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Censorship, Disinformation & Murder of Journalists

BBC and its Flirtations with Sri Lankan Propaganda

Reuban Nanthakumar

6 September 2006

In any war the opposing sides are, expectedly, highly intent on coming out the winner. The battles that take place can often be bloody and cost both sides thousands of lives. The lives that are lost are not only those of combatants, but almost always include heavy civilian deaths. A sad reality, but one that, thankfully, some wealthy countries and humanitarian organizations try admirably to avert or help with. 

Yet, a lot of the time, these untold sufferings of the innocents are rarely visible to the outside world. The last economic embargo on Tamil areas is a case in point. This is where the work of journalism is particularly critical. Journalists are tasked with documenting events accurately, not just to catalogue history, but also to ensure that these events are highlighted to the world in the present time. Their work assumes a wholly more significant purpose in cases where the events adversely affect humanity. In these cases, it is their timely reporting of such events that result in raising the much-needed awareness to trigger humanitarian action. 

Journalists are expected to inform the world of events accurately, framing events within their context and providing a balanced range of opinions from either side. Sadly, too often we find that media organizations, despite reputations, struggle with balance. As guardians of the fourth estate, many news organizations pride themselves in making everyone they report on accountable for their actions. The BBC has, for years, established itself as a leader in such high standards of journalism and impartiality. They probably have been the one that every other news organization are measured by. In many parts of the world they are highly trusted and they claim to take great pains to establish the accuracy and authenticity of their information and are quite rightly expected to do so. 

Reporting in Sri Lanka 

Recent times, though, have seen that reputation severely tested. Nowhere more so than in Sri Lanka, where the BBC's reports and reporting style often border more on propaganda than credible journalism. Currently, the BBC has a few reporters and editors covering the conflict in Sri Lanka. Although their entire Sri Lanka desk seems highly questionable, the chief offender seems to be their Singhalese journalist, Dumeetha Luthra. 

You would be forgiven for thinking that, in an environment where the shadow of a government that brutally persecutes its minorities prevails, news organizations such as the BBC would persevere to report the truth, regardless of the difficulties it faces. After all, that�s how they initially built themselves a reputation as the world's most trusted news source. 

Regardless of past accolades for impartiality and accurate reporting, the question is, has the BBC been able to keep that reputation intact? Especially in Sri Lanka. 

The Sencholai massacre 

On the 14th of August 2006, Sri Lankan Kfir bombers screeched over the Sencholai orphanage, in the Tamil northeast of Sri Lanka, bombarding it with cruel accuracy using 16 high-explosive bombs. Beneath them, schoolgirls and their teachers fled for their lives. Not everyone managed to escape. When the dust and smoke settled, the carnage was terrifying. 

51 schoolgirls and 4 staff members were killed and 129 children were critically wounded. Initial reports suggested that up to 61 schoolgirls were killed, but the Director of Education for Mullaithivu district, P Ariyaradnam, later revised the figure to a confirmed 55 killed. 

Reports stated that parts of the orphanage, at the time, were being used by the international St. Johns Ambulance Service, to deliver first aid teaching to school children from the surrounding areas. St. Johns Ambulance Service offers this service throughout Sri Lanka, as part of its humanitarian objectives in the war-torn country. 

The reaction 

Possibly the first to break the news, TamilNet.com, quoted officials from the LTTE Peace Secretariat describing the air strike as �a horrible act of terror� and requesting international agencies to urgently visit the bombing site. 

The TNA, a coalition of Sri Lanka�s four largest Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka, condemned the air strike. �This attack is not merely atrocious and inhuman - it clearly has a genocidal intent. It is yet another instance of brazen state terrorism,� the TNA said in its statement. 

Both UNICEF and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) immediately sent their staff to the scene. JoAnna Van Gerpen, the UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka, recounted the events of the day as follows: 

�As our team was driving towards the compound, where the incident had happened, they encountered many ambulances and vehicles coming away from that direction carrying bodies of children and young people who had been killed and injured.. From what we understand at this point, these children were from surrounding communities." 

What shocked many was the inhumanness with which the air strike was carried out. Again speaking to TamilNet, Mr. Sivarajah, the village government officer, stated that the area was a declared humanitarian peace zone with 4 orphanages within a 1 km radius. Being a peace zone, its exact geographical coordinates had been given to the Sri Lanka government to ensure that there was no excuse for an �accidental� bombing. Little did they suspect that those exact coordinates would later be used to blast the area away with 16 bombs. 

