| by Upul Joseph Fernando
( October 22, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) 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 OHCHR. 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.
The Channel 4 programme was first screened in 2011. Why is it being nominated for an Emmy in 2014? Is the nomination timed to coincide with Beidas's investigation?
Numbers 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 Secretary General'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.
In Lakbima News on 26 June 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial, 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 was 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.
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."
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 Organization, 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 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." 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 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 judgment 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. De Pear's flippant response clearly indicates that he does not want to employ joined-up thinking and address detail. As Padraig Colman is quoted as writing: "There is no room for truth in the world of sound bites".
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 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 organizations, and elements of the Tamil Diaspora that continues to support it in pursuing unrealistic expectations."