9th April 2000
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Human aspects of war reporting

The following paper was presented by the writer at a Seminar organized by the Asia Media Information and Communications Center. (AMIC) in Bangkok, on Human Rights Reporting and the Rural Poor. The paper is reproduced here, subsequent to a discussion on war reporting at a Seminar on Human Disaster Management held last week at Hotel Galadari, under the auspices of the Presidential Task Force on Human Disaster Management. The paper was titled "Human Rights aspects of War Reporting."
By Rajpal Abeynayake
In 1989, when journalist Richard de Soysa was killed by what was seen to be state employed terror squads, in the waning days of the armed JVP leftist guerrilla group, the reaction that followed was a curious affirmation that the human rights of the urban elite are considered more important within the Sri Lankan polity than the human rights of the rural poor. Soysa's killing elicited passionate cries of opprobrium from the Colombo social elite, and the cry was later taken up by the newspapers, the non- governmental organizations and civic activists of various colourations. 

This was good. The killing of Soysa was definitely abhorrent, and the reaction of shock was not misplaced , particularly since he was a journalist who was working for a reputed international agency. 

But, in a context in which thousands of youth had lost their lives in a state reprisal against the virulent armed JVP campaign, it begged the question why similar reactions of shock were not commonplace when decapitated or burnt bodies were surfacing in all parts of the country in those very troubled times. 

The Mother's Front for instance, which subsequently became an activist group agitating for information on missing youth, was also interestingly catalysed as a result of the killing of Richard De Soysa, who happened to belong to a influential Colombo elite circle. 

De Soysa's killing was no doubt symbolic, but what the reaction to the murder underscored was the fact that the entire gamut of human rights reporting, and human rights activism seemed to be in abeyance when the killing of rural youth took place.

Though human rights organizations did not consider the lives of rural youth more expendable, as their latter work addressing the subject proved, it was apparent that their reaction was slow as it was apparent that the reaction of the media in general was also different in the comparative cases of Richard de Soysa and the thousands of youth who died before him. 

Therefore, the case of Richard De Soysa seems to be a suitable point of origin from which to analyze the sensitization to human rights reporting in the Sri Lankan polity. It shows at least in a symbolic way, that a large swathe of the rural poor are far more susceptible to human rights violations than the smaller number of the relatively more privileged in the urban setting. 

Though this situation may be almost axiomatic, it needs an emphasis - due to the fact that there is a tendency to regard human rights violations in the provinces as a matter of course. 


The human rights reporting in Sri Lanka is probably, in this context, characterized by the fact that the reporting comes very much after the event. This , for instance, is true when one takes the case for example of student disappearances in a town called Embilipitiya during the period of JVP violence in the South an instance of the killing of 21 schoolboys who had no connections with any form of armed activity. 

The Embilipitiya disappearances took place during the 1989 period of instability and violence in the country. The court case however was concluded in 1999. The reporting of the court case was unprecedented; but this was partly because the new government had incorporated the swift conclusion of the Embilipitiya case into their campaign agenda. 

Human rights reporting of an investigative sort, though prevalent, therefore is seen to be muted, or coming in a delayed reaction very much after the transgressions. 

This situation may have improved, with the return of normalcy in most parts of the country around seven years ago. But , that does not take into consideration the complacency of the media regarding human rights reporting, and it underlines the fact that similar situations in the future could engender similar muted reactions from the press, which had not been organized in any way to report drastic human rights violations as and when they take place. 

However, since the 1989 90 period of terror, media organizations may have come up with some answers by way of an organized reaction to human rights violations, and perhaps the Free Media Movement which was created as an anti government task force, which allied itself with the opposition at the last national election held in 1994 is a case in point. 

The Free Media Movement, however, had taken up issues at a 'macro'' and general level, and is seen to be an activist origination in its own right than an organization that enables more comprehensive and efficient reporting of human rights violations in the media. 

Electronic media

However , the fact that human rights issues have received much more coverage in the electronic media in the form of talk shows etc., cannot be underestimated. 

The electronic media has had a proclivity to dwell more on political issues; but certainly there has been a greater sensitization of the polity through the electronic media on human rights issues. 

How much of this could have percolated to the rural poor however is a different question. But, sensitization is a process that can be catalyzed in one place, and would then be left to disseminate by word of mouth among larger segments of society. Therefore, whatever sensitization that has been brought about by the relatively new tendency of a fre er electronic media, would definitely have contributed to the sensitization of the rural poor about human rights issues in the country. 

The Editor of the Sinhala language weekly, the "Yukthiya'' Sunanda Deshaprity for instance, expressing his views recently at a meeting convened in Colombo to discuss a human rights related issues, mused that there was a sensitization among the "common man'' that a fundamental rights case could be filed in the Supreme Court, challenging any basic violations of a human right. The gut reaction of "ordinary people'' he said is that violations of human rights could be challenged in court, by invoking fundamental rights laws. 

This sensitization could not have been brought about if there wasn't good coverage in the newspapers, and inasmuch as there seems to be a greater awareness about what could be done about transgressions by the state of basic human rights, the media seems to have played a role in sensitizing the rural poor about the forms of recourse that are available to them. 

However, in times of crisis, this sort of sensistization that is carried out by the media seems suddenly to become extremely muted, as was evidenced by what took place during the period of instability ending in 1990.

In these times, the government, making extensive use of the public security ordinance and the indemnity bill, retaliated against the revolt that was aimed at it by the rebelling forces of the JVP. 

Though recourse to such legislation would have been resorted to by most governments, to combat what was in many instances a very virulent armed campaign, what was problematic were the excesses carried out by the government. 

