media on the road to Nandikadal - Part 1 | Sunday Observer

Managing the media on the road to Nandikadal - Part 1

28 June, 2020

The conflict with the terrorist LTTE dragged on for over two decades causing widespread death and destruction with no obvious end in sight. The Government, after the election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, recognised, perhaps for the first time, that carefully managing the media, both domestic and international, was an important factor if this endless struggle were to be ended successfully. President Rajapaksa, a consummate politician, accepted the profound value of a non-antagonistic media and carefully orchestrated initiatives to secure this objective. As the world knows, the bloody conflict was eventually ended on the banks of the Nanthikadal Lagoon on May 18, 2009, through the colossal efforts and sacrifices of the security forces.

The lessons learned by the US military in Vietnam, and not lost on it in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, provided Sri Lankan Government policy makers invaluable insights in confronting the LTTE.

The strategies employed by the state during the last phase of the conflict to manage the media, both domestic and international, as it struggled to defeat the LTTE, is an often overlooked aspect of Sri Lanka’s brutal conflict. Ensuring balance and the goodwill of the influential and opinion shaping media, to the extent possible, was a major challenge to the Government during this uncertain period, 2006 to 2009 May.

The international media had a direct impact on the thinking of (and continues to do so) decision makers in distant capitals which maintained a close interest in the intractable conflict largely due to the lobbying efforts of the influential Tamil expatriate community, interested NGOs and the counter lobbying efforts of the anti LTTE groups.

The LTTE expatriates and related NGOs often controlled critical vote banks and possessed substantial campaign contribution capabilities in their host countries. These assisted in their efforts to cultivate decision makers and their staff.

They were also mixing with a high degree of comfort in policy making circles in their host countries. It was essential for the Government to counter the efforts of the expatriate Tamil groups.

The Government’s media unit under Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, as the defence spokesman, handled the media briefings mainly from the military perspective.

The Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights also began hosting media conferences towards the end of the conflict.

His ministry was the peak Government body responsible for human rights and the supply of essential needs, especially food, to the areas under the control of the LTTE.

This made it the appropriate entity to address human rights and humanitarian issues.

As the conflict dragged on, and the tide of battle seemed to favour the military, raising human rights issues noisily became a clever part of the LTTE’s international strategy at a time when many committed human rights advocates were occupying positions of power and influence in Western countries. (E.g. in the USA, the UK, Canada and many EU countries).

Some of these power brokers continue to wield influence in Western capitals and are likely to return to positions of greater power and influence should the liberal political leaders return to power.

The defence establishment and the police had their own spokesmen who mainly catered to the domestic audience. This was also important as maintaining the morale of the population was an essential element as the campaign against the LTTE gained momentum.

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama also sought to make a contribution with ad hoc media engagements.

Uniquely, Sri Lanka continued to supply the essential needs of the civilians living in the territory controlled by a proscribed terrorist organisation and pay the wages of officials even though the Government was excluded from exercising any physical control over those areas under the terms of the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002. This aspect of the conflict, which should have continued to be highlighted, is often missing in Western narratives relating to Sri Lanka’s struggle against the terrorist LTTE.

Balanced view

I was appointed as the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP, Peace Secretariat) in 2006. Having spent 10 years as the head of the Treaty Section of the United Nations in New York, I had recognised the value of a sympathetic media which I had learned to use for the benefit of my office at the UN and the Organisation. The Peace Secretariat and, later, the Foreign Ministry were very quickly and methodically refocused to devise and implement a range of strategies to manage the domestic and international media, with a view to creating a more balanced image of the conflict internationally, especially to emphasise the efforts expended by the Rajapaksa Government to end the conflict in a peaceful manner and the care with which civilian needs were addressed.

However, the challenge was immense. I was appointed the Foreign Secretary in January 2007.

Having read endless articles on the subject, the critical role of the media in influencing the outcome of the Vietnam War was etched in my mind and Sri Lanka could not afford to ignore those lessons as it confronted the LTTE.

Diverse views and perceptions relating to Sri Lanka’s long drawn out conflict were already entrenched internationally and it required a major effort to encourage the media representatives and their contacts to look at the conflict from a different perspective, and hopefully view the Government’s efforts to end the conflict and the care it took of the civilian non-combatant population a little more sympathetically.

