Situation Report

4th August 1996

Oh the censors, oh the morals!

By Iqbal Athas

I offer no apologies for making reference once again to the news blackout and the four-month old censorship.

I wrote last week on how the Mullaitivu Military Base was overrun and how billions of rupees worth of military hardware was seized by the LTTE.

The Censor not only deleted these references, but also cut off chunks of other details which in no way referred to matters prohibited under the censorship.

The censorship prohibits the publication of the following without prior approval from the Competent Authority:

1. any matter which pertains to any operations carried out or proposed to be carried out by the armed forces or the police.

2. the procurement or proposed procurement of arms or supplies by any such forces.

3. the deployment of troops or personnel or the deployment or use of equipment including aircraft or naval vessels by any such forces.

4. any statement pertaining to the official conduct or the performance of the head or any member of any of the armed forces or the police force.

The comments I made last week were of a political nature and had no bearing on the above. But the Government official vested with the responsibility of deciding what the 17 million people in this island republic of Sri Lanka should know or should not know thought otherwise.

He is Ariya Rubasinghe, Director of Information who has been named by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, as Competent Authority to enforce Emergency (Prohibition on Publication and Transmission of Sensitive Military Information) Regulations No. 1 of 1996. His verdict was that the references could be interpreted as material lowering the morale of the troops.

One cannot be envious of the task before Mr. Rubasinghe, I do not propose to challenge his wisdom or his judgement. More so when most news reports today would lower the morale of not just the troops alone but the general public at large, many of whom are directly contributing to the war effort. It is their sons and daughters who are fighting. It is they who pay taxes that go to obtain procurements and sustain the war.

The catalogue is voluminous, but a few examples would suffice - the rise in flour prices and the increase in the price of bread, hoppers, string hoppers (and what have you?), the impending cuts in fuel subsidies, the impending rise in defence expenditure, the dwindling tourist arrivals thrusting the hospitality industry into a chaotic crisis, threats of retrenchment in some industries and moves by some foreign entrepreneurs to shift their commercial ventures out of Sri Lanka. These are but a few of the examples picked at random.

A lengthy list would sound as if I am making up a case for the appointment of another Competent Authority under the emergency to prevent sagging public morale. A single self-appointed guardian angel to protect morale or morality would certainly be a better proposition than too many. Otherwise most newspapers would end up with more blank spaces.

But once again last week, the futility of enforcing the censorship was laid bare bringing to the fore a serious question - if one report, in the learned judgement of the Competent Authority is bad for "troop morale" and should be blacked out, how come another on the same subject gets the Censorial nod? Besides other things (I refrain to say biased) these slips only go to show how unworkable the censorship has become.

A map of the Mullaitivu area on the front page of a daily newspaper bore among others the caption "NO TROOP PRESENCE NOW." It appeared on two consecutive days last week. Under conditions of a news blackout, it certainly was a scoop for the newspaper. It was able to bring out the truth and the message was clear to the discerning reader.

The fact that there is no troop presence means quite clearly that the Mullaitivu Military Base has been abandoned. It is a known fact that the base had been in existence for more than 25 years and certainly until the midnight of July 18.

Even to the most naive who followed the sequence of events of the Mullaitivu tragedy, it now makes it obvious that the LTTE are now in control of this territory. In the light of this, one is at a loss to understand any logical reason why the references in The Situation Report to the fact that the base was overrun and was since abandoned (after attempts to recapture met with stiff resistance) was deleted last week.

Ironically, adding to the mystery of the Mullaitivu Military Base and whether it is still operative is the fact that the Government nor the military have as yet officially divulged that the base had been abandoned, if not withdrawn, if not overrun. One has to only hazard an intelligent guess and to come to his own conclusion as to why no official announcement has yet been made. Any disclosures in these columns is to invite the Censor's red pencil.

Quite apart from official blackout of the outcome of the tragedy at Mullaitivu, the deafening silence has left the next of kin of the gallant men, who fought, in the dark about what has happened.

Much has been said of Military Court of Inquiry to investigate the Mullaitivu debacle. This, needless to say, is another contradiction where the public are made aware of an inquiry into an incident which is blacked out from public knowledge.

The Court of Inquiry, due to commence proceedings next week, is being headed by Major General

The Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) which was located in Trincomalee temporarily to facilitate the conduct of rescue operations after the Mullaitivu Military Base was overrun has now been shifted to Vavuniya. It came with the visit to Vavuniya of Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte in the company of the three service commanders and the

Giving an ugly face to this kind of hypocritical politics was the attempt to turn the war effort for personal aggrandisement and propaganda mileage of unprecedented proportions. But, with the Mullaitivu Military Base disaster, described as

Sri Lanka, a larger part of the country is unaware of its dimensions or what exactly happened.

Nearly two weeks have passed since Minister Ratwatte's claim that the Mullaitivu Military Base was still in the hands of the security forces. He assured at a news conference that reinforcements were deployed to retake the base.

Officials at Army Headquarters have just completed details of the number of troops present at the Mullaitivu Military Base when it came under attack.

Nearly 40 soldiers, stragglers who took to the neighbouring jungles, returned to the neighbouring camps. At least another 120 soldiers had been killed when reinforcements were inducted in a bid to recapture the camp. heavy guerrilla resistance.

With this move the security forces launched "Operation Sathjaya" where troops from Elephant Pass advanced to Paranthan where they have been consolidating themselves in the past week.

Their next move was discussed at a top level conference on Friday at the JOH in Vavuniya.. Military officials remained tight lipped about their plans.

The mystery of the Mullaitivu will continue to remain so long as the censorship is in force. The words of Henry Steele Commanger, historian, author in 1954, still remain relevant. This is what he said of censorship:

"Censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion. "

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