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Sri Lanka’s war of propaganda – Eureka Street

[MISC, Monday, 25 May 2009 22:06 No Comment]

by Paul Farrell

‘It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of press.

‘It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.

‘It is the soldier, not the politician, that ensures our rights to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.’

This statement can be found on a military map in a media briefing room in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The words taunt the news crews that wish to penetrate deeper into the heart of what is becoming one of the most censored humanitarian crises ever reported, and reminds them all who holds the power in Sri Lanka.

As the dust begins to clear from the scorched battlefields after the Sri Lankan Government’s final push against the Tamil Tigers, accusations and counter accusations of human rights abuses remain as vociferous as ever.

The Sri Lankan Government has been accused of endangering and killing civilians by using heavy weaponry in the conflict area. The Tamil Tigers have also been accused of using civilians as human shields.

But while the fog of war may be dissipating, the fog of propaganda and distortion continues to wreak havoc. Independent journalists who attempt to balance contrasting claims are continually denied access to the conflict area by the Sri Lankan military.

Most recently Nick Paton Walsh, the Channel 4 correspondent to Asia, was deported from the country on 9 May, following a report he released into military run Tamil internment camps.

The report was the first independently filmed video from a camp in Vavuniya, and contained claims from aid workers that there was a dramatic shortage of food and water and women were being sexually abused and abducted.

Mr Walsh, in his account of the expulsion, said: ‘The Defence Secretary, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, expressed his upset at the piece we ran. He was angry and said we would be deported as a result of that piece.

‘He said we could say what we liked about what’s happening in this country, but we would have to do it in our own country.’

The Sri Lankan Defence Ministry has also condemned media organisations that have remained sceptical of the Government’s conduct in the war. The Human Rights Watch released a report on May 8 containing claims of over 30 hospital shellings since December by the Sri Lankan Military.

In response to these claims, on 15 May the Defence Ministry said ‘the media sympathetic to the terrorists once again have misinformed the international community with another fabricated story’.

These attacks on dissenting publications have raised the concern of many free press groups. In 2009 Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka 165 out of 173 countries in terms of press freedom.

‘Murders, physical assaults, kidnappings, threats and censorship are the lot of Sri Lanka’s journalists. Top government officials, including the defence minister, are directly implicated in the serious press freedom violations,’ said the report.

The Sri Lankan military reports on the conflict have repeatedly had their credibility thrown into doubt. Satellite images leaked from the United Nations indicates that the Sri Lankan Government may have bombed the civilian safe zone, a claim the Government has adamantly refuted.

‘Within the northern and southern sections of the civilian safe zone, there are new indications of building destruction and damages resulting from shelling and possible air strikes,’ said the UNOSAT report.

In what has now become a war of propaganda, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence has also inaccurately criticised many peaceful protests in other countries.

Following a protest in London, a statue of Jawaharlal Nehru was damaged. While local press reported that no arrests had been made and that police could only speculate who the perpetrators were, the Sri Lankan Government responded with its own report, and wrote: ‘Violent LTTE protesters behead Jawaharlal Nehru Statue’.

A similar report emerged following a protest in Melbourne when a conflict occurred between Singalese and Tamil protesters. Video footage of the event posted on YouTube clearly shows a car of Tamil protesters having their windows and car smashed.

The Sri Lankan government’s statement about the protest used the headline: ‘LTTE supporters attack Lankan student in Melbourne’. There was no specific reference to the initial attack on the Tamil vehicle.

This war of propaganda is having widespread impacts on communities abroad. The clash between Singalese and Tamil protesters in Melbourne highlights the growing unrest of these groups. More recently in Westmead, Sydney, attacks and counter attacks led to two men being subjected to harmful acid burns. YouTube videos and reports on the conflict are being inundated with comments that foster racial hatred.

In light of this, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny that something sinister has happened in the north of Sri Lanka. Not only has there been untold suffering in Sri Lanka, but also in Tamil and Singalese communities throughout the world.

And if the soldier is indeed more important than the press, then the situation is unlikely to change.

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