Palitha Kohona ,in The Sunday Observer, 28 June 2020, with this title “Managing the media on the road to Nandikadal – Part 1″ ….http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2020/06/28/news-features/managing-media-road-nandikadal-part-1
The conflict with the terrorist LTTE dragged on for over two decades causing widespread death and destruction with no obvious end in sight. The Government, after the election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, recognised, perhaps for the first time, that carefully managing the media, both domestic and international, was an important factor if this endless struggle were to be ended successfully. President Rajapaksa, a consummate politician, accepted the profound value of a non-antagonistic media and carefully orchestrated initiatives to secure this objective. As the world knows, the bloody conflict was eventually ended on the banks of the Nanthikadal Lagoon on May 18, 2009, through the colossal efforts and sacrifices of the security forces.
The lessons learned by the US military in Vietnam, and not lost on it in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, provided Sri Lankan Government policy makers invaluable insights in confronting the LTTE.
The strategies employed by the state during the last phase of the conflict to manage the media, both domestic and international, as it struggled to defeat the LTTE, are an often overlooked aspect of Sri Lanka’s brutal conflict. Ensuring balance and the goodwill of the influential and opinion shaping media, to the extent possible, was a major challenge to the Government during this uncertain period, 2006 to 2009 May.
The international media had a direct impact on the thinking of (and continues to do so) decision makers in distant capitals which maintained a close interest in the intractable conflict largely due to the lobbying efforts of the influential Tamil expatriate community, interested NGOs and the counter lobbying efforts of the anti LTTE groups.
The LTTE expatriates and related NGOs often controlled critical vote banks and possessed substantial campaign contribution capabilities in their host countries. These assisted in their efforts to cultivate decision makers and their staff.
They were also mixing with a high degree of comfort in policy making circles in their host countries. It was essential for the Government to counter the efforts of the expatriate Tamil groups.
The Government’s media unit under Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, as the defence spokesman, handled the media briefings mainly from the military perspective. The Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights also began hosting media conferences towards the end of the conflict. His ministry was the peak Government body responsible for human rights and the supply of essential needs, especially food, to the areas under the control of the LTTE.
This made it the appropriate entity to address human rights and humanitarian issues.
As the conflict dragged on, and the tide of battle seemed to favour the military, raising human rights issues noisily became a clever part of the LTTE’s international strategy at a time when many committed human rights advocates were occupying positions of power and influence in Western countries. (E.g. in the USA, the UK, Canada and many EU countries).
Some of these power brokers continue to wield influence in Western capitals and are likely to return to positions of greater power and influence should the liberal political leaders return to power.
The defence establishment and the police had their own spokesmen who mainly catered to the domestic audience. This was also important as maintaining the morale of the population was an essential element as the campaign against the LTTE gained momentum. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama also sought to make a contribution with ad hoc media engagements.
Uniquely, Sri Lanka continued to supply the essential needs of the civilians living in the territory controlled by a proscribed terrorist organisation and pay the wages of officials even though the Government was excluded from exercising any physical control over those areas under the terms of the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002. This aspect of the conflict, which should have continued to be highlighted, is often missing in Western narratives relating to Sri Lanka’s struggle against the terrorist LTTE.
I was appointed as the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP, Peace Secretariat) in 2006. Having spent 10 years as the head of the Treaty Section of the United Nations in New York, I had recognised the value of a sympathetic media which I had learned to use for the benefit of my office at the UN and the Organisation. The Peace Secretariat and, later, the Foreign Ministry were very quickly and methodically refocused to devise and implement a range of strategies to manage the domestic and international media, with a view to creating a more balanced image of the conflict internationally, especially to emphasise the efforts expended by the Rajapaksa Government to end the conflict in a peaceful manner and the care with which civilian needs were addressed.
However, the challenge was immense. I was appointed the Foreign Secretary in January 2007.
Having read endless articles on the subject, the critical role of the media in influencing the outcome of the Vietnam War was etched in my mind and Sri Lanka could not afford to ignore those lessons as it confronted the LTTE.
Diverse views and perceptions relating to Sri Lanka’s long drawn out conflict were already entrenched internationally and it required a major effort to encourage the media representatives and their contacts to look at the conflict from a different perspective, and hopefully view the Government’s efforts to end the conflict and the care it took of the civilian non-combatant population a little more sympathetically.
Early in his term of office, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was encouraged to meet the media personally, especially the local media, in a structured but informal manner as a confidence building measure between the Government and the journalists.
In his inimitable style and irresistible charm, he began hosting a breakfast for journalists every Wednesday morning. Usually these breakfasts, at the Presidential Secretariat, were well attended from across the board, including by those who were not too sympathetic to the Government or to Mahinda Rajapaksa personally. The food was plentiful. Senior officials were required to attend and chat about matters of media interest.
