Managing media on the road to Nanthikadal | Sunday Observer

Managing media on the road to Nanthikadal

Pic: Rukmal Gamage

While all journalists were not given free access to the battle zone, and Western journalists hugely resented this constraint, a lesson had been learned from the US invasion of Iraq, with force contributions from the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland. As was done during the Iraq invasion, (“At the start of the war, the shock and awe phase in March 2003, 775 reporters and photographers were traveling with the invasion force as embedded journalists.

“These reporters signed contracts with the military that limited what they were allowed to report on. When asked why the military decided to embed journalists with the troops, Lt. Col. Rick Long of the US Marine Corps replied, “Frankly, our job is to win the war.

“Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.” A number of journalists working at the UN were coopted to be embedded with the invasion force).  

Selected journalists, including those from Western news agencies, were to some extent embedded as the troops advanced to the LTTE heartland. There was little secret or worth hiding about this conflict. The national TV, Rupawahini, and the radio had priority access to the front. The journalists embedded with army units had first-hand frontline exposure to the ongoing battles.

Exodus

Bill Bryson, of the Thomson-Reuters Corporation who had worked in Texas and Kenya previously was one of them (I attended his wedding in New Jersey a few years later to a strikingly beautiful and talented Kenyan). Al Jazeera was even allowed to film the exodus of thousands of civilian hostages across the Nanthikadal lagoon from the LTTE’s last stronghold from the lagoon itself. (Nanthi Kadal is sometimes referred to as Mullaitivu lagoon).

The Defence Ministry invited journalists and diplomats to watch the exodus in real time as the event was being filmed by a Beechcraft airplane that beamed images of the massive stream of escapees across to the Ministry auditorium. Some of them were filmed being shot at by LTTE fighters as they waded across the lagoon. It is not totally accurate to say that journalists were excluded from the battlefront. Many had access while others did not, like in Iraq.  

I was in Kuala Lumpur that morning and was invited to the Al Jazeera studio for a chat on the ongoing military situation. I had just watched the exodus of thousands of civilians from the LTTE strong hold on the Al Jazeera newscast relayed from Doha before heading to the Al Jazeera studio in Kuala Lumpur.

As soon as I settled down, the interviewer launched in to Sri Lanka’s “secret war” and asked what it was that Sri Lanka was trying to hide. I smiled and asked the interviewer to switch on Al Jazeera’s own transmission from Doha which was exposing Sri Lanka’s so-called secret war with its cameraman bobbing up and down in a dinghy in Nanthikadal Lagoon.  

The CNN would ring me whenever a new story broke out. In early February 2009, a story began spreading through the international media outlets that Sri Lankan forces were using cluster bombs and had targeted a hospital in the battle zone. Again it was the Namil Net that originated this scoop.

The BBC had questioned me about it earlier and I had taken the time to check the details as known to the security establishment. I was attending an event relating to the Independence Day celebrations that afternoon when Hala Gorani of the CNN (based in London) came on the line and raved on for, what appeared to me an eternity, in obvious and understandable pain about the alleged incident.

I stopped her and asked her to take a deep breath so that I could respond. I categorically denied that the military had used cluster bombs as “we had no cluster bombs, we had no intention of acquiring them, and we had no use for cluster bombs to defeat the terrorist LTTE. In any event what was a hospital doing on the front line?” With regard to the hospital, it took us some time to obtain photographs of the building which we then made available to the media. 

The LTTE had become adept at using celebrities, popular politicians and others with similar standing to advance its cause. (It has begun to do this again in many Western countries). One of its propagandists was Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam, MBE, known by her stage name M.I.A., and a popular British rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer, visual artist, and activist. (She had been born on July  18, 1975).

She was also involved with NY millionaire Ben Brofman at the time who was a social contact of some of my NY friends. The Tigers’ Political Head Nadesan, in a comment to the Indian glossy, The Week, had once said that he felt that M.I.A.’s humanitarianism had been a source of strength to Eelam Tamils, amidst the “all-powerful Sri Lankan propaganda machinery that demonises anyone who speaks for the Tamils.”

M.I.A. was vociferously pro LTTE. I was asked to appear on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS by telephone along with M.IA. It was almost midnight in Colombo when I received the call from New York. Her diatribes were long and without much substance. I ended the discussion by telling the audience, “M.I.A. is a great rapper. I like her music. But she should really stay with her music, at which she was good and leave politics to adults”. Even Oprah Winfrey, as was reported in a Rolling Stone article, had shut her down. Oprah apparently said, “I can’t talk to you because you’re crazy and you’re a terrorist”. 

The Indian journalists who were based in Colombo were by and large not very sympathetic to the LTTE. (Given the influence of Indian newspapers (now including online media) on Indian political thinking, it is absolutely necessary to keep in close touch with them). ]

The newspapers and TV stations, still rankling from the brutal assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a LTTE suicide bomber, were more inclined to sympathise with the Sri Lankan Government.  They also did not miss any opportunity to have a dig at Pakistan, which made it necessary to be particularly conscious of this bias in interacting with them.

Pakistan was backing Sri Lanka solidly in the terrorist conflict, including by providing significant quantities of weapons. Pakistan’s support, both political and military, to successive governments in Colombo was a critical factor in the final victory over the LTTE.