Early in his term of office, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was encouraged to meet the media personally, especially the local media, in a structured but informal manner as a confidence building measure between the Government and the journalists.

In his inimitable style and irresistible charm, he began hosting a breakfast for journalists every Wednesday morning. Usually these breakfasts, at the Presidential Secretariat, were well attended from across the board, including by those who were not too sympathetic to the Government or to Mahinda Rajapaksa personally. The food was plentiful. Senior officials were required to attend and chat about matters of media interest.

I had noted the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Kimoon, occasionally hosting a breakfast for journalists during my time at the UN and I had chatted to the President of the value of such interactions. It was during one of these early breakfast gatherings that the editor of the Tamil newspaper Suderoli quietly informed the President that the LTTE was warning Kohona to keep off the media for his own good. This warning prompted President Rajapaksa to order extra security for me. But, for my part, I was incentivised to seek more opportunities to interact with the media even more aggressively.

Networks of contacts

Many international journalists were well established in Colombo by 2006 and had their own networks of contacts, including within the security establishment. Some of them (and certain NGOs) may well have been engaged in intelligence gathering and also influencing local opinion. What I noticed on assuming the position of Secretary General of the SCOPP, was that the NGO community (both local and international) and the aggressive domestic peace lobby (who spoke English comfortably) had close links, including socially, with the international journalists while the vast majority of Sri Lankans who viewed the conflict from a different angle, the monks, the teachers, the villagers, the common folk, et al, did not. Senior Government officials also lacked the confidence to interact with the international media.

Language skills were the critical factor. Consequently, what got reported (particularly internationally) were, by and large, the views of the English speaking elite of Colombo. President Rajapaksa was very keen to rectify this imbalance through greater and more sophisticated interaction with the media and he repeatedly encouraged his senior staff to become active. I supported him strongly. But the problem was to deploy enough capable people for the purpose.

Political arm

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which generally reflected the LTTE objectives and approach to the conflict and had been identified by many as the political arm of the LTTE, also had ready access to the international media largely because of the ability to communicate in English. It also had ready access to Western embassies. The international media and Western embassies had easy access to each other.

The TNA’s political goals were clear and they sought to use the international media and the international community to attain them in parallel with the LTTE’s bloody terrorist campaign. (“The time has now come for all the Tamil political forces in the northeast to unite under one banner to give full support for the militants who are involved in the freedom struggle,” the leader of the TNA, R.Sampanthan had said.) The TNA had successfully cultivated the image of the representative of an oppressed minority. It was clear that a convincing counter narrative had to be developed by the Government.

A serious drawback facing the Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa at this stage was the resulting imbalance in the perceptions created in the international media over two decades which made it difficult to rectify the dominant image in distant capitals of a Sinhala Buddhist dominated Government in Colombo using the brute force of its armed forces to thwart the just aspirations of the minority Tamil people.

The horrendous reign of terror unleashed by the LTTE that caused the deaths of untold numbers of civilian non-combatants (among the Sinhala and Muslim communities), including monks, caught in roadside bomb blasts, the massacres in temples and mosques, the destruction of public buildings, buses and trains, again involving the deaths of hundreds, the elimination of political opponents, the recruitment of thousands of children as combatants, (Both UNICEF and HRW, the number 21,000 has been mentioned, have accused the LTTE of conscripting Tamil children orphaned by the tsunami) the murder of national leaders, including in India, faded into background whispers and were never given the same prominence in the reporting emanating from Colombo, while all alleged infractions of the Government military featured prominently in prestigious journals with a negative commentary.

It is also instructive that Western missions in Colombo, except Australia, shied away from specifically naming the LTTE as a perpetrator while condemning terrorist attacks on civilians.

Too revealing

Some journalists, especially a couple of locals covering Sri Lanka on behalf of international media chains had developed excellent contacts domestically, especially within the security forces. Some of the reporting perhaps was too revealing and should have been controlled by the state.

In many other countries, the Official Secrets laws would have been brought to bear on them. Iqbal Athas, writing to the Sunday Times, was one of those persistent investigative journalists with excellent sources.