I had noted the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Kimoon, occasionally hosting a breakfast for journalists during my time at the UN and I had chatted to the President of the value of such interactions. It was during one of these early breakfast gatherings that the editor of the Tamil newspaper Suderoli quietly informed the President that the LTTE was warning Kohona to keep off the media for his own good. This warning prompted President Rajapaksa to order extra security for me. But, for my part, I was incentivised to seek more opportunities to interact with the media even more aggressively.
Networks of contacts
Many international journalists were well established in Colombo by 2006 and had their own networks of contacts, including within the security establishment. Some of them (and certain NGOs) may well have been engaged in intelligence gathering and also influencing local opinion. What I noticed on assuming the position of Secretary General of the SCOPP, was that the NGO community (both local and international) and the aggressive domestic peace lobby (who spoke English comfortably) had close links, including socially, with the international journalists while the vast majority of Sri Lankans who viewed the conflict from a different angle, the monks, the teachers, the villagers, the common folk, et al, did not. Senior Government officials also lacked the confidence to interact with the international media.
Language skills were the critical factor. Consequently, what got reported (particularly internationally) were, by and large, the views of the English speaking elite of Colombo. President Rajapaksa was very keen to rectify this imbalance through greater and more sophisticated interaction with the media and he repeatedly encouraged his senior staff to become active. I supported him strongly. But the problem was to deploy enough capable people for the purpose.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which generally reflected the LTTE objectives and approach to the conflict and had been identified by many as the political arm of the LTTE, also had ready access to the international media largely because of the ability to communicate in English. It also had ready access to Western embassies. The international media and Western embassies had easy access to each other.
The TNA’s political goals were clear and they sought to use the international media and the international community to attain them in parallel with the LTTE’s bloody terrorist campaign. (“The time has now come for all the Tamil political forces in the northeast to unite under one banner to give full support for the militants who are involved in the freedom struggle,” the leader of the TNA, R.Sampanthan had said.) The TNA had successfully cultivated the image of the representative of an oppressed minority. It was clear that a convincing counter narrative had to be developed by the Government.
A serious drawback facing the Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa at this stage was the resulting imbalance in the perceptions created in the international media over two decades which made it difficult to rectify the dominant image in distant capitals of a Sinhala Buddhist dominated Government in Colombo using the brute force of its armed forces to thwart the just aspirations of the minority Tamil people.
The horrendous reign of terror unleashed by the LTTE that caused the deaths of untold numbers of civilian non-combatants (among the Sinhala and Muslim communities), including monks, caught in roadside bomb blasts, the massacres in temples and mosques, the destruction of public buildings, buses and trains, again involving the deaths of hundreds, the elimination of political opponents, the recruitment of thousands of children as combatants, (Both UNICEF and HRW, the number 21,000 has been mentioned, have accused the LTTE of conscripting Tamil children orphaned by the tsunami) the murder of national leaders, including in India, faded into background whispers and were never given the same prominence in the reporting emanating from Colombo, while all alleged infractions of the Government military featured prominently in prestigious journals with a negative commentary.
It is also instructive that Western missions in Colombo, except Australia, shied away from specifically naming the LTTE as a perpetrator while condemning terrorist attacks on civilians.
Some journalists, especially a couple of locals covering Sri Lanka on behalf of international media chains had developed excellent contacts domestically, especially within the security forces. Some of the reporting perhaps was too revealing and should have been controlled by the state.
In many other countries, the Official Secrets laws would have been brought to bear on them. Iqbal Athas, writing to the Sunday Times, was one of those persistent investigative journalists with excellent sources.
His reporting made riveting reading on Sunday mornings and he had an avid following internationally, including me in New York at the time. I once noticed a slightly blurred mechanism in the background of a photograph that he published of the LTTE that looked suspiciously like a multi-barrelled rocket launcher, a Katyusha, and I told him so in an email. In fact, it turned out to be an early acquisition of this deadly weapon by the LTTE.
The question that bothered me was whether these journalists had any responsibility to assist the Government in its campaign against a banned terrorist organisation or was it simply a matter of providing information that the Western clients wanted. I had also noticed during my time at NY that the US media had solidly backed President Bush’s invasion of Iraq despite serious issues of legality being raised around the world. To my surprise, most Western media representatives based in Colombo had almost a reverential attitude to the LTTE and its invincibility, developed over the years.
They were regularly briefed by their own missions who promoted the manthra of the LTTE’s invincibility and the only solution to the conflict being a negotiated one. The feeling of the LTTE’s invincibility pervaded certain elements of the political establishment in Colombo as well. As described by General Kamal Guneratna in his magnum opus, Rana Maga Osse, “Minister Moragoda who had been trying to convince General Guneratna to give up a forward position at the request of the LTTE, had bluntly declared that the Army could never defeat the LTTE. General Guneratna, in his book, quoted Moragoda as having told him that the Army could never win this war.
