2nd July 2000
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Thoughts from London

Terrorists, rebels and life's ironies

There was a time when the British Broadcasting Corporation, better known to all and sundry as the BBC, was considered a pillar of journalistic rectitude. Many people round the world saw it as a meticulously impartial, apolitical medium of news and information. I daresay even today there are people who believe so, and Sri Lankans are no exception.

But those who have made it a point to listen to BBC radio or watch its television newscasts regularly have found that it is not all that impartial as some listeners believe or the 'Beeb's' own spin doctoring makes it out to be.

In recent months there has been public criticism of the BBC including its attempts at political manoeuvring on behalf of the Labour Government.

An old criticism among journalists and politicians in London was that the 'Beeb' housed many parlour Bosheviks or pinkos that wept colpious tears on behalf of the Third World's repressed peoples, while castigating their governments at every turn.

While the ideological propensities of Beeb journalists and other pundits in London's dog-eats-dog world of newshounds is one thing, what is worrying is the increasing deterioration in news standards and the lack of impartiality. In fact this is true of the British media in general where the much revered principles of bygone years and journalistic ethics are fast going out of the window. 

The British media's coverage of the situation in Zimbabwe is a case in point. The life of one white farmer seemed far more important and newsworthy than the lives of hundreds dying elsewhere in Africa or wherever.

Just a few days ago Lord Wakeham, chairman of the independent Press Complaints Commission spent nearly 30 minutes appealing to the media to be cautious in reporting news about Prince William who was leaving Eton College at the end of his studies. Lord Wakeham was worried that Prince William's privacy would be invaded by overzealous mediamen as happened to his late mother Princess Diana. Granted that Prince William as heir to the throne is a legitimate news story, some journalists seem to think that principles of decency, restraint and fairplay apply to everybody else but the media.

As an example of double standards and political manipulation by the media, including the respected BBC and The Guardian newspaper, let me cite two very recent examples, particularly since they are of especial relevance to Sri Lanka and impinges on a subject of growing international concern.

On one of its evening newscasts on June 23, the BBC referred to the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), a Protestant group involved in the Northern Ireland conflict as a "loyalist terrorist group".

The next day "The Guardian" called the UFF "the loyalist terror group". If the BBC and The Guardian want to call the UFF a terrorist organisation or terror group I have no quarrel because, after all, like some other groups in Northern Ireland, it uses terrorist tactics and methods to achieve its political aims: which is to ensure that Northern Ireland continues its union with Britain, and that Catholic plans to break the union are defeated.

But when it comes to employing armed violence and terror in pursuit of its political goals, the UFF seems like a bunch of boy scouts on a jamboree compared to Sri Lanka's own LTTE or Tamil Tigers, as they are commonly called. Tamil Tiger terrorism is well known to the world and some countries, including India (which once trained, armed and funded Tamil terror organisations) have banned the LTTE.

Writing in the Time magazine( June 5), Michael Fathers, who used to work for The Independent in London when it was first launched, referred to Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as the "leader of the world's most successful terrorist group" and said that "he has ruthlessly ordered the death of anyone who has opposed him or his view of an independent Eelam".

The LTTE leader is wanted, among other things, for the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Yet I've still to hear the BBC or read in The Guardian, the LTTE referred to as a terrorist or terror group. At the most what you hear on BBC or read in The Guardian is the Tigers referred to as guerillas or rebels. Why? Is it that the British media has one set of standards for its own country and its own problems and an entirely different yardstick for others?

What is the difference between the UFF and the IRA on the one hand and the LTTE on the other? Certainly the political goals are different. That is obvious. .

But wherein lies the difference in the means they employ to achieve their political ends? The one difference is that the LTTE is an absolutely ruthless organisation that will willingly eliminate the very people they are sworn to protect against state discrimination - other Tamils who do not share the LTTE's means to a political end or even the political goal.

Is it impartiality that drives the British media to categorise those parties to the Northern Ireland conflict operating in Northern Ireland as terror groups but euphemistically refers to the LTTE as guerillas or rebels?

The British Government is no better. When Gerry Adams the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, was to visit the United States some years back, the British Government appealed to Washington not to grant him a visa. Why? Because, claimed London, Mr Adams was going to raise funds for the IRA. Whether the Sinn Fein leader was in fact on a fund raising mission or not was, at the time, pure conjecture. Even then Britain objected to the visit.

Here in the UK, it is very well known that the LTTE, under various guises is raising funds. In fact it is well known in Tamil circles that some time before the attack on the Elephant Pass army camp, Tamil families here were told to make contributions to make that attack possible.

Moreover, the LTTE issues statements from its London headquarters on its activities in Sri Lanka including its military engagements. It is not that the British Government is not aware of this.

But it chooses to hide behind excuses.One is that no local law is violated. That is a specious argument. Introduce laws to ban such activity, as it would soon have to do when it will have no option but to put its signature to international treaties aimed at wiping out terrorism.

Right now the Labour Government is dragging its feet because the Tamil vote is important to them in several marginal seats.

But such duplicity cannot continue forever. The government must surely realise that terrorism can come to its own doorstep. The other day, Indian Home Minister Lal Advani was here discussing increased cooperation with Britain to stamp out terrorism. It appears that British nationals of Pakistani origin are being recruited and trained abroad for fighting in Kashmir. They return to England after the training and now the government is beginning to realise the danger of trained militants in its midst.

This is the final irony. India which initially trained Tamil militants in Indian territory and provided them with arms, is now having to appeal to Israel and UK to help put down terrorism in India. Britain will be the next to learn the lesson the hard way.

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