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Sri Lanka: The Pros And Cons Of International Attention

Categories: North America, South Asia, Western Europe, Sri Lanka, U.S.A., United Kingdom, Disaster, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Humanitarian Response, International Relations, Media & Journalism, Migration & Immigration, Politics, War & Conflict

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE [1]) are holding on to just a sliver of land in the north of Sri Lanka, but the United Nations is estimating that 50,000 people are still trapped in the war zone. As fighting surges in the final throes, concerns for civilians is growing and calls for international attention and understanding abound on the Internet and in the streets of cities around the world, such as London [2], Berlin [3] and Paris [4]. Should we help the Tamils? [5] is now a burning question in Canada.

A Call For Intervention - Tamil protests in Ottawa. Image by Mikey G Ottawa and used under a Creative Commons License [6]

A Call For Intervention – Tamil protests in Ottawa. Image by Mikey G Ottawa and used under a Creative Commons License

But many bloggers are questioning the information people abroad are getting about the island's long war. The international media reports have been inadequate or inaccurate, while the Sri Lankan government is blocking access of journalists to the north [7] where civilians are in danger.

Prominent Sri Lankan blogger and Sunday Leader columnist Indi Samarajiva of indi.ca calls for the LTTE to release the civilians they are holding and offers a critique of international reporting on the war [8]:

Frankly, I think the ‘International Community’ and international media are far too quick to offer solutions without looking at the situation. And they are, frankly, largely impotent and irrelevant. Note that Al Jazeera is doing real reporting. They have an actual guy on the ground in Palmudai, the anchors ask real questions and so they report that the LTTE is firing on people and holding them hostage.

The other media seems to be like, ‘We don’t understand so, just, er, stop’. Seriously, on CNN I often see the anchor being like ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ and the reporter being like ‘Yeah me neither’ and I’m like, ‘congratulations on publicly sucking at your jobs’. But Al Jazeera does well.

Serendipity adds to the critique, calling out the media for dropping in on the Sri Lanka story too late [9]:

Once again we have been reminded in Sri Lanka of the world of sound bites. The sudden intensity with which the world media have closed in on the last stages of the LTTE is an indication of the short-lived nature of much of journalism, which is in a business to sell or draw an audience in the case of TV. Their intentions therefore are more about sensationalism as opposed to genuine concern for the news they are reporting.

Jeremy Page, South Asia correspondent for The Times in London, offers some explanation why the international media has been hamstrung in its coverage of Sri Lanka. He was turned back at the airport in Colombo after trying to enter on a tourist visa. After being taken into a side room, he was held overnight and then sent out of the country [10]:

A message flashed up on his screen: “DO NOT ALLOW TO ENTER THE COUNTRY.” With that, my passport was confiscated, I was escorted to a detention room, locked up for the night, and deported the next day. I can’t say that I was surprised, though it was my first deportation in 12 years of reporting from China, the former Soviet Union and South Asia.

Despite multiple applications, I’ve been denied a journalist’s visa for Sri Lanka since August. For almost two years, the Sri Lankan Government has prevented most independent reporters from getting anywhere near the military campaign against the Tamil Tigers. So I was trying to enter as a tourist to write about the 150,000 civilians that the UN estimates are trapped in a no-fire zone with the remnants of the Tigers. The only other countries that I can think of where foreign journalists have to pose as tourists are Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

Still, Andrew Stroehlin writes on Alertnet that just because journalists do not have direct access to the warzone, they do have access to information [11]:

Just because journalists are not allowed into the Sri Lankan conflict zone doesn't mean we don't know what's going on there. We have satellite imagery showing large concentrations of people caught in the fighting, and we have information from reliable sources on the ground. Recent reports that significant numbers of civilians have escaped have not changed the overall figures: independent sources on the ground continue to report 100,000 people or more remain trapped, exhausted, with limited access to food and medicines, and many under fire.