BBC�s coverage 

Some called it an �unpardonable atrocity,� others �a crime against humanity.� The horrific scale of the killings speaks for itself. But, strangely, for the much-reputed BBC, the event did not even qualify as a top story in South Asia, let alone the World. This was a bit difficult to digest when other major news organizations carried both direct and compiled reports about the massacre. 

If you had been watching the BBC news websites though, you might have not even known that such an event took place. The BBC did not even headline the story or provide a news link for it in its main pages. In the immediate aftermath of the event,  a snapshot of how they presented their main news page to a global audience appears here

If you thought that was cause for concern, the BBCs� South Asia news site painted an entirely different picture. A snapshot of how this site presented the news of the region to the world appears here -

The propaganda 

You would notice that the main story, so prominently displayed at the top, is the killing of 7 �people� in Colombo (See links at the end). Of these 7 �people,� an unspecified number were elite military commandos, but the BBC didn�t think it was necessary to make a mention of that. The omission smacks of an attempt to appease the Sri Lankan government�s propaganda effort. The intention is to provide a false impression that the blast was aimed at innocent civilians - a time-tested technique used often by the local pro-Sinhala press. But another transgression here is that not even the two related headlines below it seem to relate to the bombing of the schoolgirls. Ignoring the main event of the time, the BBC instead absurdly focuses on events that were weeks old

You would have noticed that the horrifying bombing of schoolgirls only plays a cursory second fiddle in the above story (See links at the end), while at the same time, other major news organizations had started breaking the news prominently to the global community. Such is the BBC�s subjugation to the Sri Lanka government�s propaganda that it refused to even highlight what major global newspapers and websites around the world considered a top story of global interest. 

You had to really try hard to find a BBC story on the Sencholai massacre. If you, perhaps, used a third party news aggregator, you would have eventually come across a solitary article by the BBC. Interestingly it had, at the time, a title the government propagandist Mr. Keheliya Rambukwella would have been greatly appreciative of �  �Sri Lanka air raids 'kill girls'�. I say �at the time� because the BBC has since edited it to remove the most glaring instances of biased writing and imagery that I have seen in any mainstream news organization.  

As stated, it starts with an ambiguous headline like �kill girls�, which by itself, does a fantastic job of suppressing the fact that the government mindlessly massacred innocent children. The distinction that it was schoolgirls, as clearly pointed out by independent international organizations, such as UNICEF and the European-manned Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), seems to be deliberately left out. Besides, �kill girls� could just as well imply they were LTTE female combatants, couldn�t they? Maybe that�s the propaganda angle their Sri Lanka desk editors were attempting. The story continues with the text: �Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels have accused government forces of bombing an orphanage�" 

Does the BBC intend to imply that the whole event is still an unverified accusation? For the London-based BBC editors, it seems like first hand accounts from independent observers, such as the SLMM and UNICEF, stating that the orphanage was indeed bombed are not credible enough, but funnily the denials of government spokespeople seem worthy of repeated coverage. This story, when read in its current state, as seen from the BBC link provided below, has been edited a bit from they way it was presented in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. It had then a far more significant government bias and flavour. Sadly, as this writer was not expecting a BBC edit post-publishing, it was treated as a permanent record and a full copy was not taken. A mistake hugely regretted. 

When followed on into the story, a glaring keenness to carry Sri Lankan government propaganda was exposed, which obviously triggered the post-publishing edit. One edit was of the photo images that accompanied the story. None the pictures related to the schoolgirl bombing, instead they showed the Sri Lankan military firing multi-barrel rocket launchers and, in another, a wounded government soldier. This was misleading reporting at its best. What we have in its current form is a minor and almost pathetic attempt at balance, with the vast majority of the story, supposedly on the killings of schoolgirls, still focused on a wide array of events in Sri Lanka, completing diluting the main story.  

Enter Dumeetha Luthra. In the accompanying video link, we find the willing BBC propagandist for the Sri Lanka government. Her choice of vocabulary and information hiding must have brought affectionate smiles from her Sri Lankan patrons. Despite all independent reports to the contrary, Dumeetha fanatically prefers to infer more credibility to the government version of events. It�s always the government �says� and the Tamils �claim� with her. 