He had declared that although, the Army had waged war for about 20 years, it couldn’t bring the war to a successful conclusion. As the Army couldn’t achieve success, in the future, the Government was going ahead with negotiations”. Elements of the academia seemed to be convinced of this position also. The terrorism specialist working in Singapore, Dr Rohan Guneratna, endorsed Moragoda’s view that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. In the aftermath of the conflict, he had switched allegiance to the war-winning government. However, on March 22, 2007, the Bloomberg news agency had quoted Gunaratne online as having said that Sri Lanka’s war couldn’t be won by either side”.
The western media also lapped up the information published in the LTTE media outlet, the Tamil Net, without much effort to verify authenticity. The fact that a story appeared in the Tamil Net was adequate for them to wire it off to their head offices without fact checking. This had a telescopic effect. A story published in the Tamil Net would be repeated by major Western media outlets datelined Colombo and soon acquire the status of incontrovertible fact and placed the Government in an awkward position repeatedly. Amazingly, even the Chinese media, without adequate resident representation in Colombo, readily picked up the Western media stories. This was a major challenge confronting the Government raising issues of its own credibility.
When a family of Tamils was killed in Mannar, the Western media relying on a Tamil Net report, immediately assumed that it was the Sri Lankan Army that was responsible. A quick response based on facts as could be established was required and an investigation initiated by the Peace Secretariat seemed to suggest that this was not necessarily the only conclusion to be drawn as the security forces had not been in the area and had no reason for killing the family.
Subsequent inquiries initiated by the Peace Secretariat seemed to indicate that the photos of the dead bodies had appeared on the Tamil Net almost immediately after the killings and had been distributed to the international media. It was possible that someone else was responsible for the killings, but the security forces were being blamed. It was in situations like this that the Government was required to respond quickly if not to be damned by a harshly critical press and, for this purpose, an appropriate mechanism was established in the Peace Secretariat and later in the Foreign Ministry simply to ensure that the facts were disseminated.
Similarly, when Fr Thiruchchelvam Nihal Jim Brown, a Catholic priest, went missing in Jaffna in 2006, the Peace Secretariat followed up the matter, obtaining relevant information from concerned Government offices to respond to the media and to the diplomatic community. The circumstances of his disappearance were never clearly established, but the blame was sought to be pinned on the security forces.
The same Western media frenzy that followed almost every Tamil Net accusation of wrong doing by the security forces was not evident when the LTTE bombed a bus carrying villagers at Kebilithigollawa in mid June 2006, including expectant mothers going to the weekly clinic. Over 60 in the bus were killed and many were seriously injured.
A mass burial for the killed was held and was attended by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I also distinctly recall a senior minister of the Government gingerly slipping away although he had been asked by the President to deal with the media and asking me to front up to the cameras following the Kebilithigollawa bombing.
While it was imperative to address the damage being done to Sri Lanka’s reputation and the international credibility of the Government by incorrect and unsubstantiated reporting, in parallel, it was also considered important to strengthen the belief that Sri Lanka was a democracy, in fact the oldest democracy in Asia, where elections were held regularly both at national and regional levels and governments changed routinely, where the rule of law was respected and the judiciary wielded immense authority although it did not command any weapons. It was also country that continued to provide free state funded education and health care, even in the areas controlled by the LTTE. Following a series of bomb explosions in Colombo, on 7 June 2007, the police decided to expel non-resident Tamils from the city for security reasons. (Many of these temporary residents were suspected of being LTTE activists). 376 ethnic Tamil refugees living in Colombowere deported from the city and were being sent back to Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomaleeand Batticaloa, where they came from originally. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court, within 24 hours, on June 8, 2007 issued an injunction on the Sri Lanka Police to stop the evacuation of Tamil refugees from Colombo lodges after hearing a fundamental rights petition filed by a non-governmental organization. Events like this which helped to maintain the country’s image as a democracy governed by the rule of law were required to be highlighted to maintain credibility in an increasingly hostile media environment and initially the Government lacked a strategy and a mechanism for the purpose. The result was that such positive stories, which provided reassurance to the Tamil minority, the majority of whom now lived in the South outside the so called Tamil homeland largely controlled by the LTTE, and was helpful internationally never got reported and this gap needed to be addressed. The Peace Secretariat and later the Foreign Ministry contributed to filling this vacuum in the media coverage. The message had to be repeatedly drummed in even for a fraction to sink in.
