ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Reporters without sense and senseless reports

By Neville de Silva

The Paris-based organisation that calls itself Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontiers) has surely been misnamed. It should have read Reporters Without Sense, a more accurate description of the manner in which it functions and reports events in countries other than its own.

The other day I received a communication from RSF, the abbreviation in French for this organisation which calls itself a professional body but whose reporters don’t seem to show the professionalism and competence that is expected of a body that is said to have journalists on its staff. The least one could expect from such an organisation that has pretentions to journalistic competence is to observe the basic rules of journalism. One does not demand journalistic excellence, just good basic journalism. One expects that those who report for it adhere to the elementary principles that go to make good reporting- accuracy and checking of information to ensure accuracy and fair reporting- as opposed to comment and opinion.

If such basic practices that any cub reporter would be taught in his first outings at a newspaper are not forthcoming from this borderless body that preaches from some Parisian pulpit on journalism no less, would one be wrong to imbibe what it writes not with just a pinch of table salt but a large dose of Epsom Salts?
Imagine my surprise when I received an email from RSF purporting to report about an incident last week in Colombo.

The headline said: “Army seizes control of public SLRC television” referring to the shut out of several hundred employees who were given a “holiday” by the Rupavahini administration because of a threatened strike. The reason for the intended strike is too well known to need repetition here. Suffice it to say it concerned the fracas that took place at Rupavahini the day minister Mervyn Silva and his goon squad virtually goose-stepped into the premises of the state television station. The headline in French was equally erroneous. It said SLRC was under the control of the army (sous controle de l’armee) but for some reason failed to mention that it had been seized by the army as in the English version. Not only was the headline false, it tried to pass off the blame on the BBC for the falsity that RSF was spreading among the international journalistic fraternity and the world at large.

Here is the third para from the RSF statement. “The army and police sealed off all roads to the station in the morning, preventing more than 200 staff from getting to work, a BBC correspondent reported after employees threatened to strike in protest against a series of assaults by men “suspected of acting on behalf of a minister.”

How on earth could the closing of roads leading to the station translate into the army seizing the station is, of course, judiciously avoided. Either RSF has a bunch of nincompoops working for it or those at the top intended to cause mischief. Even if an overzealous member of the staff masquerading as a journalist, pumped up his/her imagination to give a horrible distortion to what the BBC said, what were those at the top doing when such RSF reports were written for international consumption?

Has Victor Brossel who sits in Paris overseeing Asian affairs (it is the impression I get from other communications) been derelict in his duty or was he a party to this charade of a report? Will RSF which has been caught with its pants down on other occasions too, care to explain or will it do what it accuses others of doing- nothing.

That is not all. The use of the word seize implies that it was forcibly and perhaps illegally occupied. To begin with there was not an iota of evidence – I passed by the place some hours later-that the army was occupying the TV station. Rupavahini is a state-owned TV station and by calling it a public station RSF is trying to show that the army had wrested it away from the public by forcibly occupying it. I know how much of a state-run TV station it is, having worked as a consultant to News and Current Affairs in its very early days. Moreover, the army is an instrument of the state and when RSF says that the army seized the station it suggests one of two things. Either the army acting on its own, has taken over a national TV station giving an impression of some sort of coup or it was done with the complicity of the government to halt a public broadcaster which Rupavahini is not..

Those who are acquainted with the way military take-overs’ happen know only too well that capturing the means of mass communication is one of the first acts of coup leaders. That is how they inform the country and the world of their actions. From Fiji to Myanmar to Thailand to Pakistan to Nigeria and on to Chile that is how it has happened- capturing the means of communicating with the public being a top priority. When RSF reports to the world in this manner it is implying some sort of military take over. As a prelude to what?

Is the RSF here trying to promote something, acting as the voice for some sinister plotters or preparing for a re-enactment of a modern dogs of war?
This is a story that could have been easily checked. Yet somehow and for some reason best known to its bosses, the story was fudged and given an unwarranted and false complexion.

As newsmen we salute those at the Rupavahini for taking the stand they did and other media organisations for lending their support against the brazen attempt to threaten and intimidate journalists who use their considered news judgement. That however is a separate issue from the falsity that is paraded by RSF in the guise of a professional media body working in the interests of the media and journalists. Besides citing a BBC report RSF did not provide any other evidence to buttress its highly erroneous and shrill, alarmist report.

Some days later RSF tried to cover its exposed posterior by pointing to the appointment of a retired army general as justification of an army take-over of Rupavahini. Does it then mean that the appointment of a retired army general as commissioner of prisons denotes an army take-over of the jails? An Abu Ghraib, perhaps?

How puerile can RSF and these media busy bodies get? Are these the types of NGOs that the recent EU Troika to visit us meant when it said in its statement that “it is vitally important” that NGOs and others are allowed to work here without “undue criticism”? This is the first volley from the EU ahead of the GSP Plus consideration later in the year as we shall obviously see in the coming months.

The minister for international trade GL Peiris put up a spirited defence of Sri Lanka during his just concluded visit to Brussels and London urging EU members to see the wider picture and consider the positive achievements such as the moves to democratise the North-east after years of a political malaise created by the threats and intimidation of armed groups, particularly the LTTE. Though he might have performed like Horatius over the Tiber, the serious concerns in the EU and elsewhere will not be met and answered convincingly unless our style and approach to domestic issues and international diplomacy undergoes a significant shift in emphasis.

We will be under pressure on several fronts as the months roll by (see story on Human Rights Council elsewhere). Those who wish to embarrass Sri Lanka will not be won over, or at least their criticism muted, by foghorn diplomacy or “Daily News diplomacy.” Berating governments critical of us or ‘planting’ news reports in government-run media and others supportive of such an approach, about LTTE fund-raising abroad or its propaganda efforts and demanding that governments clamp down on the Tigers might win some applause at home and suggest they are earning their keep. But it still does not answer the basic problem we face. How do we deal with nations/governments that have the ability and the resources to harm us?

The David versus Goliath replay would win sustained applause from the ringside. What is vital is what happens inside the ring. We might take pot shots at Goliath. But do we have David’s skill or his slingshot that felled the one-eyed giant?

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