This video, I don�t believe, was her first after the bombing. The initial one was far more skilfully crafted at assisting the government to suppress information about the bombing from being reported. Viewers of the initial video might recall that in it Dumeetha briefly touched on the fact that a bombing occurred in the north and very quickly jumped onto the blast in Colombo, interviewing a government spokesman offloading comments about what he thought of the LTTE. In keeping with her lingo, if innocent Tamils are killed, they are �bodies� not �schoolchildren.� Tamil death tolls are always �controversial,� even if the UN provides detailed accounts.  A casual viewer who might have seen that report would have got a shockingly misleading impression of what was going on in Sri Lanka at the time. 

With this kind of blatant bias and misrepresentation of facts, one wonders why Dumeetha Luthra is still employed by the BBC?  

Viewers were quick to notice the highly biased coverage by the BBC. On the 15th of August, a day after the event, SiberNews.com, carried an article titled �The BBC & International Community.� In it, the BBC is accused of broadcasting the Colombo blast every hour, attempting to blow the significance of the event out of proportion to what was really happening at the Sencholai orphanage. The frustration of the article's author at the BBC approach was evident in the tone of his writing. In the process he makes some revealing statements about the coverage he was witnessing on the BBC�s World News. He claimed that whenever the BBC�s London-based anchors questioned their reporter, Dummetra Lutra, about the event, she would attempt to black it out by stating either �it�s unclear�,  �it�s too early to say,� or �We are not allowed to go over there� � the later in reference to the site of bombing. This is despite the LTTE calling all independent observers to visit the site and see the carnage for themselves. 

Questions raised 

Soon after these reports were reviewed, on the 18th of August 2006, a list of questions were sent to the BBC to ask for a clarification on their Sri Lanka coverage. There has been no response to date. An attempt to follow up led to an interesting experience. When informed that the query was regarding their coverage of the Sri Lankan conflict, the BBC�s bubbly receptionist suddenly became very cagey and guarded. A response was tactfully promised, but never came. Is this the expected behaviour of an organization that claims to be open and transparent in its reporting? 

It would not be a revelation to anticipate what the excuse from the BBC is going to be. Sometime in early May of 2006, pro-Sinhala demonstrators marched up to the BBC offices in London and vociferously demanded a stop to the BBC providing balance in their Sri Lankan coverage. Their presence was an organised campaign by the pro-Sinhala extremists who, as usual in any part of the globe they reside in, did not wish to see any fairness given to the Tamils. Going by their placards and reported submissions to the BBC editors, what they wished the BBC to produce was only one-sided reports that gave only their government view and nothing else. They claimed any representation of the Tamil viewpoint as pro-Tamil bias. I have yet to see a BBC news story that did not represent the Sinhala view as well. 

Infact, soon after the demonstration, the BBC was visibly uncomfortable with having to deal with such pressures. In a response written by the BBC�s South Asia editor, Bernard Gabony, he defends their reporting by arguing that both the Tamils and Singhalese accuse them of bias, and as such it can only mean that they are neutral. That is wishful thinking. The truth from one side cannot be �balanced� with a lie from another. Neither can it be considered balanced if the BBC suppresses vital facts of atrocities against the Tamils. The BBC is not there to tally the votes, but to report the facts.

But he does make one valid point: �there will always be people on either side convinced we are biased against them�. That is true, not necessarily because it is right, but because there are people who feel compelled to make accusations of bias just because they don�t like the truth being reported. That is an aspect of reporting any media organization has to learn to handle, as their job will always remain to report on events impartially, accurately and with balance. The correct manner to address this is to provide equal balance to both sides. Where direct access is not possible, as he correctly argues, all they can do is report what people say has happened. The problem is, his news desk does not do that. Views and opinions from both sides have to be equally and fairly represented, whatever the circumstances or pressures not to. 

By deliberately suppressing information, the BBC is plainly catering to propaganda covering up massacres of innocent Tamils. It seems to be convenient not to report on what happens to the Tamil people, if it means appeasing the rouge Sri Lankan state. There is no excuse for it. Such failure is biased and unethical reporting in its purest form. 

Infact, I can�t remember another instance where the state of mind of an otherwise highly professional organization, has been held hostage by a corrupt and failed country that continues to commit documented atrocities against its minorities. Is the BBC really that weak in maintaining its journalistic principles that it feels it has to cater to the organised mob of the Sri Lankan government?   

The winds of change? 