The Western media outlets habitually sent people to Sri Lanka with impressive academic backgrounds and flair. They were analytical in their approach, capable of sustaining their own assessments and possessed good language skills. Some were easily put off by stuttering ill prepared presentations and monotonous lectures which they were, on many occasions, treated to in Sri Lanka. Some of them, whom I knew well, clearly came to the island with preconceived negative notions while others were willing to listen when confronted with facts and figures. I was also familiar with some who had covered conflicts elsewhere and these experiences obviously coloured their attitudes. Add a dose of liberal bias in their thinking and a deep seated yearning to protect the perceived underdog to this mix, along with the narrative propagated by the LTTE and its support cast, and Sri Lanka’s conflict could easily be painted as a struggle by an oppressed minority against an unsympathetic government representing the majority despite the evidence that would mostly point to a different conclusion. Unfortunately, these nuances escaped the many who spoke on behalf of the Government and to whom they were unfamiliar.
The differences with Frances Harrison who wrote Still Counting the Dead (published by Portobello Books in the UK on October 2012 and in Canada by House of Anansi) on Sri Lanka’s conflict could be traced to some of these factors. (Frances Harrison was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, my alma mater, as well as the School of Oriental & African Studies, and Imperial College in London. For many years she worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC posted in South Asia, South East Asia and Iran. From 2000-4 she was the resident BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka. She had left the country by the time that I returned to Sri Lanka. Also note The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, a book about the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil Warwritten by journalist and former United Nations official Gordon Weiss which has coloured the thinking of many. Weiss was later to become a celebrity speaker at LTTE global events).
Effectively highlighting the evidence that contradicted the prevalent perceptions was the challenge facing the Government of Sri Lanka in 2006. The Peace Secretariat (and later the Foreign Ministry) made it a policy to respond as quickly as possible to allegations of infractions by the security forces with carefully researched information, including in TV interviews. The objective was not to obfuscate, but present the available facts confidently before the media which was essential to counter any inaccurate or biased report that appeared in the national or the international media. For this purpose, not only was it necessary to have a team which could quickly access information but could also speak and write well. Consequently, the Peace Secretariat established a rapid reaction team in 2006 with good contacts in the domestic bureaucracy and the security establishment. It always tried to establish the details of an incident before the published story had time to spread too widely. The connections with the Sri Lankan expatriate community in Western countries were also used to the maximum extent to enable them to be effective in their interactions with their interlocutors. On my visits to Australia and the UK, it was the Sri Lankan expatriate groups that arranged meetings with local politicians, power brokers and the media.
From 2007, the Foreign Ministry also established a better resourced team which met regularly with me and its mandate was extended to dealing with web based media outlets as well. Some of its members were volunteers from the private sector but they possessed advanced IT skills. (The LTTE reputedly had over 280 web based media outlets at one point). The goal of this unit was to proactively engage the media with prompt denials of false reports, detailed information notes and regular interviews. They also established vital links with the senior Government officials stationed in the North and the East and did not hesitate to tap the information available to the NGOs. It was recognised that in a propaganda war, facts were useful assets but they had to be deployed quickly and effectively. Active engagement, especially in the English medium, was recognised as the means to at least recover some of the lost ground. This was also important in dealing with the resident diplomatic community and official overseas visitors. The mechanism created for obtaining accurate and reliable information even from areas controlled by the LTTE was functioning very effectively by May 2009.
Even at the UN in New York, a blogger had made it his mission to discredit the Government of Sri Lanka continuously with a vengeance. He was thin on the facts, and rambling in his style, but his commentary was damaging. He filled the gaps in the Sri Lanka narrative with half-baked facts and insinuations. Once having participated at a reception at my residence, uninvited, he published a story headed, “Fish balls (his term for Sri Lankan fish cutlets) and wine to tempt the journalists”. Surprisingly, he lived comfortably in NY without a verifiable source of income. It was suggested that he was on the LTTE payroll but this was never proved. He was also known to exchange information with diplomats at very important missions, some of whom had excellent sources within Sri Lanka. He was also a useful tool to some to embarrass the former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Subsequently, he began undermining Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
But we mounted a quiet campaign against him within the UN press corps itself with a view to exposing him and even forcing him to reveal his financiers. My friends in the press corps had little faith in this maverick blogger. Where ever possible, reliable information from our own sources was made available to many members of the UN press corps with a view to impugning the credibility of the man. It took a while, but his bravado unraveled when he fell afoul of the President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), Giampaolo Pioli, who commenced proceedings to take him to court. Then he began to spar with a number of respected journalists who were beginning to approach us for information on the man. Eventually, full of hot air and empty confidence, he clashed with the Alison Smale, UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, who declared that Lee’s “conduct has consistently breached” the UN’s media guidelines and “does not meet the established professional standards required of all correspondents granted access to United Nations premises.” As a result, his accreditation to cover the UN was withdrawn consistent with the terms of the US – UN Head Quarters Agreement (Agreement Between the United Nations and the United States Regarding the Headquarters of the United Nations, Signed June 26, 1947, and Approved by the General Assembly October 31, 1947). The UN proceeded to evict him from the room that he was occupying and eventually from the UN itself.
Many media outlets in Sri Lanka, both catering to the English speaking minority and the non-English speaking majority had a predictable approach. The media controlled by the Government had a consistent Government bias and for this reason was not taken too seriously by many. Among the English language newspapers, the editorial approach of The Island had a clear nationalist perspective but it did not necessarily follow the Government line. Shamindra Ferdinando and editor Prabath Sahabandu commanded (and continue to command) considerable respect. The Island did not hesitate to criticize the Government when it deserved criticism. The Daily Mirror was more nuanced. Once on an internal YAK 32 flight from Colombo to Trincomalee, I was sitting next to the Indian High Commissioner, H.E. Alok Prasad. There was a choice of three newspapers in the seat pocket. I pulled out the Daily Mirror first as did the High Commissioner who smiled and said “I noted what you just did”. One thing that always found useful was to be aware of a viewpoint that did not necessarily coincide with mine. I had great respect for Sun Tsu’s maxim, “Know your friends well, but know your enemy better”. Given that the English language media was accessed by the diplomatic community in Colombo and the world at large, the Peace Secretariat (and later the Foreign Ministry) maintained a close relationship with those journalists working in the English language.
The attitude of some of the local journalists was also beginning to cause me some concern. Some had been influenced by the peace brigade for too long and believed that the views of those promoting peace at all costs, while being oblivious to ground realities, were the ones that needed to be reflected and even promoted. Some who had connections with the LTTE may even have sympathized with the objectives of the terrorist group. As someone who had spent a lifetime believing in the right to free speech, I did not wish to enter in to a debate on the rights and wrongs of the approach of journalists. I had my own views which I expressed clearly on most occasions as reflected in the numerous interviews and speeches that I made. Even in 2006, there were still reporters working for the Government newspapers who were absolutely convinced that this was not a conflict that could be ended other than through negotiations and concessions despite the obvious LTTE game plan of using negotiations to strengthen its military capabilities and get closer to their separatist goal. When I pointed out to one reporter who was interviewing me that negotiations can succeed only where both parties had a commitment to a negotiated outcome, I was told that the media “market” wanted peace through negotiations. I refused to change my approach and insisted that negotiations would be futile unless both parties had an equal and tangible commitment to a negotiated outcome. I asked this reporter which market was she referring to? As someone who had access to both the English speaking elite of Colombo as well as the Sinhala speaking majority, including outside Colombo, I myself had not observed such a demand from the “market”.
In addition to the major international media outlets, Sri Lanka had only one widely read English language web based paper which at one point was apparently accessed over a million times daily around the world. It was run by a dedicated Tamil editor, K.T. Rajasingham. Originally from Point Pedro, he had been beaten up and hounded by LTTE goons because of its anti LTTE views. (KT as he is affectionately known, now lives in Chunakam.) Under physical threats from the LTTE, he was forced to take refuge in Sweden for many years from where he continued to publish the Asian Tribune, mostly with his own funds, much to the chagrin of the LTTE. The Asian Tribune was perhaps the only major English language anti LTTE global news outlet for many years and was a major source of valuable information. During his stint in Sweden, he assisted in locating and, with the active intervention of the Foreign Service, causing the closure of pro LTTE TV channels in Europe. The risks that K.T. took on behalf of Sri Lanka were remarkable.
As the head of SCOPP, I made the effort to meet the media, in particular the Western media, on a regular basis. I even organised social gatherings for the purpose. The Bayleaf in Colombo was one of my favourite spots for this purpose. While some on the government side could not quite appreciate the purpose of my initiative, I continued to organise regular events with the media with the full knowledge of the President. I had little backing.
A lone voice in a society which had serious difficulties with dealing with and understanding the West could easily be drowned by the cacophony of pro LTTE noises emanating from the NGO community and the Colombo elite. For example when Sampur was relieved by the security forces in December 2006, Dumitha Lutra of the BBC, who treated the LTTE with absolute reverence, ran a headline story that 41,000 civilians had been displaced as a result and were streaming south in disarray with the retreating LTTE, along the arid coast as refugees. Obviously, this story would have the effect of creating (and was perhaps intended to do so) a damagingly negative image of the success of the security forces against the LTTE. It had been picked up from the TamilNet with harrowing photographs to match. What I knew from personal knowledge was that the entire Sampur area could not have been home to a population that large. (I was a top geography student at school). Thanks to the lessons learned from the colonial British administration, government offices kept meticulous records of the population, the number of houses, public facilities, and other administratively useful information. I obtained the population figures for Sampur from the Government Agent and they clearly indicated a figure of the number of inhabitants as being closer to 16,000 in the entirety of the Sampur region and these people were spread out thinly in many villages, some far from the Sampur Town. They were all not affected by the incursion of the security forces in to the area. The SLMM entered the area and produced photographs of some damaged houses and trees. The Government Peace Secretariat issued a press release and also firmly suggested that it was highly unlikely that all these people would have fled from the advancing Government troops. In fact they had not.
