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Video Sparks Calls for Sri Lankan War-Crimes Inquiry

[NYTimes, Thursday, 27 August 2009 08:03 No Comment]

26lede_lanka.2.190 On Tuesday, Britain’s Channel 4 News broadcast amateur video that exiled Sri Lankan journalists say documents the execution of Tamil prisoners by government soldiers in January during an offensive against separatist rebels in northern Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government immediately denied that its soldiers had committed any atrocities and told Channel 4 that the graphic, disturbing images in its report might have been fabricated.

The amateur video was provided to Channel 4 News by members of the group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, who said that it was shot on a soldier’s mobile phone seven months ago but had only recently been smuggled out of the country. The BBC reports that the group was formed recently by “Sri Lankan journalists, both Sinhalese and Tamil, who have fled the country.”

After the video was broadcast on Channel 4, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka uploaded the complete 78-second clip to YouTube and published it on its own Web site. Within hours, the video, which appears to show the execution of two naked prisoners and the remains of seven other men, was removed from YouTube. Execution footage violates the video-sharing site’s terms of use.

On Wednesday, the BBC published two artificially blurred excerpts from the video on its Web site, along with a video interview with the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Britain, Nihal Jayasinghe. Mr. Jayasinghe called the footage “a matter for laughter” and suggested that it might have been staged by Tamil Tiger rebels to embarrass the government. Mr. Jayasinghe claimed that “it is common knowledge” that Tamil Tiger militants were “seen masquerading in Sri Lankan Army uniforms” during the conflict in order to spread “this kind of disinformation.”

Since the Sri Lankan government barred independent journalists from the war zone during the last phase of its struggle with the Tamil Tigers, frequent claims of atrocities made by both sides during the fighting earlier this year have been nearly impossible to verify. Given these circumstances, The New York Times, like Channel 4 News and the BBC, has not been able to verify that the executions seen in the video actually took place.

The Lede was able to speak, by telephone, with a Europe-based spokesman for Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka on Wednesday. The spokesman, who said that he is a journalist from the Sinhalese ethnic group that makes up the majority in Sri Lanka, asked that he not be identified by name, saying that he fears that his work could endanger family members still living in the country.

According to the spokesman, the exiled journalists obtained the amateur video from “an extremely reliable source” one week ago. Asked about the delay between the time the video is said to have been shot and its release, the Sri Lankan journalist said that the video seemed to have been made not to expose the executions but as a sort of souvenir by a soldier. The journalist said that the video had apparently been passed around by friends of the soldier after the war and had reached his source in Sri Lanka only recently.

The BBC reported that Amnesty International called for “an international, independent and credible investigation into what took place during the final days of the conflict.” A statement from the human rights group said:

Amnesty International has received consistent reports that violations of the laws of war, as well as international human rights law, were committed by both sides in the conflict.

The government of Sri Lanka must allow immediate access to the conflict area so that evidence and documents, as well as testimony from survivors, can be gathered.

The complete video has now been posted on the Web site of a pro-Tamil group, Tamilnet. But the journalist who provided it to news organizations said that suggestions from the Sri Lankan government that the video had been fabricated by Tamil militants were predictable. He said that while his group does contain some ethnic Tamils, the organization was not acting in support of the Tamil separatist movement. He claimed that “anyone who takes a stand” against Sri Lanka’s government “is immediately branded a Tamil Tiger sympathizer.”

In the Channel 4 News report, the correspondent Jonathan Miller said: “It’s impossible to independently verify the authenticity of the pictures of this bloodbath but the group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists which passed them to Channel 4 News are not a Tamil liberation group — they campaign for press freedom.” Mr. Miller added that Channel 4 News consulted “an independent Sri Lankan human-rights investigator, a Sinhalese, who has watched the pictures with me this evening believes them to be genuine.”

It is possible that the raw video, which looks authentic, is not genuine. As in other countries, like Iran or Myanmar, that place severe restrictions on the work of professional reporters, video shot by amateurs in Sri Lanka may offer the only alternative to the official view of events produced by the government. The danger for outside observers in all such situations is two-fold: first, it is not terribly difficult to fabricate authentic-looking video; second, even genuine amateur video is usually provided to news outlets by activists who have a stake in how the world sees events in their country.

Mr. Miller of Channel 4 News said in his report: “There is no indication of the ethnicity of the dead men, but the group which obtained the pictures claim the victims are Tamils. The killers are speaking Sinhala; they are wearing what appear to be Sri Lankan Army uniforms.”

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka also issued a written statement that was posted on Tamilnet on Tuesday, which explained, “for the benefit of those who cannot understand Sinhala,” that the audio includes “insulting jokes and laughter” as well as “soldiers egging each other on.”

As The Lede noted in April, it is difficult and potentially dangerous to produce reports in Sri Lanka that are critical of the government. In January, the Sri Lankan newspaper editor, and government critic, Lasantha Wickrematunge was gunned down in broad daylight in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. Mr. Wickrematunge’s brother later told the BBC that “we all know” that the Sri Lankan government was involved in his murder. “In one way or another,” he said, “we feel that the state had a hand in it.”

In 2007, the BBC’s Sinhala Web site reported that the International Federation of Journalists was concerned that restrictions on journalists in Sri Lanka made it difficult for the public to contend with “the overwhelming amount of rumor and propaganda coming from all sides of the conflict.”

In May, as the Sri Lankan government’s war with the Tamil Tigers reached its end, foreign correspondents, including one for Channel 4 News, were deported from the country or denied entry visas.

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