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Sri Lanka: reliable accounts

By Jake Lynch - posted Friday, 4 September 2009

The conversation, in Sinhala, is casual, punctuated by laughter as well as the background noise of heavy weapons. Two young men, naked except for a strip of cloth covering their eyes, their hands bound behind their backs, are made to sit. Each has his back to the soldier who is about to become his executioner. With sickening finality, each is felled by an assault rifle bullet to the head and keels over in a pool of blood. The bodies of at least eight other men lie round about.

It’s a rare image of the brutality of the assault, by Sri Lankan armed forces, on the north-east of the country in their final offensive against the Tamil Tigers in the early months of this year. Screened by the UK’s Channel Four News program, whose correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, was earlier thrown out of the country, the pictures were smuggled out by Journalists for Democracy, a multi-ethnic group of Sri Lankan émigrés and refugees who campaign for press freedom.

It illustrates a phenomenon that has “redefined, broadened and fragmented” the media of conflict, creating a “capacity for scrutiny and new demands for accountability”. The words are from a fascinating new book by Nik Gowing (Skyful of Lies and Black Swans, Oxford: Reuters Institute), who served Channel Four News with distinction as Diplomatic Editor, and is now the senior presenter on BBC World.


There are, Gowing writes, “hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears … [even] in the most remote and hostile locations”, in the hands of people he calls “information doers … [who] shed light when it is often assumed officially there will be darkness”.

Two recent episodes serve to illustrate the case, he argues: the violence in Sri Lanka, and Israel’s assault on Gaza, which preceded it by a few months. Paradoxically, it was the plenitude of information doers among the Palestinians, and their relative paucity among the Tamils, that accounted, in Gowing’s view, for a disparity in the salience each case was able to attain in international media and political discourses. Channel Four News reporter Jonathan Miller made the point, on air, that the defeat of the Tigers had been “a war without witnesses”, until “a soldier with a mobile phone” unwittingly supplied the outside world with these new images.

As the sourcing of important material becomes more obscure, however, it begs another question: what can be regarded as a reliable account? Miller entered the caveat that has become routine in such situations - that there is no way to supply independent verification of the events depicted in the video. Watching the unexpurgated version, now widely available on the web, leaves little room for doubt in this particular case that what is taking place is indeed an extra-judicial killing by the military.

However, the Sri Lankan authorities assiduously kept journalists from international media away from the conflict zone, having, in the previous few years, terrorised local editors and reporters with arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and beatings, while many were mysteriously killed amid persistent rumours of official complicity. (Sri Lanka languishes at number 165, out of 173 countries, in the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders). Now, the same authorities who have treated journalism with such contempt are seeking to keep information in the realm of contestability, through the cynical technique of rebuttal.

The country’s High Commission in London declined to supply anyone to be interviewed by Channel Four News, since a spokesperson could not very well avoid giving further “legs” to the story in response, offering other media new “lines” to report. Instead, it issued a statement, “categorically denying” that the armed forces were responsible for “atrocities”. The rules of journalism oblige reporters, from that point on, to refer to the killings as something that “apparently” happened, but that these are allegations Sri Lanka “rejects”, even though it has provided no evidence to back its version of events. To rebut a story does not require it to be refuted.

A similar syndrome is underway with regards to the massive Internal Displacement Camps in which as many as 300,000 Tamils are now incarcerated. The Sri Lankan government portrays this as a benign situation, drawing attention to periodic releases of batches of detainees - such as a group of 600-odd Hindu priests - in an attempt to distract attention from the substantive issue, that these people are being held illegally and - in the words of the US State Department - “against their will”.


Judge Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a statement at the end of the hostilities back in May, calling for “full access to independent monitors”, as a safeguard “crucial to ensure due process and humane treatment for detainees”, and for “freedom of movement for the very large majority of displaced people who do not pose security threats” to be “granted as soon as possible”.

If the Hindu priests can be allowed to return to their homes (or their families, if their homes were destroyed) the obvious question is, how come the rest can’t? Especially as conditions in the camps are now dramatically deteriorating because of monsoon rains. Paton Walsh was ejected after recording disturbing testimony from aid workers, whose identity was disguised when they appeared on television, about the treatment being meted out to the detainees by their military overseers. Since then, in the absence of independent monitors, there can be no confidence that abuses are not continuing unchecked. Claims have trickled out, for instance, in recent days, that individuals are being spirited away in so-called Dolphin Vans, never to be seen again.

They’re convincing because they follow a long, dismal and - in recent years - deteriorating record on Sri Lanka’s part. The monitoring group, Human Rights Watch, notes “the government’s failure to carry out impartial investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for the numerous human rights abuses committed by both sides during the conflict. There have been serious ongoing violations of human rights, and the backlog of cases of enforced disappearances and unlawful killings runs to the tens of thousands. Only a small number of cases have ended in prosecutions. Past efforts to address violations through the establishment of ad hoc mechanisms in Sri Lanka, such as presidential commissions of inquiry, have produced little information and few prosecutions.”

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First published in Transcend Media Service on August 31, 2009

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About the Author

Associate Professor Jake Lynch divides his time between Australia, where he teaches at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies of Sydney University, and Oxford, where he writes historical mystery thrillers. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone, is published by Unbound Books. He has spent the past 20 years developing, researching, teaching and training in Peace Journalism: work for which he was honoured with the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, awarded by the Schengen Peace Foundation.

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