9 Nov 2013

Sri Lanka, ‘Corrupted Journalism’ and Channel 4 News

Channel 4 News Editor Ben de Pear writes in response to a 222-page book entitled Corrupted Journalism given out to journalists attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka.

Channel 4 News Editor Ben de Pear writes in response to a 222-page book entitled Corrupted Journalism given out to journalists attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka.

Channel 4 News Editor, Ben de Pear (@bendepear) writes:

In the media pack given to all journalists arriving at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) being held in Sri Lanka next week is a 222-page book called “Corrupted Journalism“.

It is an out-and-out attack on Channel 4 and our journalism. As we only received our visas this week (our accreditation process took 8-10 weeks as opposed to the 2-3 weeks it took everyone else) I do not have this weighty tome in my hands, so I can’t react to everything it says.

I can guess, however, that it will include many of the claims dismissed over the years by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, forensic pathologists, journalists around the world (some of whom, if Sri Lankan, are dead, or disappeared, or exiled) and many, many thousands of people in Sri Lanka who experienced first-hand the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Those thousands include both Tamils in the north and the soldiers who filmed the many scenes of extremely grave war crimes we broadcast on the news and which then became the basis for three films shown on Channel 4.

For CHOGM Channel 4 News has been granted access to Sri Lanka for the first time in four years. We were granted access because our prime minister and foreign secretary refused to attend without the full complement of British press, and because CHOGM and the Commonwealth’s primary stated principles include the values of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.

In his welcome page to CHOGM. President Rajapaksa states this explicitly: “Sri Lanka is committed to upholding Commonwealth values of democracy, rule of law and good governance”. His government’s appalling human rights record, the lack of accountability for past and present crimes and the trampling of the freedom of speech make these words from him a mockery.

Our reporting and that of many others over the past five years has proved that again and again. Our story of reporting in Sri Lanka is totally insignificant compared to that of the countless thousands who have been killed, tortured or disappeared but for the record, and to answer the allegations in the book here it is, and the links to the work we have done and the films commissioned by Channel 4 directed by Callum Macrae.

On 8 May 2009, after reporting allegations of the multiple rape of displaced Tamil women by Sri Lankan soldiers in “rehabilitation” camps, our Asia news team was deported from Sri Lanka. At the time they had been trying, repeatedly, to gain access to the area in the north east which the Sri Lankan army had named the “No Fire Zone”.

This ever-decreasing area of land was the final redoubt of the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla army which had fought the Sri Lankan government for years for its own Tamil homeland, and in the process also terrorised and killed many thousands of Sri Lankan civilians. They pioneered the use of suicide bombers, and had carved out a rump of land which they ran as a semi-fascistic state in the north east of the island with its own government education and military services.

After months of a hugely successful military campaign, and three decades of fighting, the Sri Lankan government was determined to finally win this war. The problem was the Tamil Tigers were hidden amongst – and many say holding hostage at gunpoint – hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians, packed into an ever-decreasing, ever more desperate, ever more barren strip of sandy land. As the area got smaller in the “No Fire zone” so the assault got heavier.

The government stopped all journalists from going into the No Fire Zone, but it didn’t matter. The soldiers filmed snippets of what went on there, and in time these emerged. Footage, filmed by Tamil journalists, which somehow made its way out of the zone was extremely graphic and most TV channels refused to run it. For balance we ran it alongside the footage the government was pumping out of the orderly processing of civilians rescued from the “No Fire Zone”. It is amongst the most distressing footage we have ever run.

The estimates of the dead from the final weeks of the war are staggering. The UN estimates that at least 40,000, mostly civilians, died. The World Bank says 100,000 are still missing. Church groups have said that as many as 160,000 are missing from population census rolls. Many thousands of Tamils burst out and ended up in a series of camps where over a period of months and years they were interrogated, processed, and slowly released. Many who went in never came out, according to their families, multiple NGOs, the United Nations and many others. Those families are still looking for their loved ones and when they can, in the now Sri Lanka army-garrisoned north of the country, they petition and even bravely demonstrate.

