Managing the media on the road to Nanthikadal | Sunday Observer

Managing the media on the road to Nanthikadal

Pic by Rukmal Gamage
Pic by Rukmal Gamage

While it was imperative to address the damage being done to Sri Lanka’s reputation and the international credibility of the Government by incorrect and unsubstantiated reporting, in parallel, it was also considered important to strengthen the belief that Sri Lanka was a democracy, in fact the oldest democracy in Asia, where elections were held regularly both at national and regional levels and governments changed routinely, where the rule of law was respected and the judiciary wielded immense authority although it did not command any weapons.

It was also country that continued to provide free state funded education and health care, even in the areas controlled by the LTTE. Following a series of bomb explosions in Colombo, on June 7, 2007, the police decided to expel non-resident Tamils from the city for security reasons. (Many of these temporary residents were suspected of being LTTE activists). Some 376 ethnic Tamil refugees living in Colombo were deported from the city and were being sent back to Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, where they came from originally.

The Sri Lankan Supreme Court, within 24 hours, on June 8, 2007 issued an injunction on the Sri Lanka Police to stop the evacuation of Tamil refugees from Colombo lodges after hearing a fundamental rights petition filed by a non-governmental organisation. Events like this which helped maintain the country’s image as a democracy governed by the rule of law were required to be highlighted to maintain credibility in an increasingly hostile media environment and initially the Government lacked a strategy and a mechanism for the purpose.

The result was that such positive stories, which provided reassurance to the Tamil minority, the majority of whom now lived in the South outside the so-called Tamil homeland largely controlled by the LTTE, and was helpful internationally never got reported and this gap needed to be addressed. The Peace Secretariat and later the Foreign Ministry contributed to filling this vacuum in the media coverage. The message had to be repeatedly drummed in even for a fraction to sink in.

Western media

The Western media outlets habitually sent people to Sri Lanka with impressive academic backgrounds and flair. They were analytical in their approach, capable of sustaining their own assessments and possessed good language skills. Some were easily put off by stuttering ill prepared presentations and monotonous lectures which they were, on many occasions, treated to in Sri Lanka. Some of them, whom I knew well, clearly came to the island with preconceived negative notions while others were willing to listen when confronted with facts and figures.

I was also familiar with some who had covered conflicts elsewhere and these experiences obviously coloured their attitudes.

Add a dose of liberal bias in their thinking and a deep seated yearning to protect the perceived underdog to this mix, along with the narrative propagated by the LTTE and its support cast, and Sri Lanka’s conflict could easily be painted as a struggle by an oppressed minority against an unsympathetic Government representing the majority despite the evidence that would mostly point to a different conclusion. Unfortunately, these nuances escaped the many who spoke on behalf of the Government and to whom they were unfamiliar.

The differences with Frances Harrison who wrote Still Counting the Dead (published by Portobello Books in the UK on October 2012 and in Canada by House of Anansi) on Sri Lanka’s conflict could be traced to some of these factors. (Frances Harrison was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, my alma mater, as well as the School of Oriental & African Studies, and Imperial College in London. For many years she worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC posted in South Asia, South East Asia and Iran. From 2000-4, she was the resident BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka.

She had left the country by the time that I returned to Sri Lanka. Also note The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, a book about the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War written by journalist and former United Nations official Gordon Weiss which has coloured the thinking of many. Weiss was later to become a celebrity speaker at LTTE global events.

Effectively highlighting the evidence that contradicted the prevalent perceptions was the challenge facing the Government of Sri Lanka in 2006. The Peace Secretariat (and later the Foreign Ministry) made it a policy to respond as quickly as possible to allegations of infractions by the security forces with carefully researched information, including in TV interviews.

The objective was not to obfuscate, but present the available facts confidently before the media which was essential to counter any inaccurate or biased report that appeared in the national or the international media.

For this purpose, not only was it necessary to have a team which could quickly access information but could also speak and write well. Consequently, the Peace Secretariat established a rapid reaction team in 2006 with good contacts in the domestic bureaucracy and the security establishment.

Expatriate community

It always tried to establish the details of an incident before the published story had time to spread too widely. The connections with the Sri Lankan expatriate community in Western countries were also used to the maximum extent to enable them to be effective in their interactions with their interlocutors. On my visits to Australia and the UK, it was the Sri Lankan expatriate groups that arranged meetings with local politicians, power brokers and the media.

From 2007, the Foreign Ministry also established a better resourced team which met me regularly and its mandate was extended to dealing with web based media outlets as well. Some of its members were volunteers from the private sector but they possessed advanced IT skills. (The LTTE reportedly had over 280 web based media outlets at one point).

The goal of this unit was to proactively engage the media with prompt denials of false reports, detailed information notes and regular interviews. They also established vital links with the senior Government officials stationed in the North and the East and did not hesitate to tap the information available to the NGOs.

It was recognised that in a propaganda war, facts were useful assets, but they had to be deployed quickly and effectively. Active engagement, especially in the English medium, was recognised as the means to at least recover some of the lost ground.

This was also important in dealing with the resident diplomatic community and official overseas visitors. The mechanism created for obtaining accurate and reliable information even from areas controlled by the LTTE was functioning very effectively by May 2009.