I confronted Dumitha Lutra personally with these facts at a lunch arranged at the Kingsbury and she was forced to correct the story that she had published. Very soon thereafter she was pulled out by the BBC.
Similarly, when the air force bombed a LTTE training centre for Tamil girls in Sencholai, the Western media picked on the Tamilnet story that 53 girl students and two teachers had been killed and over one hundred injured. Even the SLMM which rushed to investigate, could not find 53 bodies. The SLMM also said that it could not “find military installations or weapons” although some of the dead wore black uniforms. Naturally, the school may have been a basic training facility rather than a fully-fledged military establishment. Interestingly, the attack did not draw condemnation from the Co-chairs of the peace process, the EU, UK, US and Norway, with whom we were interacting closely by now. Later when three of the injured girls were sent to the Kandy Hospital for treatment, they spoke freely of the military training that they had been provided. On their return to the Vanni, one girl died under suspicious circumstances and the two remaining had to be bought back to the South and provided safe houses.
Peter Apps from Reuters who had previous experience in South Africa and Angola and was beginning to engage with us proactively unfortunately suffered a debilitating car accident a few months after his arrival. His vertebrae was fractured and the fact that he lived was a miracle. I visited him in the Intensive Care Unit of the Colombo General Hospital as he was struggling for his life. He was to tell me much later as he was recovering in England that he owed his life to the care and attention that he received at the Colombo General Hospital. The care that he was missing in England!
The BBC blew hot and cold but true to the British nature, was happy to spar with me. I was always invited to their studios for a chat on air whenever I was in London. The Sri Lankan expatriate community was mainly instrumental in arranging my visits to the BBC studios. Both the BBC News and BBC World News and Al Jazeera would ask me to come to the studios in Colombo on a regular basis. The BBC became so familiar that they began to call me and seek comments and clarifications on rumours and TamilNet stories on the conflict for live news programmes regularly, and on other developments even after I went to New York in September 2009. Once, in mid 2008, when I was just about to sit down for lunch at the residence of the Italian ambassador, the BBC was on the phone seeking a comment on the restrictions imposed by the Government on access to the battle zone by journalists. Allegations of a secret and brutal war were being highlighted by the international media, including the BBC, as a major issue at the time. Standing outside the dining room, I made three points. The battle zone was dangerous for any one, including journalists. An abducted or killed journalist would provide a publicity coup for the terrorists and the Government simply did not have the resources to deal with the implications of such an eventuality. Secondly, a bloody battle was not a spectator sport to be covered in gory detail. Thirdly, it was not a tourist attraction either. The questioner shot back, “When will tourists, journalists, be allowed in to the area?” “Naturally, when the tourist season begins in a few months’ time. When the fighting is expected to be over.” I responded with a smile and rejoined the lunch.
On another occasion, I had gone to New Delhi in 2008 accompanying the President. Coincidentally, it was the 25th of November, the day before the LTTE commemorated Maha Vir Day, Heroes Day. We were attending a crowded function when the telephone rang. It was the BBC. The English voice at the other end wanted to know what we expected Prabhakaran to announce at his traditional Maha Vir Day speech. Were we expecting any major conciliatory gesture from him? I snapped back that “We were not waiting with baited breath to hear what the brutal terrorist leader would announce from his jungle hide-out. In any event things were not going too well for him”.
While all journalists were not given free access to the battle zone, and Western journalists hugely resented this constraint, a lesson had been learned from the US invasion of Iraq, with force contributions from the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland. As was done during the Iraq invasion, (“At the start of the war, the shock and awe phase in March 2003, as many as 775 reporters and photographers were traveling with the invasion force as embedded journalists. These reporters signed contracts with the military that limited what they were allowed to report on. When asked why the military decided to embed journalists with the troops, Lt. Col. Rick Long of the U.S. Marine Corps replied, “Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.” A number of journalists working at the UN were coopted to be embedded with the invasion force).
Selected journalists, including those from Western news agencies, were to some extent embedded as the troops advanced to the LTTE heartland. There was little secret or worth hiding about this conflict. The national TV, Rupawahini, and the radio had priority access to the front. The journalists embedded with army units had first-hand frontline exposure to the ongoing battles. Bill Bryson [Hull] of the Thomson-Reuters Corporation who had worked in Texas and Kenya previously was one of them (I attended his wedding in New Jersey a few years later to a strikingly beautiful and talented Kenyan). Al Jazeera was even allowed to film the exodus of thousands of civilian hostages across the Nanthikadal lagoon from the LTTE’s last stronghold from the lagoon itself. (Nanthi Kadal is sometimes referred to as Mullaitivu lagoon).
