Sinhalese reporters aid war effort
[TamilNet, Friday, 04 July 1997, 23:59 GMT]
The predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan government is manipulating information about the war in the Tamil homelands by banning reporters from the area and issuing false reports about events occurring there. The government is assisted by the fact that most agency reporters are Colombo based, Sinhalese and on its side.
The major news agencies, including the international giants, Reuters,
Agence France Press and the Associated Press, are based in Colombo, a few
hundred miles and a world away from the reality of events in the Tamil
homelands. The government has banned them from visiting the war zones of
the island for over two years.
While the Colombo newspapers cater to the Sinhalese population of the
island, and in the rush to sell copies will write in such a way as to
appeal to local anti-Tamil sentiment, the agency reporters are working
for international agencies, with a different audience.
Whilst it is understandable that, being human, journalists can never be
entirely free of bias, they are generally perceived by the international
community as being impartial in their reporting.
However, the Sinhalese reporters based in Colombo, instead of challenging
the ban on their entry into the war zones, work to promote the
government's misinformation as news, and support its version of events
when there are conflicting reports.
Even Tamil areas that are relatively accessible are not visited by the
agency reporters to investigate the widespread abuses of human rights by
Sinhalese troops in Tamil territories. Even though some of them have
staff in Vavuniya, from where they monitor the Tamil Tigers' 'Voice of
Tigers' radio service, there is little effort made to ascertain the truth
by visiting the affected areas.
In fact, the very ban itself, is cited as justification for not
highlighting the reports of wide scale destruction of Tamil villages, the
choking off of food and medical supplies to Tamil areas and the civilian
casualties caused by deliberate bombing and shelling of population
centres by Sri Lankan security forces.
This is not merely due to a lack of enthusiasm. The Sinhalese reporters
are writing about war between the Tamils and Sinhalese. This is
comparable to US reporters covering the war against the Viet Cong,
particularly in the early stages, when less thought was given to the
fundamentals of that conflict.
The simple fact is that, being Sinhalese, they deeply believe in what
their government is doing in the Tamil areas, and passionately want their
(Sinhalese) nation to win the war against the Tamils.
They even consider it their duty to support their government by reporting
the 'truth' (which their government tells them) about events in the Tamil
areas. They feel they need to do this so that international observers
understand the 'real' reasons for the conflict, and make the 'correct'
decision to support the Sinhalese government in its war.
Put simply, the Sinhalese reporters regard this conflict as their war,
In any case, if any reporter was open-minded enough to question the ban
on the press, the persistent reports of civilian casualties, and to
evaluate the fundamentals of the conflict from the Tamil view point, he
or she would probably be arrested or harassed by the Sinhalese government
for being a 'traitor.'
The reporters' inherent loyalties mean they trust their government is
right in its aims and objectives and the methods it employs to pursue
those goals. Their loyalty to the Sinhala-Buddhist cause makes them
reluctant to highlight information that would damage the government's
Since early last year, there have been persistent reports of
'disappearances' in Jaffna, the Tamil cultural capital with a population
of 250,000 Tamils currently under occupation by approximately 40,000
Sinhalese troops. Details have appeared regularly in press releases by
the LTTE, listing names and places and in Tamil newspapers in Colombo.
None of these reports have ever been carried by the agency reporters.
Even when Amnesty International published reports and urgent action
appeals with details of the disappearances (from their own sources), only
fleeting coverage was given.
However, government reports of LTTE atrocities against Sinhalese
civilians get prompt and widespread coverage. The 'news' is
based on government press releases, and very little effort is made to
verify these. Often these incidents 'occur' when foreign dignitaries
visit the island, and the reporting of alleged LTTE atrocities is given
For example, when British diplomats were taken on a tour of Jaffna by the
Sinhalese military in January 1997, the LTTE was alleged to have killed
several (Tamil) civilians and a couple of soldiers on a Jaffna causeway.
It later emerged (from sources within a Tamil militia opposed to the LTTE),
that the civilians had been mown down by other soldiers as a reprisal.
However, whilst the former report was carried by the agency reporters,
the second was not.
With much of the world's press relying on the international agencies to
report accurately on events in the island, the Sri Lankan government's
propaganda has exceptional reach. The handful of loyal journalists ensure
that the government's preferred image is publicised, and information that
might damage it is carefully screened out.
The only sure way for the world to see if the Tamil people on the island
are being wiped out or being liberated by the Sri Lankan government is
for the international press to be allowed in freely, to witness for
itself the true nature of events in the Tamil homelands.
Until then, the truth will continue to be a casualty of this war, as it
is being deliberately manipulated by those who should be its champions.
Some examples where agency reporters have supported the Sri Lankan
Below, we list a few of the instances where reporters working for
international news agencies have actively sided with the Sri Lankan
government in manipulating the coverage of events on the island so as to
promote the government and discredit the LTTE.
Agency staff have suppressed news that might have been damaging to the
Sri Lankan government.
