Foreign media and losing the propaganda war
By Neville de Silva

Foreign journalists visiting Jaffna

By some divine or other intervention this column failed to reach the Sunday Times last week. Nevertheless it remains relevant. It was mighty decent of UNESCO to hold World Press Freedom Day in Sri Lanka although I am not sure whether it was intended to be a compliment to Sri Lanka’s burgeoning media, particularly the electronic media that is boringly repetitive and imitative.

Perhaps it was like holiday-makers looking for a new vacation spot, this UN agency was looking for a new venue to plant its flag and sing to the glories of press freedom. Whatever the reason, the phalanx of ‘eminent’ persons that descended on Colombo would readily have smote any dragon that dared say a word critical of media freedom.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa obviously sensed the significance of press freedom day and in his address readily conceded that censorship was not the answer to manipulated or manipulative journalism.

Mr. Rajapaksa must surely know, even if he has not been ‘enlightened’ about it by his media maestros, that in today’s technological world censorship in an open society is as effective as collecting water in a sieve and the thought should be discarded like last week’s parippu.

Remember how the JR Jayewardene government tried to do so during and after the anti-Tamil riots in 1983 and failed miserably to stop the foreign media from reporting rather freely because it made use of advanced technology.

Quite by chance Sri Lanka’s often- volatile politics had brought hordes of foreign journalists to town, though the attack on the Uthayan newspaper office and the killing of two staffers seemed hardly a coincidence. Most of the parachuting foreign media arrived after the attempt to kill the army commander, expecting, I suppose, gore as the country was torn apart by war, sending battle and bottle-scarred foreign journalists scampering to the front.

Thankfully there was no blood and guts as they expected. So hanging around waiting hopefully for violence to resume is an expensive business especially for TV networks that need to have three to four man crews standing by.

This is the time when any story would do to try and justify expenses and the continued stay of visiting journalists on location. The result is often bad and biased reporting.

That is also the time when competing forces could vie for the attention of the foreign media to press their respective agendas. Some do it far more successfully than others as those who keep an eye on such matters know.
President Rajapaksa is not unaware of the vulnerability of the media to deliberate manipulation by “vested interests”, as he called it, which would include terrorist groups.

If the media falls prey to such manipulation to the extent of producing execrable reportage then it rebounds on the quality of their journalists.
But if the media does so knowing it is being used and produces factually incorrect or partial news reports while vigorously defending objective and impartial reporting, then it makes a mockery of the press freedom they scream about and a reflection on the professional ethics they vow to uphold.

Since the attempted assassination of Gen. Fonseka by the LTTE and even before that there has been quite an agitated debate about the quality of reporting by the foreign media both in our own press and in civil society.
Sri Lankans and others who have been disturbed by some of the poor reporting by the much-vaunted BBC might well think their criticism of the Beeb (some times referred to as the Baloney Broadcasting Corporation which is one of the more endearing appellations given to it) is well justified when they read the strictures levelled two weeks back by an independent review commissioned by the BBC’s governing board.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the review said that the output failed to consistently “constitute a full and fair account of the conflict but rather, in important aspects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture.”

The review found that the BBC coverage of the conflict implicitly favours the Israeli side and that the death of Israelis received greater coverage than Palestinian fatalities and Israelis received more airtime on news and current affairs programmes.There was “little reporting of the difficulties faced by the Palestinians in their daily lives.”

The inquiry also said the BBC should be less cautious over its use of the word “terrorism” because “that is the most accurate expression for actions which involve violence against randomly selected civilians.”

One wonders what the panel would have said had it studied BBC coverage of our own conflict and the scant attention paid to the “difficulties faced” by Sri Lankans in the South where terrorism has killed civilians indiscriminately and without regard to their ethnicity. Would the BBC have called these the acts of terrorism as the review panel suggests it should?
I received several e-mails from Sri Lankans around the world complaining about the BBC World Service claims that many thousands of civilians in the northeast were fleeing the aerial bombings. The BBC they said, was saying some tens of thousands had deserted their homes relying entirely on figures put out by LTTE sources without seeking a comment from the government. Apparently this story was carried several times over the last weekend.

I cannot vouch for this accusation but what attracted my attention was the BBC news cast at 6pm (repeated at 10pm) on May 1, which carried an on-the-spot report by Richard Wilton or Bilton (I could not catch the name as it was not on screen).

One particular remark struck me as strange. Referring to the Tigers, he said that the US lists them as terrorists. The UK banned the Tigers as a terrorist organisation six years ago. Surely the BBC and its reporter could not have been ignorant of this fact. If they were it is a sad reflection on their journalism. If not, it was it a deliberate attempt to mislead the viewers by fobbing off this ban on the US at a time when President Bush and Washington are anathema on the Arab street and indeed many parts of the world, and whitewash the inaction of their own government and curry favour with the Tigers?

Take the long report from Trincomalee by The Guardian’s Randeep Ramesh saying that in Batticaloa “Karuna’s troops are sheltered in the army’s barracks.”

Not a single source is quoted to back this assertion. Given the controversial nature of this issue one would have expected a competent journalist to quote chapter and verse when making such a definitive statement. Did Ramesh visit the barracks? Did he see Karuna troops there? Or did he, like other hit-and-run journalists whose ignorance of the subject they are covering only surpassed by their arrogance, think that such an ex cathedra statement is sufficient proof? He goes further, “On the day the Guardian arrived in Batticaloa the Tigers killed 18 Karuna fighters, an act which was followed by the army spraying the town with bullets in hot pursuit of LTTE soldiers.”

At best the number killed is hotly disputed. But Ramesh seems to readily accept the number killed.

As told to him by whom, pray? He does not tell us. And if he actually saw the army shooting widely, surely that would have made a big story. But it is only a kind of throw away line in his illustrious story from Trincomalee.

If the government wishes to combat what it perceives as misinformed or mischievous foreign reporting that President Rajapaksa alludes to, it must be geared to do so with competence, promptitude and professionalism not with pompous politicians, bumbling bureaucrats and declivitous diplomats at home and abroad with little media savvy.

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