The media have been under pressure to present the current conflict as a just and patriotic war to relieve the country from the grip of terrorism, without being aimed at the Tamils. All sections have largely succumbed. Many thought that the media had matured after the massive disillusionment that replaced euphoria, when India intervened to end the war of 1987. The media had distorted its reporting to the point of blacking out Tamil civilian suffering, and creating a mood of triumphalism. When the LTTE went to war with the IPKF, the experience of Tamil civilians received unstinted coverage. The LTTE ceased to be terrorists.
THE WAR AND THE MEDIA
During 1988 and 1989 the JVP and state sponsored paramilitary groups brought terror much closer home, and into public life itself. Reporting and references became very circumspect and sometimes even courageous. With the commencement of LTTE-governments talks, the LTTE was given a large measure of legitimacy as representing the Tamils, through generous and colourful press coverage. The government media even became the vehicle for the LTTE claims. In other sections however there was a note of caution over the LTTE's intentions. A new sense of despondency was brought into the media with the killing in February of prominent writer and journalist, Richard de Zoysa. Many in the profession took it as a warning. The stage was set, where with the outbreak of the current conflict, conformity was easy to establish. The most uninhibited lambasting of the LTTE and its leadership now come from the official media which were once the vehicle of LTTE propaganda, and from ministers in the government, once regarded as effective spokesmen for the LTTE. There is almost no attempt to reflect on how the present is linked to the recent past.
As the conflict raged, there was once again an attempt to distort its nature by almost totally excluding reporting of Tamil civilian suffering even in places where it was sever. Once again the coverage was triumphalistic. The Sunday English papers had pages full of coloured pictures of servicemen in various attack poses. Apart from the Sinhalese press, the Sunday Island of 8th July pictured a dead Tiger in colour. Featuring such a display of a dead JVP rebel would certainly have been considered to be in bad taste and was never done. Nor were the state forces given such adulatory heroic coverage during the campaign against the JVP. It became evident that the press was reflecting what the government and the supporters of the war were articulating with various degrees of subtlety-that the war was one against the traditional, alien enemy in terms of the dominant Sinhalese ideology. This was the very ideology responsible for bringing so much discredit and misery on this country. There were also suggestions (Sunday Time editorial, 22nd July) that military advantage should be used to settle questions of territory.
The sunday times of 1st July pictured a soldier guarding a Buddhist temple, captioned `Defender of the Faith'. There were also pictures of soldiers beside toppled Tiger monuments and the erection of a Lion monument in `liberated' Amparai. The Tiger and Lion are here understood as symbols of contending nationalism. The state owned Sunday Observer was more uninhibited when on 15th July, below a front page picture of a wounded soldier being carried to a helicopter, the soldier was described in bold letters as `one of the brave young men engaged in the bloody but heroic battle to defend the `motherland' from separatist Tamil terrorists..'. The JVP had worst been referred to as subversives, and never as `Sinhalese terrorists'. The direction being taken by the conflict was becoming clear.
Amongst articles and editorials, there were many that were commendable for their caution and sobriety. The Island in a number of editorials urged on the government, the importance of cutting the ground from under Tamil extremism by coming out with clear constitutional proposals to grant autonomy for the Tamils. One editorial (15th July) reflected that it is the average young man who is being killed of maimed on both sides and warned that the fact that Tamil people are being killed is bound to have a long term effect on how this conflict will be viewed by the world at large. This editorial together with other articles warned the government to approach the problem with an open mind and not to allow what was going to be a protracted war to degenerate into a tribal fight. Even a well meaning editorial writer could hardly control the unpleasant reality reflected by his own papers.
The Sunday times editorial of 8th July cautioned against the euphoric portrayal of the operation where a helicopter landed near Jaffna fort and rescued 7 wounded, by pointing out instances where things had gone terribly wrong. Such notes of pessimism set against the economic deterioration of the country, was something that was not so visible in 1987 and before. But the fight to express the truth and reflect reality in a state which had been more deeply and malignantly militarised had become much more difficult and costly.
What the Press revealed:
A careful reader can yet discern a good deal about the war from the press. One hopes that some of it at least is intentional. For then the fight for the freedom of expression in this country is not entirely lost.
By the middle of July, even if it was not being said openly, it was clear that every pressman and all senior persons in public life knew that killing by the state forces had become fairly indiscriminate.
The following extract is taken from a press briefing reported in the Island of 29th June. Questions are often answered by the Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne and the Defence Secretary, General Ranatunge.
Q: I was in Omanthai yesterday and I saw an entire village attacked by a helicopter gunship. There were no troops (LTTE) on the ground.
A: I will have to find out from the SLAF.
Q: Some journalists on their way to Batticaloa were attacked from the air.
A: The answer was to the effect that there was no way to distinguish foreign faces or to identify whether persons were LTTE or not from the air.