- Following an unsuccessful naval engagement (see below), Sri Lankan
military helicopters attacked and incinerated Nachchikuddah, a Tamil
fishing settlement on March 16, 1996. At least 16 civilians were killed
and over 64 seriously wounded. A Tamil Minister protested to the
president, as did government officers in the area. However, most
agencies did not cover this story at all.
- Through much of last year, the LTTE had regularly announced (via its
daily press release) the numerous ambushes and attacks its troops were
carrying out in the Sri Lankan army occupied Jaffna peninsula. The army's
hold on the area has become increasingly less secure, but the vast
majority of the LTTE's military activity in the region was hidden. (The
Colombo press has recently said the government's grip on the peninsula
had been reduced to Jaffna town).
- The LTTE's daily press releases have also been detailing the continuous
murders and rapes being carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the
north and east of the island, particularly in Jaffna. None of these were
reported except in some cases when Tamil MPs protested in parliament.
(The Sri Lankan government wants to promote an impression that the
situation in Jaffna is 'norma.' Over a year has passed since the area
was occupied. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International
have documented over 600 disappearances of Jaffna youth).
- Hundreds of Tamil youths have been arbitrarily arrested and detained
for lengthy periods without charge in Colombo. The LTTE has reported
this several times in its press releases. The Colombo based news
agencies have never reported or investigated it. (Human rights
organisations have confirmed the arrests).
Agency staff ignore events reported by the LTTE, unless it is to confirm
[Quite often, the government version of an event is presented as truth,
while the LTTE version as a 'claim'.]
- When the LTTE announced in a press release that members of a Tamil
militia working with the Sri Lankan army were hijacking food lorries and
disrupting the international aid, one agency obtained a quote from a Sri
Lankan government officer that the LTTE was hijacking aid, and wrote the
report such that the government's version was given credibility, while
the LTTE claim was present as a dubious 'claim'. (The hijacking of food
by the pro-government Tamil militia is a well known practice, dating to
the time they worked with the Indian army to fight the LTTE)
- On March 15, 1996, the Sri Lankan navy was engaged by the LTTE's Sea
Tiger unit. The LTTE said that one SLN vessel had been sunk, another
badly damaged and a third captured. The government admitted to the loss
of one boat. The government version was carried by the news agencies and
the LTTE version completely ignored. (The LTTE has since released video
footage of the captured boat.)
- Through much of last year and this year, the LTTE has been warning that
the amount of food being allowed into the Tamil areas was being severely
restricted by the Sri Lankan government. Most of these reports, though
based on figures issued by the international aid workers and the
government's own civil servants, have rarely been reported, unless
sufficient quotes from government spokesmen have been obtained to
(Documents published by the government's own officers in the affected
areas show that less than 70% of the MINIMUM food requirements of the
Tamil refugees have been allowed in.)
- On 23 March last year, the LTTE attacked an army patrol in the East.
The LTTE said they had killed 40 soldiers. The agency reporters carried
the government claim that far fewer had died. (Jane's Defense Review
said that 70 soldiers were killed.)
Agency staff promote the Sri Lankan government's preferred image of the
LTTE: as bandits or terrorists
[The LTTE in fact has a standing army of over 10,000 troops and a similar
number of auxiliary personnel, and deploys artillery and armour in its
operations. It is highly rated as a fighting force by Western defense
- Through much of last year, some agency reporters also referred to the
Tigers as terrorists in their own writings, quite apart from the
government spokesman's quotes. This practice has stopped recently, but
other bias is present. One agency continues to refer to the LTTE as
'gunmen,' thereby deliberately giving a criminal impression.
- When the LTTE radio said they had killed 727 soldiers in various
ambushes and attacks on camps from January to April 1997, one news agency
reported this as "the LTTE said "they had massacred 727 soldiers in
fighting since the start of 1997".
- Sri Lankan government claims of LTTE atrocities are reported with
enthusiasm, and no effort is made to verify claims. For example, an army
claim that the LTTE had machine gunned a bus and killed several people
was carried immediately. However, in another instance, another bus in
the region drove into a mistaken army ambush. Fortunately no one was
hurt in the hail of bullets. The possibility of a similar mistake
occurring in the previous case wasn't even considered, nor was the story
- Repeated attacks have been carried out by unidentified personnel on
Muslim villages recently. The army blames the LTTE and this is the
version regularly carried by the agency reporters. (The attacks occurred
at the time the LTTE was attempting to form an alliance with the Muslim
community. This has been successfully established, with the mediation of
the Red Cross.)
- One news agency carried a story that quoted an Amnesty International
report as saying that the LTTE had used rape as a weapon of war. This
was denied by Amnesty International and no such statement is present in
the AI report quoted. (The agency has not issued a correction).
- The deployment of thousands of women in combat by the LTTE is presented
by agency reporters as 'evidence' that the LTTE is short of troops. (In
fact, the LTTE's women's brigade has been developed since 1987, as the
organisation has institutionalised equality between the genders. Women
form 25% of the LTTE's strength and have matched their male counterparts
in all aspects of the LTTE's operations.)