Regarding their reporting in Sri Lanka, it is highly likely that there would have been a number of complaints to the BBC, but it�s hard to see if they are willing to exhibit any accountability for their journalists. Dumeetha Luthra, after her outrageous reports on Sencholai, suddenly went underground for a couple of weeks, and a new reporter by the name of Andrew Harding entered the by-lines. Another British journalist, Tim Allman, also seems to have entered the Sri Lankan scene. But do they make any difference? At least, at the time of writing this, in his single report, �Sri Lanka peace monitors to go,� Tim Allman doesn�t hold back from stating that the SLMM held the government responsible for the killing of the 17 Tamil and Muslim aid workers. 

What about Andrew Harding? His report felt like it was an acclimatising experience for him, but being new that was understandable.  Being a native British what was not understandable, however, was his continuation of Dumeetha�s fascination with suppressing public domain information on Sri Lanka. 

In his video, �Sri Lanka violence escalates,� Harding makes a trip to Muthur, the scene of the grizzly murder of 17 aid workers. Taking notes from Dumeetha, he skilfully avoids having to provide information about who was deemed to be responsible; instead stating, �it�s not clear by whom.� Whatever it is that the Sri Lankan government does to buy-in BBC journalists, it obviously seems to be working. To top it off, Harding paraphrases the propaganda terminology towards the killing of the schoolchildren as "child soldiers" and �fair game,� and does so without a quiver of guilt in his voice. 

Those who thought that, Dumeetha Luthra, the Sinhalese �local� had been removed from the Sri Lanka assignment, thought wrong. That was too much accountability to expect form the BBC. In an alarming note, she seems to be slowly crawling back from her brief hiatus. Her latest reports are nothing but a continuation of her previous anti-Tamil theme, but a cautious one. Presumably testing the waters before surging ahead, as usual, with her �uncle's� propaganda. 

The BBC, supposedly �independent,� fails miserably to treat government statements with the required amount of scepticism. It seems almost inconceivable that the BBC would so closely align themselves with a failed third world government that openly intimidates and kills numerous colleagues of theirs in the journalistic profession.  

Broadly speaking, the BBC�s reporting of the Sri Lankan conflict requires a massive overhaul, one to be welcomed by anyone wishing to see some factual and balanced news coverage in Sri Lanka. Their current coverage could justifiably be claimed as a propaganda organ for the Sri Lankan government. 

It would be the expectation of any discerning viewer of the BBC for more a more accountable performance of its ground reporters, including those at the editorial desk for Sri Lankan affairs. This should be seen as a highly serious matter for the BBC. This is not only due to the implications it has in collaborating with the Sri Lankan government to misrepresent the true nature of the of Tamil civilian massacres, but also to the damage its reputation suffers after years of brilliant work. Brilliant, until the time of the notorious Francis Harrison, Dumeetha Luthra�s predecessor, who was nothing more than a Caucasian version of the later. It�s been a several years since the BBC�s Sri Lanka coverage has produced anything they could be proud of. 

The �fog of war� does indeed apply to Sri Lanka, but the BBC is yet to reach its broadcast standards seen in other conflict areas such as the Middle East. No, it�s far from perfect over there, but at least, their Middle East coverage provides enough balance for the viewers to make a reasoned opinion. This is possibly due to reports from the region being closely monitored and commented on strongly by both Arabs and Jews alike � a task that is disappointingly abandoned by the global Tamil community. They should realise that their survival from ethnic cleansing depends on their ability to keep news organizations like the BBC honest and true to their principles. 

Ultimately, where governments misgovern and news organizations fail, it is the public who are left to police the actions of those to whom they pay attention. British citizens, who both directly and indirectly fund the BBC, as well as the global audience, have to determine if their trust can be allowed to be abused continually, or act now and demand the respect they deserve. 

Related links of biased coverage (Note the chronological order): 

Seven killed in Colombo explosion, Monday, 14 August 2006, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UKhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4789991.stm

Sri Lanka strike 'hits orphanage', Monday, 14 August 2006, 20:57 GMT 21:57 UK
(Previously �Sri Lanka strike 'kill girls��)

Sri Lanka fears for school safety, Monday, 14 August 2006, 23:51 GMT 00:51 UK

Heavy fighting in north Sri Lanka, Tuesday, 15 August 2006, 06:39 GMT 07:39 UK

Some videos are still available for streaming at the BBC news site. 

Sri Lanka: Truth, bias and the BBC, by the BBC News website, South Asia editor


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