ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49
Columns - Situation Report  

After Muhamalai debacle, war on free media

  • Those who report non-existent victories are heroes, others unpatriotic villains

By Iqbal Athas

Just yesterday, the United Nations-designated World Press Freedom Day, to create greater awareness on the role of media in democracy and development, was observed worldwide.

In Sri Lanka, listed by many international media rights groups as a country where media freedom is violated with impunity, the Free Media Movement (FMM) will mark the occasion on Tuesday with a vigil for journalists and media workers killed in action. They will gather at 6.30 p.m. opposite the Fort Railway Station holding flowers instead of placards.

Like in some other countries, in Sri Lanka there is little or no cause to celebrate World Press Freedom Day. Yet, it is an occasion to reflect on the increasingly difficult role of the media in keeping the public informed of the many challenges before a nation, particularly the escalating Eelam War IV that is taking a heavy toll of lives and a loss of limb for others. For those in the media, who have to undertake this arduous task, there are no flowers. Instead, they are frowned upon.

They become victims of vicious campaigns orchestrated by those who are embarrassed by nothing but the truth. There are all kinds of name calling and gratuitous advice on words journalists should use and how they should perform their duties.

One of the locations where a bomb dropped by Tiger guerrilla aircraft fell. Picture shows slight damage caused to a roof and wall.

Suspicious characters wielding pistols or grenades stalk outside their homes. When the Police discover them, superiors who then identify themselves offer seemingly convincing alibis. They are stranger than fiction. It is made out that those involved were on an "official mission" though the resources they use, like motorcycles for example, are in the names of civilians. Sometimes the stalkers provide unsolicited escort when one travels. They want to find out whom one visits and what for. It is a regular occurrence.

This is by no means to suggest that the media should have unfettered freedom to do what they want. That such freedom comes with responsibility is a sine qua non. Journalists are required to be factual in the accounts they provide. On the other hand, if the authorities deem there are errors or misleading statements, they have recourse to a contradiction or a clarification. In addition, if the subject matter in question is serious enough, they have recourse to the law. However, such action, it appears is no longer the norm.

Instead, frighten them and drive them to the graveyard of the living dead, seem the answer. Nothing bad reported, some believe, meant nothing happened.

Last week, The Sunday Times, revealed details of the Army's debacle in Muhamalai on April 23. In doing so, the official viewpoint was given equal if not more prominence. That is to say that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had attacked the Army's defence lines at Muhamalai. In return, the Army had retaliated capturing 600 metres of rebel territory it was claimed.

Then, The Sunday Times, which spoke to both officers and men in the north and in Colombo, revealed what was gathered independently from reliable sources. For obvious reasons they spoke on grounds of anonymity. Similarly, several other media outlets, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, reported details of the Muhamalai debacle going beyond official accounts. Some even reported higher casualty counts.

The report on this page last week disclosed the Army carried out an attack shortly after 2.30 a.m. on April 23. As revealed, Tiger guerrillas had feigned they were in difficulty. A radio intercept indicated a guerrilla leader calling upon cadres in the first line of trenches to withdraw. In reality, the guerrillas had cleverly marked out the co-ordinates of these trenches for artillery and mortar fire. When troops moved in to occupy them, shellfire rained. This is how more than a hundred soldiers were killed and 355 (now confirmed) were wounded making the incident the worst since the Government launched its own "war on terror."
There is a sequel now. An intelligence officer of a service arm, who runs the website of a leading Ministry together with colleagues from other services, has received a new assignment. He wants to find out how The Sunday Times obtained information and who was responsible for giving it. He is armed with a list of names of those "suspected." Hunting sources, particularly in embarrassing situations, is nothing new. Perhaps, one could argue, though debatably, that it is within the rights of those concerned.

However, there is a difference here. Other ranks are tasked to ascertain from the neighbourhood on who visits the author. They are even advised to make note of vehicle numbers and descriptions of visitors. This is not the first time other ranks have been given similar tasks. This is going to new lengths to cover up the bad news by intimidating those who have to perform a duty as independently as possible. Saying that they demoralize troops when they report a debacle is hilarious. It is the soldier in the battlefield who learns of it first and later the word spreads to their colleagues. Thus, it is the debacle that demoralizes them. Is this, therefore, the answer when a campaign of disinformation or misinformation fails to keep the truth away from the public?

