I: A striking aspect of The Weekend Australian’s coverage of Sri Lanka and its asylum-seeker issue on 15/16 December 2012 is its deployment of two different photographs in its online and print versions. The online item by Bandula Jayasekara had this image from AFP:
The caption runs thus: “This 2009 photograph is said to be of troops walking among debris inside a Sri Lanka war zone during the conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. Source: AFP.” Note that this image could easily be misread to indicate evidence of heavy shelling. The photograph is from a Ministry of Defence source and was part of their web imagery. The photo would have been taken on or around the 17/18th May 2009 when the Last redoubt of the LTTE had been overrun. What we see are the burning hulks of LTTE equipment which the Tigers, in the standard practice of armies worldwide, blew up as their backs were to the wall. This act of demolition was reported by news media in mid-May as it occurred and confirmed (to me anyway) by the Indian reporters Kanchan Prasad and Muralidhar Reddy who were at the rear of the battle lines and who entered the coastal strip every day from 14th to 18th May inclusively.
II: The image from AP presented in the print version is this:
Its caption runs “Ethnic Tamil women pass a soldier from Sri Lanka’s elite Special task Force in Vavuniya. Source: AP’.” Well, this photograph was that which was placed in the Australian on the 18th October 2010 when it ran an article by a senior editor Rowan Callick entitled “Brothers who tamed the Tigers.” Callick, from the office in Melbourne, normally did not cover Sri Lanka, but had utilised a visit to the island to interview Gothabaya Rajapaksa and to meet other informants. His interpretations were against the run-of-mill reportage in the newspaper during 2009-10 (where The Times of London reportage was often repeated).
Callick discovered that he had stirred hornet’s nest. When I contacted him on the telephone afterwards, he was mildly stunned and indicated that he had received a number of communications (some irate) from Tamils and one from Damien Kingsbury (of Deakin University) which challenged his commentary. Several had advised him to consult Gordon Weiss in order to get a better picture of what had transpired. He was also subject to a slashing critique by Antony Lowenstein in ABC Unleashed under the headline: “A One-eyed View of Sri Lanka.” This little series of exchanges does demonstrate Bandula Jayasekara’s contention about the strength of the LTTE and/or Tamil nationalist network in Australia.
However, my central point here is that one must carefully attend to the implications of photographs. My surmise is that Callick did NOT select the image; and that it was inserted by the editorial team. Though it purports to depict a scene in October 2010, there is no guarantee that it does. Indeed, the soldier is at a high alert position, though the two women seem unfazed. Such caution was unlikely in late 2010. It is, in my view, probable that this was a picture taken at some point in 2008 or the first half of 2009. I note that I did visit Vavuniya and Jaffna in June 2010 — travelling by car with a Tamil driver. I was never asked for my passport even once. In the Jaffna Peninsula there were certainly a plethora of military cantonments and there were guard posts at some junctions. But I cannot recall any indication of tenseness among the SL army soldiers on duty.
A further ‘appendix’: Westerners reading such a photo will not take kindly to an armed soldier. However, for Sri Lankans in several parts of the country in the period 1983-2009 such an image was commonplace and mostly taken in one’s stride (though obviously this comment does not apply to Tamils and others in the north and east).
I have resorted to a separate article on this issue because I wish to underline the argument that photographic images can be used to twist or emphasise an argument in ways that are partially or wholly misleading. One must interpret images with great care. I have several illustrations tucked away in my mind and more essays may follow. I have used images extensively in my own writing ever since I began addressing the July 1983 pogrom against the Tamils. I have been alive to the problems linked to such presentations.
Callick, Rowan “Brothers who tamed the Tigers,” Australian, A Plus, 18 Oct. 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/brothers-who-tamed-the-tigers/story-e6frg6z6-1225939872555.
Callick, Rowan “Sri Lanka urges hard line on Tamil asylum-seekers,” Australian, 18 Oct. 2010.
Callick, Rowan “Peace in balance, as clan rules supreme,” Australian, 19 Oct. 2010.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei “Beware of asylum-seekers bearing tales of woe,” Australian, 7 April 2010.
Feith, David “Tamils horrific treatment makes them desperate to leave,” 30 October 2009,http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/contributors/
Jayasekara, Bandula 2012 “Tamil Tigers likely to dominate Sri Lankan asylum seekers,” http://thuppahis.com/2012/12/14/tamil-tigers-likely-to-dominate-sri-lankan-asylum-seekers/
Lowenstein, Antony 2010 “A One-eyed View of sri Lanka,” ABC Unleashed, 22 October 2010, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/40326.html
Perera, Amantha “Untangling the Knotty Issue of Human Smuggling,” http://ipsnews.net/ news.asp?idnews=49245.
Roberts, Michael 2010 “Alex’ Kuhendrarajah and the Australian media,” 20 January 2010,http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2010/01/20/%E2%80%98alex%E2%80%99-kuhendrarajah-and-the-australian-media/
Roberts, Michael 2010b “Aussies swallow Lies and Rajapaksas miss a Trick,” 31 Oct. 2010, http://thuppahis.com/2010/10/31/aussies-swallow-lies-rajapakses-miss-a-trick/
Roberts, Michael 2012 “Boat People to Australia: A Comment on The Social Architects’ Survey and Twist on the Tale,” 24 July 2012, http://thuppahis.com/2012/07/24/boat-people-to-australia-a-comment-on-the-social-architects-survey-and-twist-on-the-tale/.
Roberts, Michael 2012 “Australian Gullibility: forgeries, lies and manipulation in the netherworld of in-migration,” 26 July 2012,http://thuppahis.com/2012/07/26/australian-gullibility-forgeries-lies-and-manipulation-in-the-netherworld-of-in-migration/
Roberts, Michael 2012 “Amanda Hodge adds twist to Dayan Anthony’s tale,” 28 July 2012, http://thuppahis.com/2012/07/28/6405/
Roberts, Michael 2012 “Deported from Britain: back to ‘duress’ or ordinariness in Sri Lanka?” 11 August 2011, http://thuppahis.com/2012/08/11/deported-from-britain-back-to-duress-or-ordinariness-in-sri-lanka/