When the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in Lahore by a terrorist group, later the attack was claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al Almi, the Indian media immediately started looking for a Pakistani Muslim terrorist link while there were suggestions at the time of LTTE involvement as well. One could say that the Indian media, especially the resident journalists, was an important factor in managing India diplomatically in the end phase of Sri Lanka’s conflict. 

The Western media continued to search me out even after I went to NY as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Stephen Sackur, of Hard Talk, BBC and Christiane Amanpour CBEhave interviewed me. Amanpour rang me while I was attending the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen and I remember answering her questions while sipping an espresso on a small bridge at the conference centre.  

Apparently, journalists working for the BBC, which prides itself of its independence, must be cleared by MI 5.  (The documentary on BBC Ch 4, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields aroused considerable controversy and impacted on the thinking of opinion makers around the world. This documentary was made by Callum Macrae of ITN Productions and presented by Jon Snow, of Channel 4 News. While it had an immediate impact on perceptions around Western political circles, the government, with considerable evidence, denounced it as a fake.

Strategy

The Defence Ministry produced a documentary in rebuttal titled Lies Agreed Upon, which sought to counter the allegations raised in the Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.

Given the continuing reference to the documentary in international circles, I am doubtful whether Sri Lanka’s response was adequate to counter its impact. I arranged for a discussion, sponsored by the UN Correspondents’ Association, at the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium where we presented the Government’s views to a packed house of diplomats and journalists).  

Over time, I became increasingly convinced that the LTTE and its leader, Prabhakaran, believed in Ho Chi Minh’s dictum, “talk talk, and fight fight” and talking was just part of a strategy to create a breathing space to regroup and consolidate and demoralize the opponent before striking harder with concentrated force at targets of their choice.

The time and space thus created was also useful for building sympathy for the cause internationally and there were many, especially in the NGO community, who were willing to assist in this project.

The important thing was to counter the LTTE’s strategy by using its own techniques. The military recognised the LTTE game plan and, for the first time, began to employ tactics that disrupted the enemy’s stratagem.

While I was new on the Sri Lankan scene and was committed to give negotiations as much space as was necessary, it was also evident that countering the terrorist group forcefully was essential, especially on the public relations front. Negotiations could not be successfully carried out and presented to the satisfaction of the majority of the people if the propaganda machine of the LTTE continued to present a carefully crafted and lop sided narrative.

The commitment to negotiations, on the one hand, would suggest to the Western international community and the   peace lobby that the Government had not given up on a negotiated end to the conflict (in fact, the President had not) and, on the other, enabled the non LTTE Tamils, of whom there were many, who needed the justification and opportunity to work with the Government. 

The LTTE leadership, unfortunately, appeared to persist in the conviction of their own invincibility encouraged by a dedicated and well-resourced following of Tamil expatriates, some of whom were millionaires in their adopted lands, a range of international NGOs based in the West who hob knobbed with policy makers in Western capitals, some members of the IGO community and prominent members of Western diplomatic community in Colombo. (Although I had niggling doubts whether some of the leaders who participated in the three rounds of negotiations in 2006 honestly believed that the LTTE would eventually emerge victorious in the battlefield).

The sums raised to fund the LTTE effort by sympathisers in the West were legendary. (Estimates indicate that the Tamil expats raised and supplied 200–300 million USD annually to the Tamil insurgency, according to Jane’s Intelligence Review, 2007.

As of 2000, these funds provided the LTTE with over 80% of its annual budget.). The Tamil Net was its mouth-piece and was proactive in purveying the LTTE perspective to the global audience and some members of the media had come to depend on the TamilNet as a credible source.

All this was despite the emerging consensus in the West, particularly since the events of 9/11, that there would be no accommodation with terrorism.

Today this policy of the West has been taken further and even terrorist supporters and conspirators are eliminated in distant lands, with significant collateral damage to civilians, before they have had the opportunity to engage in acts of terror.  

Good and bad terrorists

The amazing lack of consistency in the Western approach was highlighted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comment that there were good terrorists and bad (read Islamic) terrorists.

It is possible that a combination of the above factors gave rise to the perception that the conflict could be ended only through negotiations with fundamental concessions being made to the LTTE (even though it was quite obvious that the LTTE did not want such an end and only wanted a total capitulation of the elected Government of Sri Lanka) and when this script was not followed, many attempted to attribute the lack of progress in the search for peace to gross deficiencies and violations of the Government. Some continue to do so.

The fact that the vast majority of the people of Sri Lanka did not subscribe to this prescription was a factor that was conveniently ignored and it was necessary to attempt to change this perspective.  

Sri Lanka won the struggle with the LTTE in the end. A dreaded and very well organised terrorist group was wiped out. The careful management of the media, although at times not completely successfully, was an important part of this victory. The lessons learned seem to be, inter alia, the following:  The media, both print and electronic, were essential to be managed with utmost sensitivity. 

Media management needed specialist skills, language proficiency commitment and bundles of information that could be shared. It was not a job for amateurs. 

Never assume that a lie or a half-truth would not be exposed. It was always better to be as transparent as much as possible. 

Most journalists are subject to normal human frailties, they need to be treated well, welcomed warmly, given space to do their work and realise their ambitions and being subject to normal frailties, they succumb to normal human weaknesses. 

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