Yet, there is a good side. In the Security Forces there are a vast number of officers and men who want the public to know the truth. They put themselves on the firing line to speak out in the national interest. They neither seek nor receive rewards.

The Sunday Times is not alone in being under insidious scrutiny over disclosures on the Muhamalai debacle. So is a leading television channel. A close monitoring of its programmes has got under way and strong punitive action is to follow if they are found to "have erred." Army Headquarters sent out instructions this week to all installations forbidding personnel from taking part in radio programmes. Some radio stations had run such programmes where listeners aired greetings to troops and they in turn spoke from the battlefield about the odds they were braving. In some instances, soldiers also spoke out about shortcomings they were encountering.

Another outcome of the Muhamalai debacle were the instructions sent out to ambulances bringing in casualties from the Ratmalana airport to hospitals in Colombo. They have been told to avoid the use of sirens. Wailing sirens have often been an indication to residents living along the route from the airport to hospitals to discern something had gone wrong in the battle areas. It triggers off a string of telephone calls with people inquiring from one another about what has happened. The news thus spread about casualties in a military encounter.

In the aftermath of the debacle, the Army has decided to raise a new 61 Division. Arrangements for this purpose have already got under way. More military procurements will be required to raise and equip this new Division. At present the Army has eight Divisions - 51, 52, 53, 55, 56, 57, Task Force 1 (precursor to 58) and 59. The fact that a new Division is being added to the Army highlights the high priority the Government has given to its "war on terror." Personal constraints prevent me from elaborating on this aspect.

As orders to raise the new Division have gone out, the Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka leaves today on a six-day visit to Pakistan. He is expected to call on President Pervez Musharaff and hold talks with military leaders there. On Friday, Lt. Gen. Fonseka was among serving and retired military officers honoured by President Mahinda Rajapaksa for "distinguished and loyal service." They received Vishista Seva Vibhushanaya medals. See box story on this page.

Last Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Fonseka told senior officers attached to Army Headquarters that troops suffered casualties at Muhamalai but that was not due to his fault. People who gave arms and ammunition to the guerrillas, he said, should be blamed.

He was speaking at a conference attended among others by Principal Staff Officers and Directors attached to Army Headquarters. This conference is held once in four months.

Lt. Gen. Fonseka claimed that 47 soldiers were killed and 126 were wounded. Anyone can check the records, he said. He vowed to finish the Tiger guerrillas during his tenure of office and was critical of those "giving information to the media." He declared, "we know who is giving information. They are from Jaffna, Anuradhapura and Colombo. We are monitoring it."

He defended his decision to import a state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz at a cost of over Rs 44 million for his (the Commander's) use. As the Commander of the Army, he said, he could not travel in a three-wheeler scooter, a Hi-ace van or a Toyota Corolla. He said he planned to purchase the vehicle upon retirement, a facility Commanders are entitled to. Lt. Gen. Fonseka charged that the media were silent when others in the armed forces imported such vehicles and only focused on him.

Lt. Gen. Fonseka declared that 2,000 soldiers were killed and a further 4,000 were wounded in the fighting with Tiger guerrillas last year. "We have not given this to the media. If anyone present wants to give it, they are free to do so," he remarked. He added that 5,000 Tiger guerrillas were also killed last year. He also spoke on eradicating corruption and the need for discipline at the conference that lasted 90 minutes.

Just four days after the incidents in Muhamalai, Tiger guerrillas launched an attack on an Army column advancing north of the Weli Oya sector. The attack came in the early hours of last Sunday. Later, at night two Tiger guerrilla aircraft, Czech-built Zlin-Z 143s, dropped bombs on two different locations. Of the five bombs dropped, two fell inside the defended locality injuring one soldier, damaged the roofs of some buildings and caused slight damage to six vehicles.

