If you tell the truth, you will be damned
- Who ordered military spokesman to behave like an ass on State TV?
- In July last year, MCNS invited me to brief military officers, now they call me a Tiger acolyte
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara
Last week's account on this page, headlined 'HEAVY CASUALTIES AS BATTLES IN THE NORTH INTENSIFY," appears to have triggered off a State-backed hate campaign against me.
The first response came from the newly appointed Military Spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, who heads the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS). As its name implies, it is the central organisation, which disseminates information on defence and security related matters, particularly the ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV.
Brigadier Nanayakkara spoke on the news bulletins of the national television network Rupavahini and the State-run Independent Television Network on Sunday (September 30).
On Rupavahini, Brigadier Nanayakkara, however, did not name me. The news anchor gave an introduction referring to last Sunday's Situation Report in The Sunday Times. Then Brigadier Nanayakkara came on the screen to say:
"The news published is aimed at misleading the public by hiding the true picture of what is happening in the North and the East to embarrass the government and the security forces locally and internationally. When you look at the background of this journalist it is clear that he always publishes false information about the security forces and attempts to embarrass the security forces locally and internationally. During the past few weeks information about all incidents has been released accurately and immediately. The LTTE is suffering severe setbacks currently and invisible hands are trying to prop up the LTTE. Therefore the public should be aware of this."
But in the news bulletin of the ITN, Brigadier Nanayakkara named me. This is what he said:
"It is clear that the Situation Report by columnist Iqbal Athas in The Sunday Times has been published to sling mud at the government and the security forces. Especially I don't have to explain to the public about the victories achieved by the security forces step by step from Mavil-Aru to Silavathurai. The people know about them. This news is aimed at hiding the true situation in the north and east and aimed at misleading the public and also bringing discredit to the government and security forces locally and internationally. When you look at the background of this journalist it is clear that he always publishes false information about the security forces and attempts to embarrass the security forces locally and internationally."
"These acts should be considered by the public as unpatriotic acts because they could be seen as directly encouraging the LTTE. The people should be intelligent not be misled because such reports had been published in the newspaper. This is a time the LTTE is suffering a severe setback currently and invisible hands are trying to prop up the LTTE. Therefore, the public should be aware of this."
Brigadier Nanayakkara, or for that matter whoever ordered him to appear on two State run television networks to make the statements, could, no doubt, propound the Government view. Though I may strongly disagree with some of the matters he raises, he is yet perfectly entitled to (other than the per se libellous remarks) make them. I have no quarrel with that. The people of Sri Lanka, including readers of The Sunday Times, are discerning enough to understand what the truth is, and what fiction is. They also can see through the few invisible hands that are manipulating matters not only to sling mud at me but also to intimidate, harass and prevent me from writing the truth. The moot point here is whatever Brigadier Nanayakkara says in his official capacity is the view of the Government of Sri Lanka on matters military. That is why he is Military Spokesman.
In both the State run TV networks he makes the point that "when you look at the background of this journalist it is clear that he always publishes false information about the security forces and attempts to embarrass security forces locally and internationally". How true is this assertion and from when did Brigadier Nanayakkara, the main spokesman at the Media Centre for National Security, come to this comical conclusion? He is perfectly entitled to make an ass of himself, but what of the Government?
At least until July 21 last year, the MCNS had considered me an "experienced key" Defence Correspondent in the country. Here is the text of a letter written to me by Lakshman Hulugalla, Director General of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) on that date.
"The Tri-Service and Police Officers attached to the newly established Media Centre for National Security are planning to conduct a session on the abiding features of the Defence Media Reporting. The Centre intends gaining the assistance of experienced Defence Correspondents in the island to enlighten the officers.
"The first of these discussions is planned to be conducted at 1100 hrs on 24 July 2006.
"The Centre kindly requests your assistance as key Defence Correspondent to enlighten the officers of the MCNS during this session.
"Your co-operation in this regard is highly appreciated.
A montage of this letter appears on this page. Heeding Mr. Hulugalle's invitation I spoke to the Tri-Service and Police Officers attached to the MCNS for over an hour. Thereafter, I helped them with answers to a number of questions raised by them. If as Brigadier Nanayakkara claims I always publish "false information about the security forces and attempts to embarrass the security forces locally and internationally," how was I invited to speak to the Tri-Service and Police Officers? Why did Mr. Hulugalle, still the Director General of the MCNS refer to me as "key Defence Correspondent?"
