Australian media fails Tamils

May 16, 2009

The Sri Lankan government's war against the Tamil minority has again exposed the extent to which the corporate media reinforces the status quo — no matter how unjust.

It has become standard practice in recent years for mainstream journalists covering a war zone to become "embedded" with the military forces favoured by the government of the media outlet's country.

"Embedded" means the journalist travels with, and depends on, the military. The information, and therefore the reporting, is controlled by the military.

Fairfax's South Asia correspondent, Matt Wade, appears to be the latest in a long line of corporate media journalists to allow himself to be used by a brutal military force — in this case, the Sri Lankan Army.

Judging from his Sri Lanka reports, Wade appears to be de facto embedded with the SLA. He took part in an SLA-organised tour of the barbed wire-enclosed SLA-run internment camps for Tamil civilians.

The tour was coordinated by the Sri Lankan Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), which acts as a propaganda office for the SLA. The MCNS specifically selected the journalists that were involved.

The MCNS has been responsible for controlling the movement of journalists and providing pro-Sri Lankan government propaganda to the world's media.

The SLA tightly controls access to the internment camps, in which allegations have been raised about serious human rights abuses. It is extremely unlikely the SLA would grant Wade a guided tour if not confident of controlling the information he was able to gather and that the story he would present.

This did not stop Wade submitting a story that appeared on the front page of the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald and the Age that presented as legitimate evidence the testimony of a 14-year-old young Tamil woman captured by the SLA and held in one of the camps.

The testimony alleged that the Liberation Tigers of Talim Eelam (LTTE, or the Tamil Tigers), an armed group fighting for Tamil independence, was forcing children to fight against their will and committing other atrocities against Tamil civilians.

However, the testimony of the captured young woman, held behind barbed wire by a military infamous for use of torture and rape, to a foreign journalist in an interview set up by her captors cannot be taken as serious evidence.

It is self-evident that powerful reasons existed for the young woman to tell Wade what her captors wanted her to say.

This did not stop the testimony forming the basis of an article appearing on Fairfax front pages that presented the SLA as liberating heroes and the LTTE as war criminals.

The report made no mention of the atrocities committed by the SLA in the so-called safe-zone, where civilians are often shelled, or of the thousands of civilians killed by SLA attacks — a fact acknowledged by the United Nations.

Similarly, the mainstream media and many non-government organisations repeat as fact the Sri Lankan government allegation that the LTTE holds civilians against their will in the tiny area it still controls, using them as "human shields".

However, there is another possibility: civilians do not wish to flee the LTTE-held territory because of the atrocities committed against Tamil civilians by the SLA.

The LTTE itself claims that, contrary to holding people against their will, Tamil civilians have been fleeing the SLA into the LTTE-held territory.

Such counter-allegations are ignored.

In his "Inside Sri Lanka's devastated battleground" article in the May 4 SMH, Wade admitted he was on a "tightly controlled tour" which "had a large military escort".

However, this did not make the journalist question the perspective he was provided. To the SLA claims, he gave only one counter-argument from what he described as the "pro-Tiger website Tamilnet".

But even this argument was quickly followed by comments by a military spokesperson whose opinion was taken at face value.

Claims by that "a makeshift hospital inside Tiger-held territory had been hit" by SLA bombing were not followed up.

Instead, Wade responded by stating: "Such charges and counter-charges have accompanied the 26-year conflict. Both sides have been accused of endangering and killing civilians in battle."

Such a presentation of the situation, of a conflict between two equal sides making "claims" about atrocities committed by the other, distorts the reality.

The source of the devastating decades-long armed conflict is the discrimination and repression meted out to Tamil people by the Sri Lankan state. This underpins the struggle for Tamil self-determination — a right recognised by international law.

Wade's reporting has also ignored the fact that Sri Lanka has a highly censored media. It has one of the highest rates of journalists murdered each year in the world.

The degree to which Wade has allowed himself to become a propaganda voice for the Sri Lankan regime was revealed by a television news team from British Channel 4.

Rather than take part in an official SLA guided tour of the camps, the Channel 4 team snuck in and found a very different story to the one Wade presented.

They came across aid workers willing to talk about horrendous conditions, killings and rapes behind the barbed wire.

For their act of bravery in pursuit of the truth, the Channel 4 team were deported and banned from Sri Lanka.

As Channel 4 Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh said in a May 10 Channel 4 blog post: "The allegations [made by those interviewed inside the camps] were startling both because of their content but also because of the extreme reaction they provoked from the government.

"Bodies left for days; children crushed in the rush for food; the sexual abuse of women; disappearances. All things that have regularly blighted Sri Lanka's brutal war …

"There is a broader reason why deportation, not rapid rebuttal, was the chosen method in dealing with our allegations. The government is intolerant of a critical press.

"Journalists get killed — most notoriously Lasantha Wickrematunge — an editor assassinated in January.

"There is a reason why the government is so extraordinarily sensitive about this topic, bar the usual protectiveness of a nation for its armed forces. They need western money to fund these IDP camps — places government officials openly accept are 'technically' internment camps."

Such commentary is the opposite of the pro-Sri Lankan propaganda in so much of the Australian media, not just Wade, pass off as legitimate reporting.

Dateline correspondent Amos Roberts revealed in the March 23 Australian: "For the foreign correspondent, everything in Sri Lanka begins and ends with the armed forces: where one can travel; what one can film; even to whom one can speak.

"And dealing with the military is like travelling through the looking glass, although a blunter analogy would be with George Orwell's 1984."

The coverage in the Australian media is extremely important because of the extremity of Sri Lanka's genocide against the Tamil people. There are many progressive-minded people who instinctively oppose Sri Lanka's killings and support the struggle of the Tamils.

However, the barrage of anti-Tamil propaganda means many are confused or nervous about taking a stand. For this reason, the campaign for justice for the oppressed Tamil people begins with telling the truth.

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