Q: There were 70 mutilated bodies in the Kalmunai area.
A: They must have been killed in combat. There is nothing to deny. That is happening.
Q: Some people had been shot and killed inside a shop in Kalmunai...
It was clear from the answers that the fine discrimination and careful identification claimed by the security forces was an illusion, going by answers provided by their top commanders. The reader had best guess what is really behind the following reports:
Minister for Defence at the Weekly cabinet news briefing
(Island, 13th July):
".....At Foul Point, the forces digging up certain points along the sea shore for mines on Monday had found 38 LTTE members who had buried themselves in the sea sand with chutes popping up to breath. That was a new way adopted by the LTTE cadre to get under cover. The 38 men found hiding were dealt with adequately by the forces....."
Report (Island 10th July) by Shamindra Ferdinando:
"A women who garlanded Gopalasamy Mahendrajah, alias Mahattaya, was among about 75 men and women killed in the five day army operation in the Mutur-Kattaparichan and Sambur areas. Of this 38 tigers were killed close to Foul point in the Muttur area, a senior army Brigadier said.... ."
The 38 appear to be the presumably unarmed persons dug up from the ground and deal with adequately. According to stories reaching from the refugees who have fled from Trincomale area, most of the young boys escaped by covering themselves by sand in the beaches.
Details about other men and women killed were not specified. During the campaign of 1985-87, it was common for ordinary villagers in the East to hide in lotus ponds with breathing tubes popping up, when the alarm was raised over the approach of security forces.
Report (Island 14th July) by Norman Palihawadana:
"Six boats with about 30 heavily armed LTTE Tigers crossing the lagoon from Kathankudi to Kokkadichcholai were sunk by the army on Thursday, security sources said. The army acting on a tip off fired at the boats sinking them along with the Tigers, the sources added".
More on boats: "The Island" of 12th July carried two separate reports on the front page giving three incidents, in each of which three boats were involved.
Report 1: "Sri Lankan Naval patrol boats on Tuesday intercepted three boat loads of Tamils going to South India, a spokesman for the Sri Lanka Navy said. He placed the number of Tamils including a large number of children at about 250. They were intercepted a few miles off Talaimannar, the Navy said.
"In another incident in the sea off Valvettithurai, a naval gun boat attacked three boats fitted with out board motors yesterday. One boat was hit and destroyed, Navy sources said."
Report 2: "33 LTTE cadres were killed yesterday in mid-sea off Kankesanturai when the Sri Lanka Navy patrolling the area attacked three boats, security sources said."
Valvettithurai and Kankasanthrai are near each other, suggesting that the second and third incidents reported are identical. Tigers are not known to have been caught out in open sea in such large numbers during hostilities.
These incidents must be judged in the context of the lack of discrimination evidenced above and the fact that there is a large movement of civilians to places of safety. Consider for example the fact that civilian movement to and from the Jaffna peninsula through the only land route is blocked by the army camp at Elephant Pass and by hostilities between the army and the LTTE in that area. The government has also dropped leaflets warning against the use of the ferry crossing at pooneryn. Still large numbers of refugees from Trincomalee area are getting into Jaffna crossing water. People are travelling between Jaffna and Colombo showing their Jaffna identity cards at army check points in Vavuniya. The government has up to now failed to acknowledge the problem and take responsibility for the legitimate needs of civilians. Such abandonment adds to the feeling of Tamil civilians that the government is calculatedly hostile to them.
Refugees to Tamil Nadu:
On 11th July, in its main front page item, the Island (report by Norman Palihawadana) reported quoting naval sources that the navy had intercepted off Pesalai 700 Lankans bound for Tamil Nadu. Under interrogation it is said to have been revealed that the Tigers had forcibly dispatched them to India under threat of instant death. This claim gained widespread publicity in the media and in statements. Repeating this claim, Shamindra Ferdinando (Sunday Island 15th July) wrote: "The Tiger move was to send more and more refugees to south India until the Central Government had to take action, authorities say".
This hysteria about India aside, other sources, admitted that the real reason for the refugee flow to India from the Mannar district was shelling by security forces.
An eloquent testimony to this came from the front page report in the government owned Daily News of 8th July. The report titled `Final Push to Mannar Begins' was by Daryll de Silva at the Thalladi army camp, Mannar. The writer was evidently excited by the battle field atmosphere and by technical details: "Adampan, the major LTTE stronghold just seven miles east of Thalladi was a few nights ago shelled directly from this camp with 25 pounder artillery fire as part of a pre-emptive gunnery exercise, that will increase as the relief convoy now on its final legs gets closer to Mannar. It is from Adapan that the LTTE resistance can move to Uyilankulam and Nanathan further south, points that have to be passed by oncoming troops. So, Adampan is a major target, but is well within the range of field guns in this camp."