On the Committee to Protect Journalists blog, Asia Program Director Bob Dietz highlights both lack of access and lack of coverage of the war. He posted the comments he made to a U.S. Congressional hearing on Sri Lanka. In his preamble he wrote [12]:

When asked about the lack of access, I told the Lantos Commission yesterday that I still have a question hanging in my head from a meeting with some Sri Lankan students in Ottawa in March. They had made the trip from Toronto to interview me about media issues. One questioned why there is so little international coverage of the fighting in Sri Lanka. “Why,” she asked, “aren't Anderson Cooper and the rest of them standing as close as they can get to the war, just like they did when journalists weren't allowed to enter Gaza?”

I didn't have a good answer for her then, and to tell you the truth, I still don't have a good answer. The two sides are indeed keeping the press out of the conflict zone, but news media worldwide could do more to report what they can and to highlight the restrictions. This is a major human catastrophe taking place in the heart of the Indian Ocean, and it is going virtually unreported save for official statements from both sides to the conflict. That's a sure recipe for misinformation.

The New York Times blog The Lede has been weighing in on journalists’ access in Sri Lanka as well. Robert Mackey's post “Is the World Ignoring Sri Lanka’s Srebrenica?” drew, as of this writing, 398 comments. Many comments call for greater international attention, but also decry the comparison between Sri Lanka and 1995 genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mackey writes [13]:

A video report from Channel 4 News in London on Thursday (embedded below), showing scores of civilian victims killed last week in the crossfire between Sri Lanka’s government and the rebel Tamil Tigers (officially known as t is clear that the L.T.T.E.), in a part of the country off-limits to journalists, is difficult to watch. The images are as disturbing as those that filled television screens during the conflicts in Bosnia in the 1990s but, as Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum points out in her report, this bloody war, now possibly in its last throes, has been taking place largely out of sight of the international media.

As in the final months of the war in Bosnia, the failure of the combatants to refrain from shelling encircled, densely-populated civilian pockets is producing shocking results. Channel 4’s Alex Thomson wrote on Thursday in an email newsletter, “You have to ask: is Sri Lanka becoming another Srebrenica?”

Commenter DJ critiques the comparison [14]:

As a photographer who has shot the war in Sri Lanka, I find it frightening that you associate the situation there with Srebrenica. The war in Sri Lanka is horrific and there is plenty of blame to go around for both sides. The tens of thousands of civilians held by the Tigers and shelled by the government are innocent victims. But Srebrenica was genocide planned and executed by Bosnian Serbs to murder innocent Bosnian muslims. They were lined up and shot, a la the Eisengruppen. The Sri Lankan government has no desire to murder the Tamil civilians trapped on the beaches of Mullaitivu. It has a reckless disregard for their lives. This is bad. But it is not the same, not even close.

Mackey updated his post the next day to clarify that the comparison was using Srebrenica as “a symbol of a massive failure of the international community to protect civilians in a war zone” and not as “shorthand for the horrific massacre that took place there after the enclave fell.”

Darini Rajasingham Senanayake makes observations about international attention to conflict zones in his Groundviews review of a biography of Dharmaratnam Sivaram (know by his pen name Taraki), a prominent Sri Lankan journalist who was murdered in 2005. Mark Whitaker’s Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist (Pluto Press, 2006), Senanayake says, is a good lesson for those who fly into warzones [15]:

A corrective to dominant representations of conflict zones, and dedicated to: “Sri Lankan journalists who like Sivaram risked their lives everyday or have already lost them to keep the stories coming”, this book should be mandatory reading for international development and peace building consultants who fly into conflict-torn countries confident of the superiority and objectivity of their international “tool-kits” of and for knowledge production and the concomitant “lack of local capacity”, imagining conflict affected countries as peopled by noble savages, victims and brutes in need of aid and psycho-social interventions aside from a thin layer of ‘civil society’- a founding and funding myth of the international aid industry.