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?