That is not all. On Tuesday October 2, 2007 the website operated by the MCNS - defence.lk - had a lengthy account under the heading "Mr Iqbal Athas, stop insulting our soldiers' sacrifices." For good measure, they also published my photograph. Interesting enough, I had given the same photo to the Government Department of Information to obtain my Media Accreditation Card. Here again I do not want to give respectability to the contents by answering all the libellous accusations made against me. This website account in English was translated into Sinhala and published in utilising a full page of the State run Sinhala daily Dinamina.
It was headlined "Filling the pocket by helping terrorists and the political contract of Iqbal Athas." It is patently clear someone somewhere is badly hurt or had their egos bruised by what I have been writing. Was it just the Situation Report of last week or did all this witch-hunt begin soon after my revelations on the MiG-27 procurement deal?
I revealed details of the controversial procurement in the Situation Report of The Sunday Times of August 12, 2007. A Sinhala translation appeared in the sister paper Lankadeepa on August 14. The next day (August 15), the personal security detail assigned to me for 28 months was withdrawn.
Three days later a Police static guard placed outside my house was also withdrawn. Immediately thereafter, a Government Minister declared that there were no more threats to me, and therefore I required no security. However, a few days later, a demonstration backed by sections of the Government was held near my house. The slogans, written by an official in the defence establishment, branded me as a "terrorist acolyte." Was it not an attempt to provoke my neighbourhood to turn against me? Was it not a case of creating new threats, if as claimed, there were none?
Now, the full weight of the defence and security establishment together with State run media is being used to further malign me. Why? If, as claimed, I had connections with any terrorist group how come no state investigation arm has not questioned me so far? Surely, the Ministry of Defence would have known well enough to order them to do so if there indeed was any evidence! Similarly, the accusation that I am filling my pockets by helping terrorists is laughable. Is this only because I have exposed those who are turning millionaires and billionaires overnight by profiting from military procurements? Is it because they are embarrassed by my exposures of corruption? Are some of them trying to use the war as a business to line their pockets?
Here again why cannot the investigating arm of the Police that comes under the Ministry of Defence probe if indeed I had filled my pockets by helping the terrorists? Even the Department of Inland Revenue could be asked to go into this. Do people get fooled by such foolish talk? I am not above the law. To any person with a little common sense, it is very clear the brunt of the security and defence establishment machinery is being brought to bear on me. The simple question is; Why?
Allow me to provide the answer. It's only because I have been exposing corruption and writing the truth. I do not claim that I am always right either. There may have been mistakes done unwittingly. I am therefore open to correction. However, funnily enough, no such correction or clarification over any matter relating to the Situation Report last week was sent either to the Editor of The Sunday Times or to me. A friend in the United States telephoned me to ask whether Sri Lanka was going back to the stone-age. He was alluding to a less than handful of people in the defence and security establishments becoming the judge and the jury to make pronouncements on national media outlets about the performance of a journalist. He said "it is you today and your colleagues tomorrow. Sing hosannas of praise or don't say anything appears to be the new growing culture." How true.
Even Ministers in the Government are clearly embarrassed. In Washington, during a speech at the Johns Hopkins University, Foreign Minister Bogollagama was asked about the Government's campaign of verbal attacks and intimidation of me. He declined to respond to questions. He clearly had no answers. More importantly, he refused to accept responsibility. In Colombo, BBC correspondent Roland Buerk asked Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella about the article posted on the defence.lk website. He wanted to know what the Government's stand on this was. He feigned ignorance. "I didn't see that article" he replied, and asked "has it been sourced?" Mr .Buerk asked "well, can you at least tell me how the government justifies this?"
Mr. Rambukwella exchanged words softly with Military Spokesman Brigadier Nanayakkara. Thereafter, he declared "well, according to what I heard there was certain misinformation and that was being corrected. There was nothing personal." Must anything more be said about this nascent campaign?
This is not the first time and will not be the last either. In November 1997, I was tipped off that a senior officer in an intelligence arm was coaching a person in Vavuniya. He was being helped by a layman from the media centre for military matters at that time. Well ahead of his 'interview' in state run media outlets, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe disclosed the plot in Parliament. Despite this, Selvathurai Senthinathan, a man who claimed to be the translator for LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, came on national television and other state media outlets. He declared over both Rupavahini and ITN that he had been translating the Situation Report in The Sunday Times and claimed they were useful to his leader (Prabhakaran).
It did not take long for the plot to get unravelled, and the Security Forces men behind the smear campaign, under orders from the political leadership in the defence apparatus, getting exposed.