Adampan is of course a major agricultural town in that area with a government hospital. It is evident that any incentive provided by the LTTE for the civilians to flee to India would be excessively superfluous.
It was reported from India that the number of Sri Lankan refugees in India had by mid-July exceeded 20,000. The problem of harassment of refugees by the Sri Lankan navy appears to have been treated as a real one by the Indian authorities. the Sunday Island of 15th July had the following front page item captioned `India deploys naval craft' : "India has deployed naval craft off Sri Lanka to watch movements of Sri Lankan gun boats and fast attack craft."
The Sri Lankan government had only itself to blame, if the Tamils were once more beginning to look towards India. The Sri Lankan government may not have been too concerned about Tamils, but it was certainly concerned about providing excuses for Indian involvement. The leading item in the `Sun' of 21st July had reference to the parliamentary delegation from Sri Lanka meeting the Indian External Affairs Minister. It said : "The Minister was informed that the Sri Lankan government was actively considering the possibility of utilising the Island of Mannar to set up a refugee camp with the assistance of the ICRC and UNHRC."
This was also an acknowledgement that the problem had little to do with Tiger threats.
Positions taken by Tamil Political Parties:
EDF (Elavar Democratic Front, political arm of the EROS), Island report 13th July: The EDF announced that they would not be attending parliament in protest against military operations as a result of which civilians suffered. EDF parliamentary leader S. Ratnaraja told `the Island' that he and the General Secretary of the EDF, V. Balakumar continued to have faith in whatever moves President R. Premadasa was taking towards peace in the North-East. The 13 EDF MPS resigned their posts on 25th July in protest that the war being conducted by the government was aimed against Tamils rather than to preserve national unity.
TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front), Extract from statement in the Island, 9th July: "....Many civilians and non-combatants have been killed as a result of aerial strafing and shelling. There are alarming reports of disappearances, extra-judicial killings and mob violence from Amparai, Trincomalee, Kalmunai, Pottuvil and Batticaloa towns. Hundreds of homes, shops and places of worship have been destroyed in the North and East and parts of Jaffna have been reduced to rubble....".
"We are equally shocked and outraged by reports of killing prisoners of war in callous disregard of the provisions of the Geneva convention. We are disturbed that no food or medicine has been dispatched to Jaffna since the outbreak of hostilities".
"we are seriously concerned that reactionary and chauvinistic forces are calling for dismantling of the political arrangements for the resolution of the national question. We are particularly worried about threats in responsible circles for reneging of solemn undertakings, by the government of Sri Lanka. Inflammatory speeches, news reports and articles are causing deep disquiet and insecurity amongst minorities and are harmful to ethnic harmony..."
Killings of Muslims
We have already referred to the reports of killings by security forces of Tamil civilians on 10th July. This was closely followed by killings of Muslims. Whether the two incidents were related is not known. But the latter was published and not the former. We quote from a report on the latter from the Island of 16th July, filed by Shamindra Ferdinando:
"At least 76 Muslims including many women, were confirmed killed at Ondachchimadam-Kalawanchikudy on 13th July, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Waffa Zarook said yesterday.... While blaming the LTTE for the massacre, he appealed to all Muslims not to panic and stay clam.... Two Tamil officials of the ICRC who were travelling with the Muslims were ordered by the `Tigers' to go back to Kalmunai. Later they took the Muslims to one of their camps, he said. Most of the victims were from Kathankudy.
"Since hostilities broke out between the Government and the `Tigers' about six weeks ago, at least 150 Muslims were confirmed killed by the `Tigers'. Tamils linked the spate of attacks on Muslim targets to Tiger fears of Muslim support for security forces in the East."
What happened at Kalmunai?
We now look into what the press reveals abet the killings of Tamils and more particularly about the events of 10th July.
The Official Positions: We give the comments made by the Defence Secretary General Cyril Rantunge at the Cabinet press briefing, reported in the Island of 13th July. His reference was apparently to a report on the events of 10th July: "When some young LTTE cadres in mufti are killed, publicity is given that they are civilians. One journalist had reported that 56 civilians were lined up and shot in Kalmunai. We don't do that. If there is any doubt journalists should check with the JOC (Joint Operations Command) which has the latest data. They must check their facts before giving publicity to LTTE propaganda".
In the same press briefing, the Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne with apparent reference to a complaint made by the PLOTE (see below) said "that he had cautioned security forces to be wary of some Muslim extremists pinpointing innocent people as LTTE cadres with the intention of taking revenge for personal grudges. By such actions they were getting these people harassed. Some militant groups had asserted that their members had also been killed".
The PLOTE complaint: `The Island' of the previous day (12th July) carried the following report: Fifteen PLOTE members and supporters had been hacked to death and their bodies set on fire Kalmunai on the 10th evening.
PLOTE sources said that their members were rounded up, dumped into a shop and slaughtered. There were also a number of others taken into custody with the PLOTE members during that operation.