His reporting made riveting reading on Sunday mornings and he had an avid following internationally, including me in New York at the time. I once noticed a slightly blurred mechanism in the background of a photograph that he published of the LTTE that looked suspiciously like a multi-barrelled rocket launcher, a Katyusha, and I told him so in an email. In fact, it turned out to be an early acquisition of this deadly weapon by the LTTE.

The question that bothered me was whether these journalists had any responsibility to assist the Government in its campaign against a banned terrorist organisation or was it simply a matter of providing information that the Western clients wanted. I had also noticed during my time at NY that the US media had solidly backed President Bush’s invasion of Iraq despite serious issues of legality being raised around the world. To my surprise, most Western media representatives based in Colombo had almost a reverential attitude to the LTTE and its invincibility, developed over the years.

They were regularly briefed by their own missions who promoted the manthra of the LTTE’s invincibility and the only solution to the conflict being a negotiated one. The feeling of the LTTE’s invincibility pervaded certain elements of the political establishment in Colombo as well. As described by General Kamal Guneratna in his magnum opus, Rana Maga Osse, “Minister Moragoda who had been trying to convince General Guneratna to give up a forward position at the request of the LTTE, had bluntly declared that the Army could never defeat the LTTE. General Guneratna, in his book, quoted Moragoda as having told him that the Army could never win this war.

He had declared that although, the Army had waged war for about 20 years, it couldn’t bring the war to a successful conclusion. As the Army couldn’t achieve success, in the future, the Government was going ahead with negotiations”. Elements of the academia seemed to be convinced of this position also. The terrorism specialist working in Singapore, Dr Rohan Guneratna, endorsed Moragoda’s view that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. In the aftermath of the conflict, he had switched allegiance to the war-winning government. However, on March 22, 2007, the Bloomberg news agency had quoted Gunaratne online as having said that Sri Lanka’s war couldn’t be won by either side”.

The western media also lapped up the information published in the LTTE media outlet, the Tamil Net, without much effort to verify authenticity. The fact that a story appeared in the Tamil Net was adequate for them to wire it off to their head offices without fact checking. This had a telescopic effect. A story published in the Tamil Net would be repeated by major Western media outlets datelined Colombo and soon acquire the status of incontrovertible fact and placed the Government in an awkward position repeatedly. Amazingly, even the Chinese media, without adequate resident representation in Colombo, readily picked up the Western media stories. This was a major challenge confronting the Government raising issues of its own credibility. When a family of Tamils was killed in Mannar, the Western media relying on a Tamil Net report, immediately assumed that it was the Sri Lankan Army that was responsible. A quick response based on facts as could be established was required and an investigation initiated by the Peace Secretariat seemed to suggest that this was not necessarily the only conclusion to be drawn as the security forces had not been in the area and had no reason for killing the family.

Subsequent inquiries initiated by the Peace Secretariat seemed to indicate that the photos of the dead bodies had appeared on the Tamil Net almost immediately after the killings and had been distributed to the international media. It was possible that someone else was responsible for the killings, but the security forces were being blamed. It was in situations like this that the Government was required to respond quickly if not to be damned by a harshly critical press and, for this purpose, an appropriate mechanism was established in the Peace Secretariat and later in the Foreign Ministry simply to ensure that the facts were disseminated.

Similarly, when father Thiruchchelvam Nihal Jim Brown, a Catholic priest, went missing in Jaffna in 2006, the Peace Secretariat followed up the matter, obtaining relevant information from concerned Government offices to respond to the media and to the diplomatic community. The circumstances of his disappearance were never clearly established, but the blame was sought to be pinned on the security forces.

The same Western media frenzy that followed almost every Tamil Net accusation of wrong doing by the security forces was not evident when the LTTE bombed a bus carrying villagers at Kebilithigollawa in mid June 2006, including expectant mothers going to the weekly clinic. Over 60 in the bus were killed and many were seriously injured.

A mass burial for the killed was held and was attended by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I also distinctly recall a senior minister of the Government gingerly slipping away although he had been asked by the President to deal with the media and asking me to front up to the cameras following the Kebilithigollawa bombing.