The Defense Ministry invited journalists and diplomats to watch the exodus in real time as the event was being filmed by a Beechcraft airplane that beamed images of the massive stream of escapees across to the Ministry auditorium. Some of them were filmed being shot at by LTTE fighters as they waded across the lagoon. It is not totally accurate to say that journalists were excluded from the battlefront. Many had access while others did not, like in Iraq.
I was in Kuala Lumpur that morning and was invited to the Al Jazeera studio for a chat on the ongoing military situation. I had just watched the exodus of thousands of civilians from the LTTE stronghold on the Al Jazeera news cast relayed from Doha before heading to the Al Jazeera studio in Kuala Lumpur. As soon as I settled down, the interviewer launched in to Sri Lanka’s “secret war” and asked what it was that Sri Lanka was trying to hide. I smiled and asked the interviewer to switch on Al Jazeera’s own transmission from Doha which was exposing Sri Lanka’s so called secret war with its cameraman bobbing up and down in a dinghy in Nanthikadal Lagoon.
The CNN would ring me whenever a new story broke out. In early February 2009, a story began spreading through the international media outlets that Sri Lankan forces were using cluster bombs and had targeted a hospital in the battle zone. Again it was the NamilNet that originated this scoop. The BBC had questioned me about it earlier and I had taken the time to check the details as known to the security establishment. I was attending an event relating to the Independence Day celebrations that afternoon when Hala Gorani of the CNN (based in London) came on the line and raved on for, what appeared to me an eternity, in obvious and understandable pain about the alleged incident. I stopped her and asked her to take a deep breath so that I could respond. I categorically denied that the military had used cluster bombs as “we had no cluster bombs, we had no intention of acquiring them, and we had no use for cluster bombs to defeat the terrorist LTTE. In any event what was a hospital doing on the front line?” With regard to the hospital, it took us some time to obtain photographs of the building which we then made available to the media.
The LTTE had become adept at using celebrities, popular politicians and others with similar standing to advance its cause. (It has begun to do this again in many Western countries). One of its propagandists was Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, MBE, known by her stage name M.I.A., and a popular British rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer, visual artist, and activist. (She had been born on 18 July 1975). She was also involved with NY millionaire Ben Brofman at the time who was a social contact of some of my NY friends. The Tigers’ Political Head Nadesan, in a comment to the Indian glossy, The Week, had once said that he felt that M.I.A.’s humanitarianism had been a source of strength to Elam Tamils, amidst the “all-powerful Sri Lankan propaganda machinery that demonises anyone who speaks for the Tamils.” M.I.A. was vociferously pro LTTE. I was asked to appear on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS by telephone along with M.IA. It was almost midnight in Colombo when I received the call from New York. Her diatribes were long and without much substance. I ended the discussion by telling the audience, “M.I.A. is a great rapper. I like her music. But she should really stay with her music, at which she was good and leave politics to adults”. Even Oprah Winfrey, as was reported in a Rolling Stone article, had shut her down. Oprah apparently said, “I can’t talk to you because you’re crazy and you’re a terrorist”.
The Indian journalists who were based in Colombo were by and large not very sympathetic to the LTTE. (Given the influence of Indian newspapers (now including online media) on Indian political thinking, it is absolutely necessary to keep in close touch with them). The newspapers and TV stations, still rankling from the brutal assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a LTTE suicide bomber, were more inclined to sympathise with the Sri Lankan Government. They also did not miss any opportunity to have a dig at Pakistan, which made it necessary to be particularly conscious of this bias in interacting with them. Pakistan was backing Sri Lanka solidly in the terrorist conflict — a position that included the provision of significant quantities of weapons. Pakistan’s support, both political and military, to successive governments in Colombo was a critical factor in the final victory over the LTTE. When the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in Lahore by a terrorist group, later the attack was claimed byLashkar-e-Jhangvi al Almi, the Indian media immediately started looking for a Pakistani Muslim terrorist link while there were suggestions at the time of LTTE involvement as well. One could say that the Indian media, especially the resident journalists, was an important factor in managing India diplomatically in the end phase of Sri Lanka’s conflict.
The Western media continued to search me out even after I went to NY as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Stephen Sackur, of Hard Talk, BBC and Christiane Amanpour CBE have interviewed me. Amanpour rang me while I was attending the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen and I remember answering her questions while sipping an espresso on a small bridge at the conference centre.
