Channel 4 and Sri Lanka
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 22 2014. It can be found on page 7 of the E-paper at:
It was also reproduced by Sri Lanka Guardian:
There is no room for truth in the world of sound bites.
For some bizarre reason the article is credited by Sri Lanka Guardian to Upul Joseph Fernando rather than me.
No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka
I was most dismayed to read an article by my friend and colleague Sulochana Ramiah Mohan on the front page of Ceylon Today on Wednesday 15 October. Sulochana reported that Channel 4’s No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka is one of four documentaries nominated for the International Emmy Awards 2014. This news comes at a time when I am considering making a submission to Sandra Beidas, at OIHCR. Her remit is “to coordinate work and activities and act as the main interlocutor with stakeholders and oversee report writing and documentation,” in relation to a UN inquiry into alleged war crimes in the last seven years of Sri Lanka’s war.
Channel 4 first screened The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka in 2011. Why is it being nominated for an Emmy in 2014? Is the nomination timed to coincide with Beidas’s investigation?
The main charges covered in the programme are:
- The Sri Lanka army and air force targeted hospitals and civilians in the NFZs (no-fire zones) leading to 40,000 civilian deaths
- Withholding of food and medical supplies from the north
- Summary execution of prisoners
- Rape of female combatants and civilians
- Imprisoning of Tamil civilians in concentration camps.
Jon Snow introduces the Channel 4 programme by citing the “Panel of Experts” report commissioned by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. Callum Macrae, director of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields said: “Channel 4 has been reporting on this throughout the past two years and the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields represents the culmination of all that. Although the release comes not long after the Panel of Experts (Darusman), report was published, that was a coincidence and we were clearly researching at the same time. However, I think it’s significant that we both reached virtually identical conclusions.”
It would not be surprising that they reached similar conclusions if they were both using the same tainted evidence. The Channel 4 effort resembles the Darusman Report in the way it presents in a tendentious manner allegations posing as fact. The Marga Institute deconstructed the Darusman Report.[i]
When Gordon Weiss was UN representative in Sri Lanka he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by The UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson, Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia, he increased the figure to 40,000.
In his book, The Cage, Weiss quotes a press release by Navi Pillay in which she says as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison to say 147,000?
Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator challenged even Gordon Weiss’s lower estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, Holmes stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”, which is meaningless.
A detailed discussion of numbers of civilians killed can be found in The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice, by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka.[ii] I summarised that report on the Transconflict website and attended a seminar on it at the Marga Institute.[iii] There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that Sri Lankans did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompted a bunker mentality among the victors who were reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction. After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”. The IDAG-S estimate is, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some other calculations, even by Tamils.
Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. He said: “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. On 13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.
IADG-S considers that those who claim that 147,000 civilians were killed have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”
A more recent publication by the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Human Rights Agencies also deals with this issue. [iv]
Viewers would not realise that the LTTE possessed and used a wide range of artillery and mortars, including 152mm long-range guns, 130mm artillery pieces, 122mm artillery guns, 120mm mortars, 81mm mortars, 60mm mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers. There is an odd statement in paragraph 94 of the Darusman report where it is acknowledged that the LTTE fired artillery from the vicinity of Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital (PTK) but that they did not use the hospital for military purposes. Channel 4 chose not to mention that LTTE fired from within the no-fire zones, often from the vicinity of hospitals and that the Sri Lankan army had fired back in response. They did not mention clear evidence that the LTTE shelled hospitals and shot their own people. Their own star witness Gordon Weiss says in his book that PTK hospital was hit by artillery fire on several occasions and that “a number of strikes appeared to be from Tamil Tiger positions”. Channel 4 gave the false impression that any government shelling within the no-fire zone was unilateral and unprovoked.[v]
Channel 4 suggests that was SLA’s policy to drive hundreds o thousands of civilians into harm’s way when the reality is that soldiers risked and often lost their lives trying to get civilians out of danger. Channel 4 repeatedly ignored the fact that the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the last weeks of fighting had been forced into the combat zone by the LTTE, who then brutally prevented them from leaving.
In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She put it to him that the Channel 4 programme called on viewers to make many inferences from the footage used. “It suggests, for instance, that women were raped, although it is not possible to determine from the bodies whether sexual abuse had, in fact, occurred.” The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made an accusation that GOSL were employing rape as a policy. She later withdrew the allegation.
Heyns’s response to Namini’s question was : “I think the video has to be seen in the context of all the available evidence, which includes what has been investigated and published by NGOs and the panel of the Secretary General. The cumulative effect of the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern about what both sides did during the war, and in particular what happened in the final stages, when the government gained the upper hand, and that there were no outside witnesses”.
“In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together, they gain some credibility purely from their critical mass. This is something akin to those urban myths that gather moss on the internet. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs, it is quoted repeatedly and the mere accumulation is seen as proof.
Channel 4 alleges that GOSL deliberately withheld food and medical supplies from the north. It is a little-known (in the west) and perhaps surprising fact that throughout the conflict, the central government tried to maintain a government structure even in LTTE-held territories. It continued to send food and medicine even though it knew that much of this would be siphoned off by the enemy. The doctors working in the embattled hospitals in the north attested that they had ample supplies.
Authenticity of Tapes
Another UN Rapporteur, Philip Alston, said his experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) could prove the authenticity of the images used by Channel 4 showing abuses by SLA soldiers. Alston conceded that there were some “characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain” but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”
Alston’s “experts” do not inspire confidence. Spitz’s father, who had held the post before him, appointed him Medical Examiner for Macomb County. Spitz achieved notoriety by ruling that an execution-style death was suicide, not noticing a bullet hole in the neck and a bullet in the jaw. Fredericks had no training in photogrammetry and has no more expertise than a layperson. He lied in court about his company’s ties to Taser, and supported a police cover-up. Spivack was a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003), with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.