Separate from the tens of thousands of dead, those missing number between 6,000 to 12,000. These thousands are from the camps but many others are those picked up the notorious “white vans” which abduct people from the street and according to the allegations of those who say they’ve been subjected to it, then interrogate, torture and disappear.

A few weeks after the end of the war, an email arrived at our news desk from an organisation called the JDS = Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, with a large attachment. This organisation was comprised of the many Sri Lankan journalists who had been exiled form their home country. The video showed naked and bound prisoners on a sandy spit of land close to water being lined up and shot one after the other.

We ran the video, because it was clearly genuine. The Sri Lankans said it was fake, took action through the British TV regulator and then started a campaign against us which has included the arrest and mistreatment of people who have Channel 4 videos, the hounding of members of JDS across continents, and hundreds and hundreds of emails, tweets, texts and messages the contents of which are too graphic to write here.

All three times Ofcom found in our favour, found our journalism to be balanced and objective and dismissed all the Sri Lankan complaints. All other complaints made by the government were ignored by Ofcom.

Our journalism and the authenticity of the videos was similarly scrutinised by the United Nations. Employing two of the world’s foremost video and audio experts, a thorough three month investigation and report by the UN found the videos to be authentic. Another report commissioned by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon further verified the findings, and demanded an investigation into the end of the war.

After the first video, shot by a soldier, there followed many many others. Some were similar executions, or rather extra judicial executions as the UN officially term them. Others showed men filming naked women who had clearly been raped, the language and content of their comments again too explicit to write here. Others showed bodies in the No Fire Zone (where the government maintained no civilians died) being slung onto trucks like animal carcasses. More still depicted the interrogation of some of the Tamil Tiger leadership, and then showed their dead bodies.

There were so many videos, so much evidence we couldn’t run it all, and because of our broadcast time at 7pm, we couldn’t show them because they were so graphic. So Channel 4 commissioned films out of them. These became strong testimony viewed by the UN and human rights organisations as evidence of some of the worst war crimes of the century.

Downing Street has released this statement from Prime Minister David Cameron on the film No Fire Zone.

"No Fire Zone is one of the most chilling documentaries I've watched. It brings home the brutal end to the civil war and the immense suffering of thousands of innocent civilians who kept hoping that they would reach safety, but tragically many did not. Many of the images are truly shocking.

"No right-thinking person can regret the end of the terrorist campaign waged by the Tamil Tigers nor ignore the terrible crimes they committed. But that wrong does not change the fact that this documentary raises very serious questions that the Sri Lankan government must answer about what it did to protect innocent civilians. Questions that strengthen the case for an independent investigation. Questions that need answers if Sri Lanka is to build the truly peaceful and inclusive future its people deserve.

"The Sri Lankan Government has taken some positive steps since 2009 with provincial elections in the North and a Commission to investigate disappearances during the war. But much more is needed. I will raise my concerns when I see President Rajapaksa next week in Colombo. And I will tell him that if Sri Lanka doesn't deliver an independent investigation, the world will need to ensure an international investigation is carried out instead."

Since the films, and four years since the end of the war, the images still keep emerging of what happened in that tiny strip of land amongst those thousands of people and then prisoners. The Sri Lankan government’s position that these videos are fake does not stand up to scrutiny. Our journalism has been subjected to incredible scrutiny and only the Sri Lankans have found it wanting.

In a post war Sri Lanka, journalists still disappear, or are threatened by government ministers to have their legs broken in public, people are picked up by the white vans and never seen again, and according to Human Rights Watch sexual violence by the army in the now occupied north is out of control.

And yet the war is over. The Sri Lankan government and army won, but at a terrible price. Until it deals with that past, it cannot hope to change the present. Democracy, the rule of law and good governance remain as words written elsewhere by others, copied and pasted but having no purpose or meaning in Sri Lanka in 2013.

Ben de Pear, Editor

Channel 4 News, @bendepear