Sri Lanka’s media message

The country’s attempts to control its media signals a rejection of western good opinion in favour of emerging partners like China

The Sri Lankan government‘s refusal of unfettered media access to the country’s northeastern war zone, and its attempt to control publicly available information about its conflict with the Tamil Tigers, should come as no surprise. It is in line with a growing trend readily observable across large swaths of the developing world. From Zimbabwe to Burma to North Korea, “they” don’t want “you” to know what is really going on.

All the same, righteous indignation felt by champions of universal human rights and press freedom may be tempered by the recollection that it was western governments that pioneered war-time reporting restrictions and censorship. What Sri Lanka is doing now is not essentially dissimilar to official British and US behaviour during the second world war or that of France did during the Algerian rebellion.

Ever since William Howard Russell shocked readers of the Times with his Crimean war dispatches detailing the barbarous suffering of British troops at the battles of Alma and Sebastopol, governments have become increasingly aware of the need to control the story. Lord Raglan, the British commander, advised his officers not to talk to Russell. His work nevertheless helped pave the way for army reform, Florence Nightingale, and the collapse of Lord Aberdeen’s ministry.

In the modern era, sophisticated government and military public relations and propaganda machines are pitted against technologically advanced media with global reach. Both Russia and Georgia hired professional lobbyists to put their case to journalists during last summer’s Caucasus conflict. In theatre, the Russians were less helpful – keen, in particular, to stop reporters entering ethnic Georgian villages occupied and emptied by their unruly South Ossetian allies.

Some governments, such as Robert Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe, are so incompetent that their standing bans on foreign media organisations (such as the Guardian and the BBC) can be and are widely flouted. Some countries, such as Somalia, are often too dangerous to work in. North Korea, perhaps the world’s most closed society, is all but impenetrable. Visiting journalists cannot move around freely and are kept under close watch at all times.

But it is Israel‘s actions during its recent assault on Gaza that best exemplify the accelerating tendency of governments to try to control, limit, sanitise and filter information available to foreign media at times of crisis. As soon as Operation Cast Lead began, journalists were inundated with unsolicited briefings, pro-Israeli email campaigns, and invitations to tele-conferences with Israeli spokesmen. Yet correspondents on the ground were prevented from entering Gaza until it suited Israel to let them in.

Sri Lanka has been less efficient in putting over its case and hiding the bad news as the humanitarian emergency in the northeast has intensified. An apparent threat by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, to expel named media organisations, and even foreign ambassadors, for alleged bias in favour of the Tigers backfired badly.

Instead of intimidating reporters and editors, Rajapaksa’s statement drew attention to the government’s attempted news blackout and its battle with the International Committee of the Red Cross over humanitarian access. Rajapaksa now says his words were misreported. On the other hand, the Gaza-style ban remains in place; reporters are still not allowed into the conflict zone.

Sri Lanka’s apparent confidence that it is justified in what it is doing, and can afford to ignore concerns expressed by the EU and the US, reflects another unfolding trend worldwide: namely, the less conditional support countries once beholden to western good opinions can now obtain from emerging powers, principally China.

The Obama administration said last week that it was “appalled by continuing physical attacks and threats against media personnel in Sri Lanka”. But the Colombo government is involved in an increasingly close relationship with Beijing, a rising trade partner and major arms supplier. Washington’s views, and indeed those of Delhi, may count for less these days.

Governments that harass and obstruct foreign media invariably treat their domestic equivalents even worse – and generally speaking, have poor human rights records to match. Sri Lanka, accused by the ICRC of “breaking the basic rules of the law of war” by ignoring the safety of Tamil civilians, has a shocking record. According to Amnesty International, 14 “media workers” have been unlawfully killed since the beginning of 2006. Others have been detained, tortured, threatened or have disappeared while in official custody, it said.

“Sri Lanka’s climate of impunity for attacks on the media has made it impossible to get an accurate, impartial picture of what is happening in the country,” said Amnesty’s Yolanda Foster. “By threatening journalists with the risk of arrest, and failing to protect them from attack, the government is failing all its citizens.”

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