Culprits Beware

Defence Analysis of Sri Lankan Defence Columnists and Erring

by Nacholibre [From Mail Box]

(September 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A few days back, there was an interesting point highlighted in an article published in the Defence Ministry website, of which the objective was to explain the truth behind the LTTE attack on the SLA Vavuniya operations head quarters and the following media misinterpretations about it. The article also carried a revelation of a small factual error appearing in one of the defence analysis articles written by Mr. Iqbal Athas, one of defence columnists for the Sunday Times. The web site claimed that the writer had made a gross error of referring to the Indra Radar II installed at the Vavuniya Air Base as “Indira Radar II” in his article. The further clarified that the name “Indra” was coined by abbreviating “Indian Doppler Radar”, and not to honour the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, as mistakenly opined by Mr. Athas.

When I read this revelation of the gross error alleged to have done by Mr. Athas, I was waiting for the next Sunday to read the Sunday Times to read the response Mr. Athas would write as a reply to the Ministry website, just to know what had really caused the writer to make this mistake.

That Sunday arrived today (2008.09.21) and Mr. Athas in his regular defence column, Situation Report, has said this and I quote,

“In my account last week on the guerrilla ground, artillery and air attack on the Security Forces Headquarters - Wanni (SFHQ -W) I had erred. I said that the Indian built Indra II radar was named after the late Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. This is wrong. The name Indra is an acronym for Indian Doppler Radar manufactured by Bharat Electronics Ltd. in Bangalore. Besides the Sri Lanka Air Force, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army use these radars”.

Mr Athas has, this, accepted that he had made an error about the origin of the name “Indra”, but has not said anything about the repeated appearing of the word “Indira” in his column. He has not even said that the latter is a printing mistake. However, since he has admitted that his opinion about how the word Indira came into being was wrong, I believe that he tacitly admits that he used the wrong word “Indira” as opposed to “Indra” too. It is my opinion that Mr. Athas made the error that he accepted of making transpired from mistaking the name of the radar to be ‘Indira” in the first place.

Now, this seemingly minute error by Mr. Athas, however small that it would seem compared to the complex defence analyses that he writes covering many aspects such as military operations, procurement of military items, defence strategies of the state forces and LTTE and commenting on casualty figures of war, had me wondering about the very roots where this gross error of his could have come from.

Mr. Athas’ error consists of two parts.
Repeatedly referring to the Radar as Indira Radar
Stating that the name was in recognition of late Indira Gandhi
Why did Mr. Athas make these false facts appear in his reputed defence column?

For Mr. Athas to make the above two mistakes, I figured that at least one of the following two points should have been in place.

The source of Mr. Athas (either the literature that he refers to when writing, or human sources of information) should have been factually wrong. Or,
Mr. Athas should have made these claims up in his own mind due to whatever reason only he himself is able to explain as to why.

The two factual errors thus committed by Mr. Athas could either have been solely due to his source being utterly misguided on both the accounts, i.e., to have told Mr. Athas the wrong name of the radar and how the name came into being, or, it could have been that Mr. Athas received an ill-informed fact from his source on the first account that transpired Mr. Athas to coin his own reason how the name “Indira” came into being.

Both scenarios are dangerous in defence analysis as unreliable sources and fiction writing can make the wrong impression of the status quo in the public domain. The small error that Mr. Athas had made would not make a huge difference, but the fundamental reasons behind making them would.

Whatever it was that happened, one thing stands out among all this. Mr. Athas committed a small factual error that, despite the size of it, may have reminded the readers of his defence column the uncertainty that exists when wanting to believe what he writes.

Mr. Athas, as I gather, has been in the forefront of reporting defence matters to the nation as well as to other reputed international defence columns, such as Jane’s defence, for many years now and he undoubtedly has a considerable readership of what he writes both locally and internationally. The defence articles that people like Mr. Athas write and publish in the local media and international media make them opinion leaders among the public who clamor to read them and tend to believe them as factual and unbiased. Thus, what Mr Athas writes, his readership tends to believe without doubt and all other media stations around the world tend to quote him as a defence expert on the Sri Lankan conflict, where it matters. And that could just make or break everything for Sri Lanka if he gets his facts wrong, however small they may be.

Once factual errors are made in such defence expert’s writings, the damage it can cause in the larger context, at a time when the current conflict in Sri Lanka is raging and nearing a much-awaited victory for the Sri Lankan defence forces, can be large. And once the damage is done, humble acceptances of the error would not be able to put the broken pieces back together again. The issue is not whether or not the error done by Mr. Athas is small or big, it is the obvious fundamental questions that comes to readers’ minds while reading him hereafter as follows;

Are Mr. Athas’ sources factually wrong?

Does Mr. Athas write whatever his sources tell him without cross-referencing whether they are accurate or just plain wrong?

Or does he interpret things on the face of it without having no way of conclusively confirming what he is about to write is factually right or wrong?

This is the very fundamental question that prompted me to pen this write up when I saw Mr. Athas’ acceptance that he erred in his last article in the Sunday times. It left two questions.

How can the people know if the defence analyses written by Mr. Athas are factually right and whether they could not be any misinterpretations? How can the people know that it was not the first time nor will be the last?
- Sri Lanka Guardian