Since then, there is a relative lull in the battlefields in the north. It is likely to remain that way at least until the May 10 Eastern Provincial Council election is concluded.

If there were contradictory claims earlier, the Government has once again re-iterated that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would be "finished" by the end of 2008. What has not been declared is the second front the Government has declared war on - the media. There is, however, no deadline.

Thus, for the media as well as the Sri Lankan public who see, hear and read them, the challenges are many. Do they report non-existent victory after victory where thousands of guerrillas have perished or tell the story to the public the way it happens. The former would make them celebrated heroes and the latter, unpatriotic villains or " rapists of the truth" as they dub those who do not sing hosannas for them.

Senior officers decorated for unblemished service

Trumpets heralded and a band played the national anthem as President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his entourage arrived in procession on Friday afternoon.

The audience stood up. Two minutes silence was observed to remember armed forces personnel who made the supreme sacrifice.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces with recipients of the Vishista Seva Vibhushanaya (VSV).

A proclamation was read out. Then began the investiture ceremony at the Presidential Secretariat to confer Vishista Seva Vibhushanaya (VSV) honours on officers of the armed forces. This is the first time in nearly ten years such an event was held.

A souvenir distributed by the Ministry of Defence at the occasion said the decoration is "conferred on senior officers of the Regular Forces of the Army, Navy and Air Force for exceptional, distinguished and loyal service provided they count not less than 25 years of continuous, uninterrupted service and possess an unblemished record of moral and military conduct."

According to the souvenir, "the Service Commanders will be the sole judges of the standard of conduct required and will be responsible for recommending only those persons who are in every way worthy of the distinction and whose conduct has been irreproachable throughout their service."

It adds: "The standard required for a grading of irreproachable shall be a personal record clear of entries during the whole of the qualifying period and no recommendations should be submitted when this condition has not been fulfilled.

"Every recommendation shall include a description of the exceptional, distinguished and loyal service rendered by the person recommended for such award. The number of awards each year shall be controlled at the discretion of the Secretary, Defence.

"The Vishista Seva Vibhushanaya will be an exclusive award and will normally be awarded to officers of the rank of Lieutenant Colonels and above in the Army and equivalent, in the Navy and Air Force."

Here are this year's recipients, some of whom have already retired from service:

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
Major General Lohan Gunawardena (retd.)
Major General Nihal Jayakody (posthumously)
Major General Anton Wijendra (retd.)
General Shantha Kottegoda (retd.)
Major General Susil Chandrapala (retd.)
Major General Nanda Mallawaarachchi (retd.)
Major General Parami Kulatunga (posthumously)
Major General K.B. Egodawala (retd.)
Major General Sunil Tennekoon (retd.)
Major General Sivali Wanigasekera (retd.)
Major General Gamini Hettiarachchi (retd.)
Major General D. Ratnasabapathy (retd.)

Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda
Rear Admiral Wasantha Tennekoon
Rear Admiral M.R.U. Siriwardene
Rear Admiral T.S.G. Samarasinghe
Rear Admiral D.N. Dharmaweera
Rear Admiral B.A.G.J. Peiris
Rear Admiral P.L.N. Obeysinghe
Rear Admiral D.W.A.S. Dissanayake
Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema (retd.)
Surgeon Rear Admiral N.G. Atulugama (retd.)
Rear Admiral H.S. Rathnakeerthi (retd.)
Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (retd.)
Rear Admiral Nandana Thuduwewatta (retd.)
Rear Admiral L.D. Dharmapriya (retd.)
Rear Admiral Upali Ranaweera (retd.)
Rear Admiral H.R. Mayadunne (retd.)
Rear Admiral S.R. Samaratunga (retd.)

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke
Air Vice Marshal P.B. Premachandra
Air Vice Marshal Ravi Arunthavanathan
Air Vice Marshal N.H. Gunarathne
Air Vice Marshal G.Y. de Silva (retd.)
Air Vice Marshal Lal Perera (retd.)
Air Vice Marshal Lalaka Peiris (retd.)

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