A news black-out on military matters

Print edition : November 27, 1999

FACTS are invariably the first casualty of a war. Objectivity comes next. Then those killed in combat are reduced to mere numbers, and the ones missing in action are lost in a procedural maze.

When the Sri Lankan Government in June 1998 clamped censorship on all news relating to military activity in the country, it did what many countries of the world have done during an escalation of armed conflict. Censorship was in place for a brief period in 1995, during the Army operations in northern Jaffna.

If restrictions on access to the conflict zones and a military censorship of all war-related news ensured that the state had defined in clear terms the limits to the poeple's "right to know", a ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) completed the picture. Effectively, the ban made access to the Tigers, in any manner, illegal.

In fairness to the People's Alliance (P.A.) Government, its record on the human rights front - specifically that pertaining to the unhindered working of journalists - is a vast improvement over previous regime's. Reports of the disappearance of journalis ts critical of the establishment are now a thing of the past. During its early days, the P.A. Government permitted private radio and television stations to present news and current affairs programmes - an area that was until then restricted to the state- run media.

A relatively free atmosphere prevailed until the LTTE turned its heat on the government. In a situation where access to the war zone and areas held by the LTTE was restricted, the statements issued daily by the Defence Ministry formed the key source of i nformation. The LTTE's press releases, normally faxed to newspaper offices, gave the rebel version.

In such a restricted atmosphere came the added limitation of the news censorship. Initially, a military officer was made the Competent Authority to judge the suitability of the news. Later a civilian authority was vested with the responsibility.

The Government was concerned mainly about reports on casualties. Needless to say, sordid media reports of soldiers dying in large numbers would have had a significant political impact. The stated reasons for the imposition of censorship, however, are "st rategic" factors: it is claimed that in the absence of restrictions the media would through their reports of the war provide leads to the "enemy" on the moves of government troops.

The clamping of censorship has often come in tandem with setbacks suffered by the security forces. For instance, the censorship apparatus was activated when the Tigers overran the northern town of Kilinochchi and during the Operation Watershed III battle s. In stark contrast, when Sinhalese civilians were reportedly hacked to death by Tamil militants in the eastern town of Amparai in September, the national media, including the state-run media, went to town with gruesome pictures of the victims, in viola tion of the censorship regulations. The Government ferried a group of journalists from Colombo to Amparai.

Censorship was last imposed in June 1998 and its vigorous implementation happened in two phases: between June and December, when Operation Jayasikurui was in progress, and around the time Operation Oyatha Alaigal III commenced.

The Government is, however, in a fix: the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has a contract with the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), under which the BBC has acquired air-time on SLBC on the condition that its programme will be br oadcast as presented. In contrast, when telecasts of overseas news organisations, mostly Indian and British, are repeated by the island's private media, matters relating to Sri Lanka are often blurred out. There have been knee-jerk reactions as well. Th e blacking out of an overseas television story on the positive aspects of the Sri Lankan economy is a case in point.

In yet another instance, the Sri Lankan Customs held back Indian publications when people evacuated from Vavuniya after being asked to do so by the LTTE. Customs officials refused to clear the newspapers and asked their distributors to obtain the permiss ion of the Competent Authority. The censor, however, maintained that clearance would be given if the Customs sought clarifications on specific reports. The matter, however, was sorted out when the Ministry in charge of the media wrote to the Customs aski ng it to release the publications.

For the residents of northern Jaffna, the areas held by the LTTE, as well as places close to the rebel-held areas, the clandestine radio station of the Tigers, Voice of Tigers (VoT), is a key source of information. Taking the propaganda offensive into th e government's turf, the LTTE last year commenced services in Sinhala, aimed apparently at "demoralising the security forces". Of late, according to displaced residents in the north, the LTTE's broadcasts are electronically jammed.

Curbing war-related news is but a manifestation of the thinking that column-centimetres and sound bytes can defeat into victory. However, a disturbing result of keeping the northern conflict zone and the rebel-held areas out of bounds for the media as we ll as independent non-governmental organisations has been a consistent deterioration of the living conditions and the people's thinking in those regions. An underlying, perhaps unintended, consequence has been the furthering of the 'us' and 'them' syndro me in an already ethnically divided country.

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