For instance, the Embiliptiya student disappearances were a case in point. The students were kidnapped, and "disappeared'' (that was the parlance used for the kidnap killings that were carried out by state paramilitary organizations in those days) for what was proven to be a petty private vendetta.

A schoolmaster had been offended that his daughter's name was coupled with that of a boy from the same school by some students in a certain class in a school in Embilipitiya. He then exacted his revenge by getting the students kidnapped and subsequently killed.

The press was caught in a tailspin, taking - in the events of that era, and the Embilipiitya disappearances made their imprint on the national consciousness very much later, when news about these events began to emanate in a trickle. 

Wartime reporting

Though it can be argued that this was effectively a situation of 'wartime reporting', and that the press failed to enlighten the public about these violations as a result of the backdrop of armed confrontation, the question is how the press can in the future arm itself to provide effective coverage of wartime transgressions . 

This is especially so, as there is a war going on in the North East of Sri Lanka, which of course results in human rights violations that take place all the time, the perpetrators being both the country's armed forces and the LTTE rebels who are fighting for a separate state in the North and the East of the country. 

The fact is that the Sri Lankan polity can never be complacent about the possibility of armed conflict and the resultant possibility of extensive human rights violations; therefore, the media should evolve ways of providing effective coverage when these eventualities do arise. 

In the Northeast of Sri lanka, the situation that obtained in the South several years back, still may obtain, even though coverage in these areas are extremely muted , due to the fact that there is inaccessibility for the national newspapers that operate from the South of the country. 

"A foreman of the Paranthan chemical factory was taken in a case of mistaken identity and was tortured by being hung by the legs and beaten on the soles and back. Electrical currents were passed into the sensitive areas like the tongue and penis and the burning end of a cigarette applied to the arms. On his identity being established, he was released. Despite severe physical damage, he did not appear to have any psychological squeal" .1

These types of incidents are probably legion in the North East of Sri Lanka, to a point where the press is almost apathetic to these human rights transgressions; perhaps jaded as well, though it is not perhaps the best word used under circumstances describing severe human rights violations.

But, the media may be jaded, professionally, due to the fact that there is little the press can do to keep up with the scope and magnitude of human rights violations by both government and armed groups in the long war that has been prevalent in the Northeast.

Academic treatises

What's evidenced from the North East, is that there is a greater possibility of the more brutal crimes to be reported, such as the rape and murder of a schoolgirl, Chrishanty Coomaraswamy. But, the "lesser'' cases such as that described above are reported few and far between, and are often unearthed later by persons writing books on the war and its repercussions, very much after the event .

This was the case in the South as well, for instance, as chapter upon chapter of books that have chronicled the events of the rebellion in the South confirm. Many events that the newspapers of the time, which were more involved in capturing the evolving political developments missed, were unearthed subsequently in books and academic treatises.

1 Scared minds, the Psychological impact on War in Sri Lanka; Daya Somasunderam. 

(Continued next week)

Work towards people oriented security and democracy

The Congress of Fellows of the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives at a recent meeting in Colombo while hailing the on-going talks between the PA and UNP as a positive step also voiced concern over the deterioration of democracy 

The guiding theme of our deliberations has been people's security in Asian nations in respect of livelihood, food, enhancement of democratic rights, participation in economic development and the negation of militarization.

As has been our practice at previous Congresses in other parts of Asia, in expressing our concerns in respect of the most crucial issues facing Asian peoples in many lands, we have identified the following critical problems of our host nation. It is our genuine concern for Sri Lanka and its people that motivates this statement.

1. We salute the people of Sri Lanka for the preservation, despite many set backs and severe erosions, of a democratic political system for more than half a century. Nevertheless, we are concerned by the threats to these democratic values that have emanated during recent decades from the state, restrictive legislation, excesses committed by participants in armed struggles and postponements or infringements of the electoral processes. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and we call upon all political institutions to ensure that the parliamentary elections impending later this year are conducted without hindrance.

2.The resolution of the military conflict through agreement upon a new constitutional dispensation that protects the national rights of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim peoples is the greatest single challenge facing this nation at this time. We firmly state our belief that a military "solution"is neither possible nor desirable and only a negotiated political settlement based on the devolution of power and administration to local communities is viable. As a first step towards this we call upon the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to institute an immediate cease-fire, do everything possible to restore and rebuild the economic life of people in the war affected areas, and to enter into negotiations for a constitutional arrangement that recognises the national rights of minorities and devolves power to communities. 

With this in view we endorse the moves that are being made at the present time for the government, the main opposition party and the LTTE to enter into negotiations.

3.In pursuit of the basic theme of our Congress deliberations we call upon Sri Lanka to resist the subjugation of its economy and the welfare of its people to the juggernaut of global capitalist expansion. While we fully support the co-operation of all peoples, in all nations, in the sharing of information, economic wealth, technology and good practices, it is not international co-operation of this form that we are witnessing in globalization, today. It is a battering ram subjugating rural and urban people and marginalized communities to the needs of a world market whose inexorable laws only make the rich richer and the poor poorer. We call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to give priority to the needs of the poorest section of its people and to develop alternative economic strategies .

4.We are aware of the dynamism and vibrancy of the progressive peoples movements and civil society groups in Sri Lanka. The ARENAS community of Fellows expects from these organizations, not only a lead in the resolution of the difficult situation in the country, but also in developing alternative democratic and people oriented strategies for ensuring livelihood, food, physical security and democracy. These are a reaffirmation of ARENA's own beliefs and the Sri Lankan groups must exhibit a sense of unity and co-operation through which they can be an example for the Asian region.

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