Guns silent - but media’s challenges unchanged
The Sunday Times Consultant Editor - Defence Correspondent Iqbal Athas presented a paper titled Terrorism And The Media Dispatches From The Frontlines, at the 2003 Annual Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference - held at the National Press Club ballroom, Washington D.C. on Friday.

Sri Lanka, long known for its physical beauty and smiling faces, in recent times, has provided the stage for brutal and bloody conflict in which over 65,000 people, mostly civilians, have perished. Long before 9/11, Afghanistan or Iraq, this island nation of 25,000 square miles on the southern tip of India, was being tortured by the agonies of a bloody ethnic war.

Yet, the world knows little about this conflict. It is a forgotten war, an ignored war. Why was this? Some of us reported on it as best as we could. Many, especially in the international media, did not.

Majority Sinhalese constitute 74 per cent of Sri Lanka's 18.5 million population. Indigenous Tamils form 12.5 per cent. Over the years, a nation known world-wide for her tea, Buddhism, languid beaches and tranquillity, which the Arabs called Serendib, was transformed into one of Asia's major killing fields. Sri Lanka became known for assassinations and suicide bombings that indiscriminately showered death and destruction.

For the past 16 months, however, there has been a lull of sorts - the result of Norwegian brokered peace talks between the ruling right wing United National Front (UNF) Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Better known as Tigers, the LTTE stands out in many respects from other contemporary guerrilla groups. Long before 9/11 shattered America's complacency, Sri Lanka was being blasted by Tiger suicide bombers.

In fact, it is the only group in the world to have assassinated two heads of Government - former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Many other Sri Lankan leaders were felled by their suicide bombers while the current President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, escaped with one lost eye. Tigers succeeded in terrorising the Sri Lankan ruling classes.

The Tiger rebels have a state-of-the-art international network of arms procurement and shipping. They are perhaps the only guerrilla group in the world to own and manage a complex shipping fleet. I wish to make a few general observations to place the Sri Lankan conflict in the global context.

Firstly, Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. It is a matter of historical record that its colonial masters (from 1505 -1948), caused and exploited the fissures in this national fabric for colonial ends. When independence was achieved, through a non-violent struggle in 1948, little was done to forge national unity and a sense of modern nationhood. Indeed, it has been argued that Sinhala-Buddhist dominated Governments alienated the minorities by some of their actions.

Secondly, Sri Lanka has been a viable democracy enjoying universal adult suffrage since 1931, even while being a British colony. Since independence, it has changed governments regularly through the ballot. Despite attempted coups and bloody insurgencies, elected Parliamentary rule has continued unbroken for over five decades since independence.

What has distinguished the Tiger rebel insurrection from the other threats to constitutional democracy is its secessionist objective - establishing a mono-ethnic Sri Lankan Tamil State known as EELAM, the name by which Sri Lanka was referred to in Tamil epics.

I watched the transformation of the Tamil Tiger rebels from a rag-tag outfit into a sophisticated group with regular uniforms, boots, Rocket Propelled Grenades, Stalin organs and Surface to Air Missiles. Within a decade, they were more than a guerrilla group. More of a regular army and a self styled national liberation organisation.
Government and regional initiatives to make peace with the Tigers failed in 1987, 1990 and 1994. During this period the Tiger rebels ruthlessly eliminated other Tamil groups, including most of the moderates.

The two hallmarks of Sri Lanka's 20 year long war are that it has been conducted almost entirely under a State of Emergency. That meant the normal laws of the land did not apply in most circumstances. The other is the heavy control imposed on the media.

For seven long years, until the People's Alliance of President Kumaratunga was ousted at Parliamentary General Elections in 2001, the media was banned from the battle areas. A tight censorship was also in place every now and then.

The result - both Sri Lankans and the outside world were informed of developments concerning the war only through sketchy and often unprofessional news releases issued by the Ministry of Defence. The casualty figures of the rebels were heavily exaggerated. So much so, a joke doing the rounds in Colombo suggested that if one were to add up the enemy casualty figures, they would exceed the population in rebel held areas twice over.

The poor dissemination of information relating to the war, not only created a crisis of credibility for successive governments locally, but also failed to inform the world of what was really going on. Against this background, Tiger propaganda achieved a much higher degree of credibility.

Please permit me to strike a personal note to illustrate the complexities of the protracted war in Sri Lanka. In 1993, I criticised a major military offensive in the north where Army suffered heavy losses, both in men and material. Subsequently, armed men raided my house. There were threats to kidnap my only daughter, four years old then. A funeral wreath was delivered to my home. Apparently, it came from the Army unit that suffered the reversals. Pressure was brought to bear on the Publisher and the Editor of my newspaper to force me out of my job. To their credit, they did not yield. I continued to write.