An important witness in the Channel 4 programmes is referred to as “Vani Kumar”. The Channel 4 commentary at no point mentions that her real name was Damilvany Gnanakumar and that she was a Tamil Tiger whom Castro ordered to work in Mullivaykkal hospital. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation, an LTTE front. In Kilinochchi, she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore a cyanide capsule around her neck. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Channel 4 must have known about her past.
I am not an investigative reporter or an expert on authenticating videos. I have communicated with Siri Hewavitharana, the expert who questioned the authenticity of the tapes. I have had a lengthy telephone conversation with the lead author of The Numbers Game, which gives a detailed rebuttal of the figures used by Channel 4. I have participated in Marga Institute seminars on the topic. I do have some knowledge of semiotics and linguistic analysis. When I first saw the Channel 4 programme, many things about it jarred.
The title, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, is a major distortion as there is no comparison between Pol Pot’s ambition to send Cambodia to Year Zero and the efforts of a democratically elected government to deal with terrorism within its own sovereign borders. The director manipulates viewers’’ emotions throughout the film by means of images and music, as well as voice-over commentary.
Jon Snow introduces the programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. That is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence?
Alston employs strange language to defend the authenticity of the videos. The unexplainable characteristics can be explained in a manner consistent with the conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Alston is not saying the “experts” have said the video is authentic. The unexplainable can be explained to fit a conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Even if they came out and said directly that the video was genuine and had not been tampered with, this is not proof that it shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing Tamils.
The Channel 4 programme includes a solemn sequence about the brutality of life in the IDP camps. The director manipulates our emotions with sinister soundtrack music. The Emmy nomination allows Channel 4 to continue to peddle untruths about the camps. Here in October 2014, we know that the predicted mass deaths from disease or a policy of genocidal extermination did not happen. Today the camps are empty.
Even in 2009, Channel 4 should have known that these were not concentration camps. The camps had banks with ATMs, shops and schools with children studying for and passing exams. B Lynn Pascoe, UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps in September 2009 and said, “You have a better story than is getting out today.” Mr. Pascoe stated that he was “impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that his team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway.
Channel 4 used Gordon Weiss as one of its major “witnesses” but chose to ignore what he had written about the (generally) exemplary conduct towards Tamil civilians of the SLA. There is testimony from many surviving Tamil civilians about the risks that soldiers took to protect civilians. The Red Cross and Human Rights Watch also said this. Weiss, Tamil survivors, the Red Cross and HRW also made it clear that the LTTE were firing artillery from hospitals, using civilians as human shields and shooting those who tried to escape. Channel 4 mentions none of this. The first programme devoted only 49 seconds to LTTE abuses.
A book called Corrupted Journalism[vi] produced by a collective known as Engage Sri Lanka covers these issues in far more detail than I can do here. They have the good judgement to cite me on several occasions. Channel 4 spokesperson, News Editor Ben de Pear, attempted to rubbish the book but did not, in any way, address the detailed concerns raised in it. In fact, he makes it clear that he has not even read it. “I do not have this weighty tome in my hands, so I can’t react to everything it says.” This “weighty tome” is a paperback of 222 pages. It is also available online. Engage Sri Lanka’s argument is supported by 625 detailed footnotes, an eight-page bibliography and 12 pages of appendices. De Pear’s flippant response clearly indicates that he does not want to employ joined-up thinking and address detail.
De Pear hides behind a ruling by the UK regulator, which dismissed a complaint about the programme. “All three times Ofcom found in our favour, found our journalism to be balanced and objective and dismissed all Sri Lankan complaints. All other complaints made by the government were ignored by Ofcom.”
No, they did not. This is what Ofcom said:”While all subjects in news programmes must be presented with due impartiality and reported with due accuracy, in other non-news programmes there is no requirement in the Code for issues to be treated with due accuracy.” Ofcom, despite what de Pear claimed, did not find in Channel 4’s favour in the sense that it decided that they had reported the truth. Ofcom decided not to require Channel 4 to respond to the “detailed and lengthy concerns” raised in the complaint simply because it would be too expensive for them and it might discourage broadcasters from making controversial programmes.
Engage Sri Lanka commented: “a company generating a billion pounds of revenue and employing 800 people couldn’t afford the cost of responding to a legitimate complaint. Channel 4 then added that to have to respond to the complaint posed a ‘serious threat to the future of…current affairs television’ and had the potential to be ‘highly chilling of free expression’”. At the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture a few weeks before the complaint, Jon Snow praised Ofcom.
At the Marga seminar I attended, Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, opened the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures raised issues of the proportionality of the military response and the ethical position of the line of command. Continual recycling of spurious figures can only inhibit the healing process.
Civilians die in war. In a “civil” war where one side deliberately holds its own people hostage there are, regrettably, bound to be civilian casualties. It is clear from the testimony of even those critical of GOSL, such as Gordon Weiss , that SLA soldiers behaved well towards Tamil civilians and there is no evidence that they were under orders to be brutal. It would have been surprising if there had not been some atavistic and brutal reaction from some soldiers who witnessed horrible things happening to their comrades and lived under traumatic fear themselves. The IDAG-S conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”
There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils. Bludgeoning them with inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.
Engage Sri Lanka make an excellent point in their conclusion. “Channel 4 seems oblivious to the fact that their dubious allegations about the conflict in Sri Lanka are artificially sustaining what remains of the LTTE, one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisations, and elements of the Tamil diaspora that continues to support it in pursuing unrealistic expectations”.
[v][v] LTTE artillery can be seen on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=lFDm5KVibmE