Even at the UN in New York (NY), a blogger had made it his mission to discredit the Government of Sri Lanka continuously with a vengeance. He was thin on the facts, and rambling in his style, but his commentary was damaging.

He filled the gaps in the Sri Lanka narrative with half-baked facts and insinuations. Once having participated at a reception at my residence, uninvited, he published a story headed, “Fish balls (his term for Sri Lankan fish cutlets) and wine to tempt the journalists”.

Surprisingly, he lived comfortably in NY without a verifiable source of income. It was suggested that he was on the LTTE payroll but this was never proved. He was also known to exchange information with diplomats at very important missions, some of whom had excellent sources within Sri Lanka.

He was also a useful tool to some to embarrass the former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Subsequently, he began undermining Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

But we mounted a quiet campaign against him within the UN press corps itself with a view to exposing him and even forcing him to reveal his financiers. My friends in the press corps had little faith in this maverick blogger.

Wherever possible, reliable information from our own sources was made available to many members of the UN press corps to impugning the credibility of the man. It took a while, but his bravado unraveled when he fell foul of the President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), Giampaolo Pioli, who commenced proceedings to take him to court.

Then he began to spar with a number of respected journalists who were beginning to approach us for information on the man. Eventually, full of hot air and empty confidence, he clashed with the Alison Smale, UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, who declared that Lee’s “conduct has consistently breached” the UN’s media guidelines and “does not meet the established professional standards required of all correspondents granted access to United Nations premises.”

As a result, his accreditation to cover the UN was withdrawn consistent with the terms of the US – UN Head Quarters Agreement (Agreement Between the United Nations and the United States Regarding the Headquarters of the United Nations, Signed June 26, 1947, and Approved by the General Assembly October 31, 1947). The UN proceeded to evict him from the room that he was occupying and eventually from the UN itself.

Sri Lanka’s media

Many media outlets in Sri Lanka, both catering to the English speaking minority and the non-English speaking majority had a predictable approach. The media controlled by the Government had a consistent Government bias and for this reason was not taken too seriously by many. Among the English language newspapers, the editorial approach of The Island had a clear nationalist perspective but it did not necessarily follow the Government line.

Shamindra Ferdinando and editor Prabath Sahabandu commanded (and continue to command) considerable respect. The Island did not hesitate to criticise the Government when it deserved criticism. The Daily Mirror was more nuanced. Once on an internal YAK 32 flight from Colombo to Trincomalee, I was sitting next to the Indian High Commissioner, Alok Prasad.

There was a choice of three newspapers in the seat pocket. I pulled out the Daily Mirror first as did the High Commissioner who smiled and said, “I noted what you just did”. One thing that always found useful was to be aware of a view point that did not necessarily coincide with mine. I had great respect for Sun Tsu’s maxim, “Know your friends well, but know your enemy better”.

Given that the English language media was accessed by the diplomatic community in Colombo and the world at large, the Peace Secretariat (and later the Foreign Ministry) maintained a close relationship with those journalists working in the English language.

The attitude of some of the local journalists was also beginning to cause me some concern. Some had been influenced by the peace brigade for too long and believed that the views of those promoting peace at all costs, while being oblivious to ground realities, were the ones that needed to be reflected and even promoted.

Some who had connections with the LTTE may even have sympathised with the objectives of the terrorist group. As someone who had spent a lifetime believing in the right to free speech, I did not wish to enter into a debate on the rights and wrongs of the approach of journalists. I had my own views which I expressed clearly on most occasions as reflected in the numerous interviews and speeches that I made.

Even in 2006, there were still reporters working for the Government newspapers who were absolutely convinced that this was not a conflict that could be ended other than through negotiations and concessions despite the obvious LTTE game plan of using negotiations to strengthen its military capabilities and get closer to their separatist goal. When I pointed out to one reporter who was interviewing me that negotiations can succeed only where both parties had a commitment to a negotiated outcome, I was told that the media “market” wanted peace through negotiations.

I refused to change my approach and insisted that negotiations would be futile unless both parties had an equal and tangible commitment to a negotiated outcome. I asked this reporter which market was she referring to? As someone who had access to both the English speaking elite of Colombo as well as the Sinhala speaking majority, including outside Colombo, I myself had not observed such a demand from the “market”.

In addition to the major international media outlets, Sri Lanka had only one widely read English language web based paper which at one point was apparently accessed over a million times daily around the world.

It was run by a dedicated Tamil editor, K.T. Rajasingham. Originally from Point Pedro, he had been beaten up and hounded by LTTE goons because of its anti-LTTE views. (KT as he is affectionately known, now lives in Chunakam.) Under physical threats from the LTTE, he was forced to take refuge in Sweden for many years from where he continued to publish the Asian Tribune, mostly with his own funds, much to the chagrin of the LTTE.

Anti-LTTE global news

The Asian Tribune was perhaps the only major English language anti-LTTE global news outlet for many years and was a major source of valuable information. During his stint in Sweden, he assisted in locating and, with the active intervention of the Foreign Service, causing the closure of pro LTTE TV channels in Europe. The risks that K.T. took on behalf of Sri Lanka were remarkable.