Subsequently, the then Commander of the Army was asked to step down. I was vindicated. I was further encouraged when I learnt, with great relief, that there were those in the international community who not only cared but showed great concern. I was bestowed the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

Many other similar encounters have occurred in recent years. Please permit me to briefly outline just one or two cases to give you an idea of the many difficulties faced by the media. If it is dangerous enough for the civilians who are trapped in the middle, it is much more dangerous for the handful of media personnel.

Since 1994, after the People's Alliance of President Kumaratunga was voted to power, I wrote extensively on mass scale corruption in military procurements. Millionaires, both in uniform and outside, were made every week as the security forces ended up with worthless, dud equipment.

Mortar Locating Devices, purchased for millions of dollars did not function. Helicopter gunships that arrived were not airworthy. Vintage Naval craft purchased at the cost of millions of dollars were non-operational and lay idle at the docks. Thousands of mortar rounds procured overseas ended up in Tiger rebel ships and were used to fire at government positions.

On the night of February 12, 1998, my wife, daughter and I were watching television. Suddenly a group of men, all armed with automatic pistols, broke in. One cocked his pistol and held it on my temple. Another thrust one at my back. They pushed me out of the bedroom. My daughter, seven years then, who had gone to her room moments earlier, found two other armed men rushing to lock her up with her maid. She ran towards me, hugged me and raised cries.

Fearing that those passing on the road outside would hear cries, the men withdrew. The wheels of justice did not move that fast over the incident. Not until Bill Richardson, the then US Ambassador to United Nations, came to Sri Lanka as President Bill Clinton's special envoy. He raised the issue with the Government.

Criminal Investigation Department (CID) detectives who were called in, arrested two persons. One turned out to be the chief bodyguard of the former Commander of the Air Force. The other was the head of a unit that had acquired a dubious reputation - the Special Airborne Force (SABF). The two officers were indicted in Courts. Four years after the incident, they were sentenced to nine years rigorous imprisonment. The case is now in appeal.

Although peace talks have been going on since the guns fell silent 16 months ago, the challenges confronting the media have not come to an end. The media still remains accused, this time as the main stumbling block to peace. If the then Government was the strongest critic of the ruthless villainy of a shadowy rebel group during the war, the new Government has become the staunchest defender of the same group in a desperate search for "peace at any cost" and to sell that "peace" to the world. That is the strangest outcome of the change of government in Sri Lanka in 2002.

It is the media that has highlighted the strengthened position of the Tiger rebels since the peace initiatives. One would have expected such exposures to be used as a bargaining chip by the Government's peace negotiators, to use them as levers to secure concessions or justify its stance on some issues. Sadly, that was not the case.

The Government, either due to blind faith, total naivety or unfamiliarity with international negotiating processes failed to do so. They also seem to be totally oblivious to tactics used by other rebel groups in recent history. It now accuses the media of trying to undermine the peace talks.

I reported in graphic detail that Tiger rebels were smuggling weapons across the high seas, recruiting new cadres, including children, eliminating rivals, equipping themselves with more sophisticated weapons and expanding their military units. Once again, the Government accused me of trying to disrupt the peace process. Recently, I reported that the Scandinavian Peace Monitors, tasked with the responsibility of oveseeing theongoing ceasefire had made some highly controversial recommendations.

They asked the Government to recognise the Sea Tigers, the naval arm of the Tiger rebels, as a "de facto" naval unit and demarcate "training and live firing areas" for them in Sri Lanka's territorial waters. They had in fact marked out the areas in a map of Sri Lanka. These recommendations had remained secret until I exposed them in my newspaper. This created a political storm.

Acutely embarrassed by the exposure, the equivalent of extending formal recognition to an Al Qaida air unit, the State controlled national television network Rupavahini branded me a saboteur of the peace process. The controversy rages with opposition groups demanding the expulsion of the Chief Monitor. They contend that his recommendations are a violation of Sri Lanka's sovereignty, territorial integrity and had come even before core issues have been discussed at the peace talks.

This time, if not through violence, threats to destroy journalists who "do not toe the line" are equally frightening. It is for the media to highlight the issues, the tensions, the contradictions and the facts, but this is not always easy in a climate of intimidation and almost total sycophancy.

Sri Lanka faces a major problem with the Tiger rebels who are banned in the United States as a terrorist group. If they succeed in an armed struggle, it could set a destabilising precedent for the Asian region and beyond. Over eagerness to accommodate this group in the naïve expectation that the Tiger has changed stripes may cause further problems for the international community. They may also be naïve in thinking that appeasement may work in the case of the Tigers as other groups around the world are watching developments in Sri Lanka and appropriate conclusions are being drawn.

The horrendous events of September 11 only illustrate the risks of not dealing with terrorist threats in good time and with appropriate measures. Lessons that are there to be learned should not be ignored. Sri Lanka's case needs careful analysis in the global context.

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