2 Feb 2010

Sri Lanka footage: behind the UN verdict

In January 2010, the UN released a report into video shown on Channel 4 News apparently of Sri Lanka soldiers executing Tamils. Foreign Editor Ben De Pear describes the events that led to the verdict.

Video shown on Channel 4 News apparently of Sri Lanka soldiers executing Tamils

Ben De Pear is foreign editor for Channel 4 News. He wrote shortly after a UN report found that footage broadcast by Channel 4 News allegedly showing Sri Lankan soldiers executing Tamils “appeared authentic”.

For Channel 4 News, the UN verdict was the last chapter in an ongoing saga that has seen the Sri Lankan government attempt to destroy the reputation of Channel 4 News journalism across the globe.

Of course, in some ways, the UN conclusion 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 is 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.

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. Ben De Pear

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, along side our own footage, 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 web sites 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.

Jonathan Miller’s report contains images that some viewers may find distressing.

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’.

Very quickly we found ourselves dragged into the still unfinished business of Sri Lanka’s bitter civil war. Ben De Pear

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 News website alone, we received well over 1000 comments. Individual clips from the Channel 4 News 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.

We broadcast the footage because we thought it vitally important for the world to see it. Ben De Pear

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.

The lesson here is about brave, uncompromising journalism. 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.