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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.