Apparently, journalists working for the BBC, which prides itself of its independence, must be cleared by MI 5. The documentary on BBC Ch 4, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields aroused considerable controversy and impacted on the thinking of opinion makers around the world. This documentary was made by Callum Macrae of ITN Productionsand presented by Jon Snow, of Channel 4 News. While it had an immediate impact on perceptions around Western political circles, the government, with considerable evidence, denounced it as a fake. The Defense Ministry produced a documentary in rebuttal titled Lies Agreed Upon, which sought to counter the allegations raised in the Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.
Given the continuing reference to the documentary in international circles, I am doubtful whether Sri Lanka’s response was adequate to counter its impact. I arranged for a discussion, sponsored by the UN Correspondents’ Association, at the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium where we presented the Government’s views to a packed house od diplomats and journalists).
Over time, I became increasingly convinced that the LTTE and its leader, Prabhakaran, believed in Ho Chi Minh’s dictum, ” talk talk, and fight fight” and talking was just part of a strategy to create a breathing space to regroup and consolidate and demoralize the opponent before striking harder with concentrated force at targets of their choice. The time and space thus created was also useful for building up sympathy for the cause internationally and there were many, especially in the NGO community, who were willing to assist in this project. The important thing was to counter the LTTE’s strategy by using its own techniques. The military recognised the LTTE game plan and, for the first time, began to employ tactics that disrupted the enemy’s stratagem. While I was new on the Sri Lankan scene and was committed to give negotiations as much space as was necessary, it was also evident that countering the terrorist group forcefully was essential, especially on the public relations front. Negotiations could not be successfully carried out and presented to the satisfaction of the majority of the people if the propaganda machine of the LTTE continued to present a carefully crafted and lop sided narrative. The commitment to negotiations, on the one hand, would suggest to the Western international community and the peace lobby that the Government had not given up on a negotiated end to the conflict (in fact, the President had not) and, on the other, enabled the non LTTE Tamils, of whom there were many, who needed the justification and opportunity to work with the Government.
The LTTE leadership, unfortunately, appeared to persist in the conviction of their own invincibility encouraged by a dedicated and well-resourced following of Tamil expatriates, some of whom were millionaires in their adopted lands, a range of international NGOs based in the West who hob knobbed with policy makers in Western capitals, some members of the IGO community and prominent members of Western diplomatic community in Colombo. (Although I had niggling doubts whether some of the leaders who participated in the three rounds of negotiations in 2006 honestly believed that the LTTE would eventually emerge victorious in the battlefield). The sums raised to fund the LTTE effort by sympathisers in the West were legendary. (Estimates indicate that the Tamil expats raised and supplied 200–300 million USD annually to the Tamil insurgency, according to Jane’s Intelligence Review, 2007. As of 2000, these funds provided the LTTE with over 80% of its annual budget.). The Tamil Net was its mouth-piece and was proactive in purveying the LTTE perspective to the global audience and some members of the media had come to depend on the TamilNet as a credible source. All this was despite the emerging consensus in the West, particularly since the events of 9/11, that there would be no accommodation with terrorism. Today this policy of the West has been taken further and even terrorist supporters and conspirators are eliminated in distant lands, with significant collateral damage to civilians, before they have had the opportunity to engage in acts of terror.
The amazing lack of consistency in the Western approach was highlighted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comment that there were good terrorists and bad (read Islamic) terrorists. It is possible that a combination of the above factors gave rise to the perception that the conflict could be ended only through negotiations with fundamental concessions being made to the LTTE (even though it was quite obvious that the LTTE did not want such an end and only wanted a total capitulation of the elected Government of Sri Lanka) and when this script was not followed, many attempted to attribute the lack of progress in the search for peace to gross deficiencies and violations of the Government. Some continue to do so. The fact that the vast majority of the people of Sri Lanka did not subscribe to this prescription was a factor that was conveniently ignored and it was necessary to attempt to change this perspective.
Sri Lanka won the struggle with the LTTE in the end. A dreaded and very well organised terrorist group was wiped out. The careful management of the media, although at times not completely successfully, was an important part of this victory. The lessons learned seem to be, inter alia, the following:
The media, both print and electronic, were essential to be managed with utmost sensitivity.
Media management needed specialist skills, language proficiency commitment and bundles of information that could be shared. It was not a job for amateurs.
Never assume that a lie or a half-truth would not be exposed. It was always better to be as transparent as much as possible.
Most journalists are subject to normal human frailties, they need to be treated well, welcomed warmly, given space to do their work and realise their ambitions and being subject to normal frailties, they succumb to normal human weaknesses.
A NOTE from The Editor, Thuppahi: This item was placed in Thuppahi in mid-2020, but my movement/travel from Sri Lanka to Australia involving quarantine on the one hand and, on the other, fading old-age memory seemsto have relegated the item till I re-discovered it accidentally TODAY. Speaking as a historian, its value remains …. though, obviously with all public essay, subject to debate and criticism. …. 27 August 2021