A senior PLOTE member in Colombo said that they would be making representations to the State Minister for Defence about these gruesome killings.
The Island of 18th July had the following: The DPLF (political wing of the PLOTE) has complained to President R. Premadasa that over a hundred of their members and supporters were abducted in the Ampara district and their whereabouts were still not known... DPLF leader S. Sidartan said yesterday that the President had assured him that an immediate investigation would be held into these killings of his party men and supporters.
The EPRLF position (the Island, 16th July): The EPRLF Secretary General yesterday in a press release accused the LTTE of being responsible for the killings of innocent Tamils and Muslims near Kurukkalmadam and Kalmunai on 13th July. It added that although the identity of those who had hacked and burnt the bodies of the Tamils in Kalmunai had not been established, the EPRLF nevertheless condemned this equally "barbarous and uncivilised act".
The TELO report: This surfaced during the press briefing in which Minister Wijeratne and Gen. Ranatunge answered questions (the Island, 17th July):
Q: "The TELO has documented 690 persons killed in Ampara and Kalmunai. The President has promised to look into the matter".
A: "A TELO delegation met the President last Friday (13th). The President will be meeting military leaders during the course of the day and obviously he will ask them to investigate the matter."
One wonders why the minister did not quote the `latest data' available at the JOC, which would form the source for the military leaders' investigations. It was clear that something terrible was happening in these areas. The minister's reference to Muslims strongly suggests that the government was far from giving the healing touch needed to heal wounds in the East - between Tamil and Tamil and also Tamil and Muslim.
A front page report in the Island of 12th July by shamindra Ferdinando was headlined, "SLMC counters Tigers' allegations of massacres by soldiers." The party General Secretary, Mr. Zarrok, who toured Kalmunai is said to have defended the Sri Lankan soldiers when questioned by a foreign correspondent. He is said to have identified the dead as those who confronted advancing soldiers. His observation that Muslims were happy to see the routing of the Tigers need not be doubted.
But his real position can be guessed at from the revealing comment: "I do not believe that the Tigers are better than the (Sri Lankan) army." Mr. Zarook's practical difficulties also must be kept in mind. Why should he stick his neck out and be quoted about killings of Tamils by a foreign correspondent, when Tamil leaders were deterred from coming out openly with specific allegations? The media knew what was going on. Only that will explain such a clumsy use of Mr. Zarook. Nor is it correct to say that the allegations of killings came from the Tigers.
An MP speaks on the War
When the war began on 11th June, the Tamil MPs were in a state of disarray. Those who had strong reasons for disliking the Tigers blamed them for the war.
For a long time the terrible plight of the people went unrepresented. The first substantial speech on what was happening to the people was made by Mr. K.R. Kuganeswaran, EPRLF (Wanni District) on 19th July during the debate for the extension of the emergency. The speech did not appear in the English press. Excerpts are reproduced from the Tamil daily `the Virakesari' of 20th July.
"The president, the ministers and members of the ruling UNP have stated that the current war is against the Tigers and is not against the Tamil people. It is however my duty to say what is really happening in the North-East. I will give a few examples to show how the armed forces are conducting themselves.
"On 17th July in Batticaloa which is under the control of the army, 27 young persons were burnt with tiers on Lake Road. Many persons were shot to death when Kottai Kallaru was rounded up.
"On 21st June, 14 families men were burnt in one house in Karaitivu. Furthermore, over 600 persons were killed and burnt in several places inclusive of, Babuji shop in Kalmunai, Walthapiddy, Nintavur Hindu temple and Nintavur beach."
He put the total number of civilians killed in the North-East at above 2500. He gave details of refugee camps and put the number of refugees at above 6 lakhs. The shops and houses burnt and destroyed, he said, would run into hundreds. He added that despite representations made to the President, no impact has been made on the killing rate. We listed some of the worst affected places as Mutur, Kalmunai, Kattaipatichchan, Karaitivu, Pottuvil and Akkarapattu. He went on:
"These are not exaggerations given for the sake of putting blame on the government. These are rather based on inforamation we have heard and received. The government must think again on whether this in truth a war against the Tigers or one against Tamil people in general. We cannot remain idle while people are attacked in the guise of fighting the Tigers. What we have to tell the president and this House again and again is that your actions will make the people turn in support of the Tigers rather than towards the government. You are only strengthening the Tigers in the name of destroying them. To purchase foreign arms to destroy the very Tigers whom the government had strengthened, a further supplementary defence expenditure of Rs.500 crores (US $ 125 million) has been sought. But those who are killed and affected by this spending are helpless Tamil civilians! This war appears to us as one that will last a number of years."
He further urged that government and the opposition to work together to further the cause of peace and democracy in this country, to end the war and to find a permanent and just political solution to the Tamil national question. [Top]
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