The Media Centre for National Security is the one voice for the Security Forces and the Police engaged in the 'war on terror' against Tiger guerrillas. The valiant soldiers are making a great commitment to end terrorism in this country. They are using battle tanks, artillery, mortars, multi-barrel rocket launchers, fighter jets, gun-boats and other lethal weapons against a deadly enemy, and making enormous sacrifices in the process.
But the less than handful who are hiding behind the campaign to malign me cannot use all these weapons against one very important target - the truth. You can try your best to hide the truth, but it creeps out from somewhere, some day some time. However much you try to suppress it, attempts to hide the truth cannot be continued all the time. They must remember there is a tomorrow when they will become accountable for their actions.
National Council condemns attack on Athas
We have received reports that threats to the life of Sunday Times Defence Correspondent Iqbal Athas are being made day after day by the Rajapaksa government after his exposure of corruption in the deal on the procurement of MiG 27 for the Sri Lanka Air Force.
The serious attention of the Jathika Sabha has been drawn to the scathing attack directed at Athas by the military defence spokesman who branded him as a traitor. The charge was reproduced in a full-page article in the Dinamina newspaper on October 3. We strongly condemn this statement.
It has become a favourite pastime for government politicians to label as “Tigers” all those who oppose their views. The new trend is to label them as ‘traitors’ by the military establishment.
This is a serious and dangerous situation, not befitting a democratic society. It is a reflection of the dangerous depths to which the Lankan society is sinking today.
Our legal system is amply armed with teeth to tackle situations where there is misreporting by the media. That being so, to label as traitors media personnel on an official level not only endangers media freedom and democracy but also puts the life of journalists in danger. These are warning signs that the country is heading towards dictatorship.
History will decide if the real traitors are the ones who secretly gave money to the Tigers and continue to extort commission from arms procurement down to the purchase of a dead soldier’s coffin or the media personnel who reveled the truth to the country.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader
Mangala Samaraweera, Deputy Leader
Meet facts with facts, not attacks: World media tell government
The international media have come out strongly against what they see as attempts by the government to intimidate and attack The Sunday Times consultant editor and defence correspondent Iqbal Athas.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists and the Free Media Movement are among the media groups that have told the government in strong language that facts being revealed by Mr. Athas need to be countered by facts and not by attacks.
The following are statements issued by these groups.
Committee to Protect Journalists
Dear President Rajapaksa:
The Committee to Protect Journalists is greatly concerned by your government’s unwarranted attacks in various media on Iqbal Athas, consultant editor and defence correspondent for The Sunday Times. Officials representing your government have effectively equated Athas’ critical journalism with terrorism, a wholly inappropriate position.
The attacks apparently stem from Athas’ recent reporting. His article on Sunday, “Heavy casualties as battles in north intensify,” describes your government’s battles with Tamil separatists, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The article reported, among other things, on the resistance that government troops are meeting, the casualties they are taking, and some of the successes they are generating. The article also questioned “whether the guerrillas would soon cross the threshold from maintaining a strict defensive posture to assume an offensive role.” Athas’ work addresses an issue of vital public importance in a way that—as journalism demands—encompasses varying points of view.
While your government might not be happy with such reporting, its response has been entirely disproportionate and unsubstantiated. A lengthy attack on Athas’ reporting appeared today on the Web site of the Ministry of Defence. It accuses Athas of “insulting our soldiers’ sacrifices” and claims that his reporting “has been assisting in the psychological operations of the LTTE terrorists.” The article claims that “promoting terrorism had become a lucrative business” for Athas.
The article is part of a larger attack on Athas. On Sunday, according to Athas and the media rights group Free Media Movement, military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said on national television that an article written by Athas “aims to discredit the government and the military" and “is a clear support to terrorism.”
Such unsubstantiated attacks on Athas’s integrity are out of order. If your government disagrees with his reporting, officials should counter it with facts, not with attacks on his character or his role as a journalist.
Athas has endured numerous threats and acts of intimidation during his career. As you know, he came under extraordinary pressure following his investigations into irregularities surrounding a 2006 deal to purchase MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. CPJ sent a letter to you on August 28 when the government abruptly withdrew his security detail in the wake of the MiG-27 article. That Athas has continued to report on security matters reflects his courage and integrity as a journalist.
