« | Home | »

Channel 4 and Sri Lanka


I was quite pleased when my recent piece about Sri Lanka’s chairmanship of the Commonwealth earned me a present. The pleasure evaporated quickly enough, however. My benefactor was a lobbying outfit called Engage Sri Lanka; the gift a 222-page polemic, Corrupted Journalism: Channel 4 and Sri Lanka. There is much about the book that is opaque, including the identity of its authors, but the purpose underlying its publication is transparent enough: to rubbish Channel 4 News for its coverage of Sri Lanka, in particular for two documentaries it has made about the final months of the long war against the Tamil Tigers.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has always insisted that the national army harmed no civilians at all during its final onslaught in spring 2009 – because any casualties were the sole responsibility of the Tigers – but Channel 4 has been gathering interviews and video footage that tell a different story. The documentaries suggest that high-ranking officers, under the command of senior politicians, chose systematically to shell areas that had previously been designated ‘no fire zones’, while ordinary Sri Lankan soldiers committed numerous acts of rape, torture and execution.
Corrupted Journalism presents Channel 4’s case as shoddy propaganda, and itself as a painstaking refutation. Cross-referring the compounded uncertainties of multiple sources, it purports to establish that mobile phone footage depicting war crimes was faked; that supposed eye-witnesses lied; that missile strikes blamed on the government were actually fired from Tamil Tiger positions; and that Channel 4 has been slow to recognise Tiger atrocities but quick to assume governmental guilt. The book is especially anxious to rebut Channel 4’s claim that 40,000 people may have died in the final few weeks of the war – a figure which, the invisible authors say, was ‘plucked out of the air’.
Such arguments would be important, if they were being honestly advanced. But Corrupted Journalism isn’t a genuine attempt to unravel complexities; it is a tedious exercise in the sowing of confusion. If the book’s objections to Channel 4’s case were made in good faith, there would be at least some recognition that Sri Lankan soldiers might occasionally have used excessive force, but there is none. It is legitimate to question whether 40,000 people died in 2009, but a casualty figure of zero makes for an implausible alternative. And the claim that Channel 4 plucked its number ‘out of the air’ is downright dishonest. The estimate is drawn from a 2011 UN report, the most thorough investigation into the war’s end that has yet taken place, which concluded that ‘a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage.’
As that careful phrasing acknowledges, a precise toll is unattainable, and Channel 4’s documentaries similarly suggest questions as well as answers. But there is a simple way of addressing these uncertainties. In the words of the UN panel of experts: ‘Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths.’ Rajapaksa’s government rejected the proposal at the time, and still refuses to convene an inquiry that would meet internationally recognised standards of independence and impartiality. If it were interested in exploring whether civilians and unarmed prisoners suffered in 2009 as a result of negligence or unlawful orders, that stance would be hard to understand. As it is, the president’s attitude suggests evasiveness. And that gives rise to a question that any decent journalist would ask: what does Rajapaksa’s government have to hide?

Comments on “Channel 4 and Sri Lanka”

  1. John Hayward says:

    Rajapaksa’s government has much to hide including ongoing human rights abuses against the Tamil population. E.g. Tamils who attended demos at Heathrow in 2010 and 2011 and who return to Sri Lanka are detained at Colombo airport, shown photos taken at Heathrow and taken to camp where they are systematically tortured – beaten, suspended, submerged, given electric shocks, raped and branded on the back. All to make them confess to having been in the LTTE. I have myself seen four such cases in 2013. It needs to stop.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement