Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The story behind the Tamil executions video

Ben De Pear, Channel 4 News foreign editor - For Channel 4 News, last month’s verdict from the UN was the last chapter in an ongoing saga that has seen the Sri Lankan government attempt to destroy the reputation of Channel Four journalism across the globe. Of course, in some ways, the UN's conclusion the Tamil executions tape was genuine is just the beginning of what surely must be a new investigation into Sri Lanka. But for now, this is the story of the tape, and the shocking repercussions of reporting uncomfortable truths from secretive war zones.

The background

Sri Lanka’s war zones are tightly controlled. And without free access, it was impossible for any investigation to take place into the final months of the war. That 26-year war officially finished on 19 June, when the Sri Lankan army defeated the LTTE or Tamil Tigers in an area the government named the "no-fire zone". In all wars there are entirely different versions of the truth, but because the Sri Lankan army effectively sealed off this area most accounts and almost all of the images of what happened there came from the warring parties.

Despite the difficulties, we tried hard to cover Sri Lanka throughout 2009. After months of waiting we were granted visas in April, and in the month that we were in the country we went on a handful of 'facilities' with the Sri Lankan army to the north. With access severely limited, our team spent most of their time in Colombo. When we could we tried to talk to doctors and aid workers within the 'no fire zone' on mobile or satellite phones, to balance the regular and lengthy access we had to government spokespeople in Colombo.

When we finally managed to get independent accounts from inside the camps, filmed by our own cameras, from aid workers working for international organisations alleging grave human rights abuses and appalling living conditions, we broadcast them, alongside our own footage from the Sri Lankan army, and some footage from Tamil organisations.

We interviewed a Sri Lankan government spokesman who denied the allegations. Four days later our crew was deported from the country and we were denounced as liars on government websites and throughout the Sri Lankan press. Our first attempt to bring these allegations to light met with instant rebuttal, and indeed, exclusion from where we thought we needed to be to get closer to the truth.

The tape

We continued to cover the bloody denouement of Sri Lanka’s civil war, sending a team unaccredited to report on the aftermath of the end of the fighting. Then on the 25 August 2009 we received a video via email from a group calling itself Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. It lasts one minute and 13 seconds and shows naked, bound men being executed with a shot to the back of the head by two men in khaki uniforms on what appears to be a dirt road. It is bookended by two executions; by the end the bodies of nine naked men lie in the wasteland.

The accompanying letter from the JDS said it was evidence of extra judicial executions of Tamil prisoners by Sri Lankan soldiers, an allegation that had been made multiple times to us. That night after checking the bona fides of the JDS, making a series of checks with them about the provenance of the video, having the audio independently translated, asking for a reaction from the Sri Lankan High Commission in London, and having an independent human rights expert’s opinion, we ran the video on Channel 4 News.

We aired it first so in the media world it became ours; but the real owner of the video, allegedly a Sri Lankan soldier with a mobile phone, is unknown, and probably will remain so. Perhaps morally the real owners should be the families of the unknown men shown bound and shot dead next to a muddy track, or the JDS, the organisation of exiled Sri Lankan journalists who bravely got the video to the outside world. The fact was that to us the video did not look like it had been staged, and what it showed was too important for it not to be broadcast.

We scripted that we had no way of independently verifying the authenticity of the video, and repeated the allegations by the JDS, as being just that, allegations made by a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists.

The reaction

Very quickly we found ourselves dragged into the still unfinished business of Sri Lanka’s bitter civil war, and into the centre of an argument which involved Human rights organisations, the highest echelons of the United Nations, the American ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and most vocally and actively the government of Sri Lanka.

They bombarded us with emails, letters, threats of legal action, launched an internet propaganda campaign, and even organised a protest outside Channel 4’s headquarters in London, where scores of government supporters with printed placards branded Channel 4 as biased, liars, and declared we were a "Disgrace to ethical broadcasting". Meanwhile they tried to use us to track down the sources of our story, sources who received death threats.

The Sri Lankan government called press conferences, released technical investigations (which prove, they say, that the footage was faked or doctored), and dispatched senior civil servants and politicians to London, New York and Geneva to publicly defend their position and criticise Channel 4 news. This was swiftly followed by a series of complaints lodged with the British regulator Ofcom backed by an attempt to seek anonymity so that their identity as the complainant was not disclosed to us.

Thousands of phone calls, emails, blogs and postings have further questioned the authenticity of the video and the motivation of Channel 4 news running it. On the Channel 4 website alone, we received well over 1000 comments. Individual clips from the Channel 4 new reports were seen by over 250,000 people on separate occasions and were linked to from websites across the world. Just as many questioned the video, thousands more have called, emailed and blogged to praise us for, they say, having told the truth.

The verdict

The UN report into the video, commissioned from three independent experts, systematically rebuts most of the arguments by the Sri Lankan Government, primarily that four separate investigations by experts into the video had "scientifically established beyond any doubt that this video is a fake". The United Nation’s three experts, a forensic pathologist, an expert in forensic video analysis, and an independent expert in firearms evidence have exhaustively tested the video and audio. Predictably, Sri Lanka has dismissed this report out of hand saying its conclusions are "ambiguous".

We broadcast the footage because we thought it vitally important for the world to see it, and because the people who were carrying out those executions needed to be brought to justice. By doing so we took responsibility for our actions, and others took great risks in encouraging us to do so. When three experts declare a tape authentic enough for it to be further investigated, the debate about the tape should be over. It’s now about justice.

We have never questioned our judgement on airing the tape, despite the barrage of vitriol it provoked. The verdict serves as vindication of our decision and reinforcement of our journalism following months of continuous attack.

If we get one step closer to focusing the eyes of the world on some of the atrocities that have been alleged, then it was all worth it.

© Press Gazette

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Commonwealth Journalists Association condemns treatment of journalists in Sri Lanka

The Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) is deeply concerned at the disappearance of Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and appalled that Sri Lanka's “democratic" government continues to persecute journalists for committing the “sin" of criticizing the ruling party.

We stand together with Sri Lankan media groups that have justifiably condemned the forced suspension of a pro-opposition newspaper, Lanka, and the arrest of its editor and the apparent shutting down – however temporarily - of lankaenews.com, the website to which Prageeth contributes.

The ugly and oppressive actions make a joke of President Mahinda Rajapaksan's offer to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting - an offer that was wisely shelved, though not yet rejected, by Commonwealth leaders at their Trinidad and Tobago summit.

“The Sri Lankan leadership appears to have only a slim grasp on the concept of democracy," said CJA President Hassan Shahriar. “So let me, as a representative of journalists across the Commonwealth, state the obvious: any government that subjects its independent news media to such violent and arbitrary actions has no right to call itself democratic. Sri Lanka doesn't even come close to adhering to the most basic principles of the Commonwealth or, for that matter, of basic human rights."

Shahriar urged Commonwealth leaders to use all the influence at their disposal to reverse this “vicious" trend.

“A government that has zero tolerance for criticism is a government that lusts for power for power's sake," he added. “If Sri Lanka's efforts to ingratiate itself with the Commonwealth are to be taken remotely seriously, then Commonwealth leaders need to speak as one in condemning this appalling state of affairs."

Shahriar also sent heartfelt wishes to Prageeth Eknaligoda's wife Sandhya and the couple's two sons.

“We can only imagine the agony you and your family are suffering," he said. “Everyone in the Commonwealth journalists family are praying for your husband's safe return."

In urging the Commonwealth to pressure the Sri Lankan government on the issue of press freedom and the safety of journalists, the CJA president also endorsed the following statement from five Sri Lankan media groups - SLWJA, FMETU, SLMMF, SLTJA, and FMM.

These incidents show clearly that media suppression is on the increase in the post-election period. These developments will hamper any informed discussion on the aftermath of the presidential election and the malpractices reported. The result will be the violation of people's right to information. This in turn will seriously limit people's ability to make informed judgments on political developments. We would like to reiterate that in the light of the parliamentary election due in a few months time, it is all the more necessary to re-establish our people's right to information without delay by making the media environment free.

In this context, considering that press freedom as the expression of people's right to information and freedom of speech, we, the five media organizations in Sri Lanka earnestly urge all democratic forces in the country, diplomatic corps in Sri Lanka, United Nations, International human rights, press freedom, and journalists safety organizations to use their good offices to ensure that government of Sri Lanka stop the media suppression and create a free and democratic post election environment.

© Commonwealth Journalists Association

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Sri Lanka: End post election clampdown on dissent - Amnesty International

Amnesty International today called on the government of Sri Lanka to immediately end its crackdown on journalists, political activists and human rights defenders after last week’s presidential election.

Opposition supporters and journalists have been arrested, several prominent newspaper editors have received death threats and trade unionists and opposition supporters have been harassed following the election.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence reported more than 85 post election incidents, including two murders and several assaults. The CMEV has not released details of these incidents.

Pressure on government critics has been mounting since President Mahinda Rajapaksa was reelected on 26 January, defeating his former Chief of Defense Staff, retired army general Sarath Fonseka.

“Victory against the Tamil Tigers followed by a historic election should have ended political repression in Sri Lanka but instead we have seen a serious clampdown on freedom of expression”, said Madhu Malhotra Amnesty International Regional Deputy Director Asia- Pacific.

Sri Lankan journalists have given Amnesty International a list of 56 of their colleagues who face serious threats, including some working for government-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, as well as Independent Television Network, Lak Hada and the Lake House Group.

“Threats, beatings, and arrests mean that Sri Lankan human rights activists live in fear of the consequences of expressing their political opinions,” said Madhu Malhotra.

Security officials detained thirteen former military officials supporting the defeated Presidential candidate Gen Sarath Fonseka on 29 January during a raid on the candidate’s campaign office. They are being held incommunicado, according to opposition lawyer Shiral Lakthilaka.

The government has accused Fonseka and his supporters of plotting a coup d'etat.

Also on 29 January, police officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) raided the office of newspaper Lanka Irida and arrested chief editor Chandana Sirimalwatte who remains in detention. The newspaper had openly campaigned for opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka during the elections.The office was raided again the following day.

Offices of the popular internet site Lanka E News was sealed off by the authorities and Amnesty International received reports that a number of unidentified gunmen visited the Lanka E news office on at least two occasions during last week.

Sri Lankan journalist and political analyst Prageeth Eknaligoda, a contributor to the site, disappeared on his way home from work two days before the election and is still missing. When his wife reported his disappearance to the Homagama police, she was herself detained for several hours. Eknaligoda had been actively reporting on political events in the run-up to the election and had recently come out in favour of Sarath Fonseka

“President Rajapaksa’s government has to show that it will now try to deal with the human rights violations that have plagued Sri Lanka, instead of using the post election period to launch a new crackdown,” said Madhu Malotra.

Numerous serious assaults by unknown perpetrators against journalists have not been properly investigated or prosecuted. Amnesty International calls on the Sri Lankan authorities to change this pattern and demonstrate their commitment to human rights standards by ensuring the prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation of these recent attacks.

© Amnesty International

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Police warn opposition protestors

By Gandhya Senanayake - Following reports that the opposition was planning to stage a massive protest against the government and the President in Colombo on Wednesday, the police today warned that any attempt to disrupt the peace will be dealt with severely.

Police spokesman SSP I.M Karanaratna, speaking to Daily Mirror online, said that the police have not been informed of an opposition protest in Colombo but added that if such an illegal protest is staged there are measures that the police will take at the time.

He warned that if the protestors attempt to disrupt the peace then riot squads will be used to control the situation, as is the case with any other violent protest.

© Daily Mirror

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Sri Lanka in biggest military purge after coup fears

by Amal Jayasinghe - Sri Lanka's president on Monday sacked a dozen senior military officers whom the defence ministry said were a "direct threat to national security" after last week's presidential elections.

A military official said it was the army's biggest-ever purge and went beyond a 1962 shake up following a coup attempt by volunteer officers against late prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike.

"What we have just witnessed is the biggest single shake up in the army," a top official who declined to be named said. "The sacking is also coupled with several drastic changes in key positions."

President Mahinda Rajapakse had accused the defeated opposition of planning to assassinate him after he beat former army general Sarath Fonseka in the bitterly fought January 26 poll.

Security forces kept Fonseka under siege while election results were announced on Wednesday, and 15 retired officers working at Fonseka's offices were later arrested.

The military official told AFP 12 top officers, including three major generals, were sacked to thwart any attempted coup by Fonseka's supporters inside the military.

The defence ministry in a statement said an undisclosed number were "sent on compulsory retirement" because they were considered a "direct threat to national security".

The ministry said the officers had breached military discipline by becoming involved in politics.

Rajapakse and Fonseka were close allies in the massive offensive that finally crushed the separatist Tamil Tigers in May, but they fell out after the victory and went head-to-head in the presidential elections.

When he resigned from the military in November and launched his ill-fated bid to unseat the president, Fonseka accused Rajapakse of falsely suspecting him of planning a coup.

Rajapakse also carried out a major shake-up of the army over the weekend, transferring 40 officers and promoting several considered loyal to his administration.

Fonseka told reporters in Colombo on Monday that he "was very surprised to know that I had so many loyal people at the very top and middle level in the army".

He accused Rajapakse of politicising the military and said his party workers and supporters were still being harassed.

"Even retired army officers who helped me have been taken in (to custody), and no one knows where they are being held," he said.

Fonseka said the government had targeted his office to prevent his party from collecting evidence to mount a legal challenge to the election result.

Rajapakse won 58 percent of the vote, trouncing Fonseka, who got 40 percent, after a contest that many had expected to be much closer.

Rajapakse called the vote four years into his six-year term to capitalise on popular support for the defeat of Tamil rebels that ended a decades-long separatist war.

The government insisted the election was free and fair but the United States has pressed for a probe into the charges of vote fraud.

The European Commission too issued a statement calling for an investigation.

Before polling day, the country's independent election commissioner had complained about misuse of state resources for the president's re-election campaign and bias in the state media.

K.D. Knight, chairman of the Commonwealth observer mission, said Fonseka would have to find hard evidence of malpractice to launch any legal challenge to the result.


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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Sri Lanka's Tamils left to wonder what comes next

By Fisnik Abrashi and Krishan Francis - Riding high on his battlefield victory against the Tamil Tiger rebels and his landslide re-election, Sri Lanka's president appears under little pressure to tackle the deep ethnic tensions that fueled a generation of conflict here.

Any effort to empower the marginalized Tamil-speaking minority could only anger Sinhalese nationalists, and many observers fear that an opportunity to bring a real peace to this country will be squandered.

With general elections coming later this year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has indicated he will wait until the next parliament is in place to deal with Tamil demands for greater rights and self-rule in areas where they form a majority.

Analysts warn that without addressing the minority's fear of domination by the Sinhalese, the conflict will be forced underground from where it could potentially spark renewed violence.

"Now that the (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) is no more, there is no justification of terrorism for the postponement of the political process," said Sakthivel Balakrishnan, an analyst with the research group Center for Development Alternatives.

For more than a quarter-century, this Indian Ocean island nation was consumed by the conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the ethnic Tamil separatists who were fighting for an independent state in the jungles of the north and east.

Last year, the rebels were defeated in a massive government military offensive, bringing peace to the country and glory to Rajapaksa, who last week was re-elected in a landslide victory.

But for those living in former rebel-held areas, the war brought death, destruction and misery. The U.N. says 7,000 people perished in the final months of the fighting. More than a quarter-million Tamil's were interned into government-run camps, where some 100,000 still remain. More than 11,000 are being held on suspicion of rebel links.

The results of last week's presidential election underscored the great ethnic gulf that remains between the country's Sinhalese majority and its Tamil minority. Despite a resounding victory across much of the country, Rajapaksa lost in areas hit hard by war and where Tamil's constitute a majority.

"He should resist the temptation to feel that he was elected by the Sinhala Buddhist majority and can therefore overlook the aspirations of the minorities who did not vote for him," The Island newspaper wrote Saturday.

Suresh Premachandran, an ethnic Tamil lawmaker said that Rajapaksa must understand that the Tamils voting against him was a rejection of his policies.

"The Tamils have said that they are a different people and that they need a political solution," Premachandran said. "They must be prepared to share power with Tamils."

The country's existing constitution has a provision that allows for a level of autonomy for the country's nine provinces, but critics say even those rights in the north and east are stifled by heavy-handedness from the central government.

After his re-election Rajapaksa said he wanted to be the president of all Sri Lankans. He pledged to seek reconciliation, and a find a "homegrown solution" to the Tamil's problems. But that, he says, will have to wait until after the general election, planned for later this year.

However, Rajapaksa's election manifesto suggested an autonomous Tamil-run region was not an option. "A unitary state, not to be divided," was one of the key promises.

The government has indicated it plans to pursue reconciliation as part of a countrywide attempt to spur economic growth through development projects, suggesting it sees the problems afflicting the north and east not as ethnic but economic in nature.

The formerly rebel held areas have suffered disproportionately from the decades of war. The infrastructure is decrepit. Tamil civilians complain that military camps, large and small, have mushroomed, sometimes occupying private land. Their immediate needs, however, remain humanitarian: resettlement in their old home districts, food aid, and basic shelter.

Access for international aid groups to former rebel areas is restricted and even lawmakers must get defense ministry clearance before visiting resettled villages.

To rebuild and prop up this region will take time, government officials said.

But Rajapaksa's public comments since crushing the Tigers "suggest little recognition that there is a serious problem of ethnic justice or power sharing that needs to be solved," according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

"The Rajapaksa government has shown no interest so far in constitutional or other reforms to address the ethnic tensions that gave rise to and were deepened by nearly 30 years of civil war," the report said.

Whatever the proposed solution may be in the future, Rajapaksa said it must be accepted by all.

Sinhalese nationalists, who form the core of the president's support base, get irked by any notion of additional rights for minorities.

Dharmasiri Rajapakse, a 50-year-old accountant and Rajapaksa supporter, said no additional powers should be granted to Tamils.

"Equal facilities should be provided to all areas so that there is no need to give special powers to north and east," Rajapakse said.

© The Washington Post

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