We urge you to immediately halt your government’s campaign to impugn Athas’ integrity and intimidate him and his family. A free press, one in which journalists can openly report without fear of reprisal, is the best antidote to terrorism. Sincerely,
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
The International Federation (IFJ) is concerned for the safety of one of Sri Lanka’s top investigative journalists after an attack posted on a ministry website.
Iqbal Athas, Consultant Editor and Defense Correspondent for The Sunday Times in Colombo, has been attacked by the Sri Lankan government due to his criticism of government corruption and military expenditure.
On October 2, an article published on the Ministry of Defense website claimed; “"Mr. Athas' recent work raises doubts whether he has been assisting in the psychological operations of the LTTE terrorists."
It also states, "Whoever attempts to reduce public support to the security forces or attempts to damage the loyalty of the soldiers towards their commanders at this moment can only be considered as those who serve the cause of the terrorists." The article can be read in full at http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20071001_06
IFJ Asia-Pacific director Jacqui Park said the ongoing persecution of Athas for carrying out his professional duties is disturbing and unjust.“This is not the first time Athas has been targeted and it’s disturbing that a government ministry still insists on slandering his name, despite government claims that it supports a free media,” said Park.
Athas is a respected journalist in Sri Lanka and internationally, having worked for several media outlets including CNN, Jane’s Defense Weekly, and The Times of London. In late September 2007, Athas' security was withdrawn and a hate campaign was launched against him by senior government figures, after writing an investigative report on a multi-million dollar MiG-27 attack aircraft purchase involving government officials.
“The attacks against Athas reveal the Sri Lankan government is full of contradictions and has failed to show a clear and honest commitment to media freedom,” Park said. “While the government has a right to disagree with the claims made by journalists, it has no right to provoke hatred and harm reputations.”
The IFJ supports its affiliate the Free Media Movement (FMM) in calling upon the Government to meaningfully strengthen media freedom and undertake impartial and thorough investigations into corrupt practices as a measure of its commitment to democratic governance in Sri Lanka.
Free Media Movement
Government unleashes another attack on journalist Iqbal Athas 2nd October 2007, Colombo, Sri Lanka:
The Free Media Movement (FMM) expresses its serious concern and takes strong exception to recent remarks by the official military spokesperson of the Government and also those published on the Ministry of Defense website naming and shaming journalist Iqbal Athas for his coverage on defense related matters in Sri Lanka. Mr. Athas is the Associate Editor and the Defense Correspondent of The Sunday Times.
In a lengthy article captioned "Mr. Iqbal Athas, stop insulting our soldiers' sacrifices" and posted on Ministry of Defense website, the Government charges that "Mr. Athas' recent work raises doubts whether he has been assisting in the psychological operations of the LTTE terrorists." It further says that "Whoever attempts to reduce public support to the security forces or attempts to damage the loyalty of the soldiers towards their commanders at this moment can only be considered as those who serve the cause of the terrorists."
This article, dated on 2nd October 2007, can be read in full at http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20071001_06.
On Sunday, 30th September 2007, the Government military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakakara referring to an article of Mr. Athas stated that it "aims to discredit the government and the military" and "is a clear support to terrorism". He went on to say that the "people should consider these articles as treacherous acts" and "requested" the media to not publish such articles in the future.
All government TV and Radio channels in Sri Lanka carried his statement. In late September 2007, Mr. Iqbal Athas's security was withdrawn and a hate campaign against him launched by senior government politicians and officials in the wake of his investigative journalism on the essentially corrupt nature of a multi-million dollar MiG-27 attack aircraft purchase involving government officials.
When the Sri Lankan government delegation to UN General Assembly sittings was questioned on Athas' safety at a press conference held in New York, they cited his column as an example of media freedom in Sri Lanka.
The recent statements by the Government ridicule this assertion.
It is damningly clear that these attacks on Iqbal Athas are an attempt to quash his voice and his investigative journalism exposing the corrupt practices of government. While the FMM recognises that the government can submit their point of view and that it need not agree with the viewpoints put forward by Mr. Athas or any other journalist, we stand vehemently opposed to the reprehensible vocabulary of hate and harm that colours this government’s approach to any opinion that questions is bona fides.
Labelling journalists as terrorists or supporters of the LTTE carries with it life-threatening consequences in a context where media freedom and the freedom of expression have significantly deteriorated along with the safety of journalists.
The FMM urgently requests the Government to meaningfully strengthen and support media freedom and the freedom of expression as well as undertake impartial and thorough investigations into corrupt practices as a measure of its commitment to democratic governance in Sri Lanka.