As the head of SCOPP, I made the effort to meet the media, in particular the Western media, on a regular basis. I even organised social gatherings for the purpose.

The Bayleaf in Colombo was one of my favourite spots for this purpose. While some on the government side could not quite appreciate the purpose of my initiative, I continued to organise regular events with the media with the full knowledge of the President. I had little backing.

A lone voice, in a society which had serious difficulties in dealing with and understanding the West, could easily be drowned by the cacophony of pro-LTTE noises emanating from the NGO community and the Colombo elite.

For example when Sampur was relieved by the security forces in December 2006, Dumitha Lutra of the BBC, who treated the LTTE with absolute reverence, ran a headline story that 41,000 civilians had been displaced as a result and were streaming south in disarray with the retreating LTTE, along the arid coast as refugees.

Obviously, this story would have the effect of creating (and was perhaps intended to do so) a damagingly negative image of the success of the security forces against the LTTE. It had been picked up from the TamilNet with harrowing photographs to match. What I knew from personal knowledge was that the entire Sampur area could not have been home to a population that large. (I was a top geography student at school).

Thanks to the lessons learned from the colonial British administration, government offices kept meticulous records of the population, the number of houses, public facilities, and other administratively useful information.

I obtained the population figures for Sampur from the Government Agent and they clearly indicated a figure of the number of inhabitants as being closer to 16,000 in the entirety of the Sampur region and these people were spread out thinly in many villages, some far from the Sampur Town. They were all not affected by the incursion of the security forces in to the area.

The SLMM entered the area and produced photographs of some damaged houses and trees. The Government Peace Secretariat issued a press release and also firmly suggested that it was highly unlikely that all these people would have fled from the advancing Government troops. In fact they had not.

I confronted Dumitha Lutra personally with these facts at a lunch arranged at the Kingsbury and she was forced to correct the story that she had published.

Very soon thereafter she was pulled out by the BBC. Similarly, when the air force bombed a LTTE training centre for Tamil girls in Sencholai, the Western media picked on the Tamilnet story that 53 girl students and two teachers had been killed and over one hundred injured. Even the SLMM which rushed to investigate, could not find 53 bodies. The SLMM also said that it could not “find military installations or weapons” although some of the dead wore black uniforms.

Naturally, the school may have been a basic training facility rather than a fully-fledged military establishment. Interestingly, the attack did not draw condemnation from the Co-chairs of the peace process, the EU, UK, US and Norway, with whom we were interacting closely by now. Later when three of the injured girls were sent to the Kandy Hospital for treatment, they spoke freely of the military training that they had been provided. On their return to the Vanni, one girl died under suspicious circumstances and the two remaining had to be bought back to the South and provided safe houses.

Peter Apps from Reuters who had previous experience in South Africa and Angola and was beginning to engage with us proactively unfortunately suffered a debilitating car accident a few months after his arrival. His vertebrae was fractured and the fact that he lived was a miracle. I visited him in the Intensive Care Unit of the Colombo General Hospital as he was struggling for his life.

He was to tell me much later as he was recovering in England that he owed his life to the care and attention that he received at the Colombo General Hospital. The care that he was missing in England!

The BBC blew hot and cold but true to the British nature, was happy to spar with me. I was always invited to their studios for a chat on air whenever I was in London.

The Sri Lankan expatriate community was mainly instrumental in arranging my visits to the BBC studios.

Both the BBC News and BBC World News and Al Jazeera would ask me to come to the studios in Colombo on a regular basis. The BBC became so familiar that they began to call me and seek comments and clarifications on rumours and TamilNet stories on the conflict for live news programs regularly, and on other developments even after I went to New York in September 2009.

Battle zone

Once, in mid 2008, when I was just about to sit down for lunch at the residence of the Italian ambassador, the BBC was on the phone seeking a comment on the restrictions imposed by the Government on access to the battle zone by journalists.

Allegations of a secret and brutal war were being highlighted by the international media, including the BBC, as a major issue at the time. Standing outside the dining room, I made three points. The battle zone was dangerous for any one, including journalists.

An abducted or killed journalist would provide a publicity coup for the terrorists and the Government simply did not have the resources to deal with the implications of such an eventuality. Secondly, a bloody battle was not a spectator sport to be covered in gory detail.

Thirdly, it was not a tourist attraction either. The questioner shot back, “When will tourists, journalists, be allowed in to the area?” “Naturally, when the tourist season begins in a few months’ time. When the fighting is expected to be over.” I responded with a smile and rejoined the lunch.

On another occasion, I had gone to New Delhi in 2008 accompanying the President. Coincidentally, it was November25, the day before the LTTE commemorated Maha Vir Day, Heroes Day. We were attending a crowded function when the telephone rang. It was the BBC.

The English voice at the other end wanted to know what we expected Vellupillai Prabhakaran to announce at his traditional Maha Vir Day speech. Were we expecting any major conciliatory gesture from him? I snapped back that “We were not waiting with baited breath to hear what the brutal terrorist leader would announce from his jungle hide-out. In any event things were not going too well for him”.