Civilian deaths are not acceptable under any circumstances
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Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary-General of the Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process, has been extremely prompt with his lengthy response to this column of last week. This columnist had originally stated that the Peace Secretariat was in a state of denial with regard to civilian deaths. Wijesinha says that it is not true and that he would never try to justify civilian deaths. We will accept his word for that but the point made by this column still remains valid. Military operations began not long after the Mahinda Rajapaksa took office. Since then, hundreds of civilians have died. I trust Wijesinha will agree that only some of these have been by the LTTE; some by the Karuna/Pillaiyan Group and some by the security forces. Many of these were not caused by ground or aerial operations in the course of a battle but by deliberate targeting of the civilians. In several cases when the Government and the security forces are accused of causing civilian deaths both by UN and other international bodies and also by local human rights organisations, Wijesinha has been quick to “explain how they happened” (to use his own words). This column does not expect Wijesinha to issue statements on every violation of human rights and on every civilian death. But when he only issues statements A?a??E?explainingA?a??a?? civilian deaths in the course of military operations, is he not being selective? To this columnistA?a??a??s and, I am sure, to most independent observersA?a??a?? minds, this is not just an explanation but a justification. Is that not being in a state of denial?

Wijesinha will no doubt acknowledge that the LTTE has been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths, as this column and other human rights organisations have accused them of. Would he also acknowledge that the security forces and the Karuna/Pillaiyan Group have also been accused of similar civilian deaths. (Wijesinha does not seem to like this columnA?a??a??s reference to this Karuna/Pillaiyan Group by this name A?a??a?? he prefers to call them TMVP, the name by which they are registered as a political party and with which the UPFA has signed an MoU. More about this later.)

Let us consider just a few well-known cases of civilian deaths : the killing of five students at Trincomalee in 2006, the 17 ACF aid workers at Mutur, the several civilians shot and killed in the churches at Pesalai and Allaipiddy (including five fishermen at Pesalai), ten farm labourers killed in Pottuvil, five students shot and killed at the Farm School in Vavuniya and the civilians (including schoolchildren) killed in claymore mine attacks at Periyamadhu, and Murikandy in the Vanni. Besides scores of individuals, including parliamentarians, clergypersons and ordinary citizens, have been abducted or extra-judicially killed or disappeared without a trace. Given his liberal antecedents, this columnist is prepared to accept WijesinhaA?a??a??s regret over these killings as being genuine. We are also prepared to accept his statement that he is engaged in A?a??E?positive activities in pursuit of peaceA?a??a??. But when he only issues statements “explaining” (or justifying) attacks on civilians, he is treading on vulnerable ground.

Conscription of underage children, Human Rights and TMVP

Wijesinha is certainly on very thin ground when he asserts that a high proportion of children in the custody of the Karuna/Pillaiyan Group have been released. This is not the view of independent observers in the Batticaloa District. Hundreds of children were taken away not only from IDP camps but from homes and schools as well. Under 50 have been released. This is certainly a token number meant to fool naA?A?ve folk; and Wijesinha is being incredibly naA?A?ve if he really believes what he has stated.

Wijesinha implies that ever since the TMVP was formed, the Karuna/Pillaiyan Group have turned over a new leaf. We hope he realises that the acronym TMVP stands for Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal, which translated means Liberation Tigers of the Tamil People. Does not that by itself ring an alarm bell in Wijesinha and others who now sing praises of Pillaiyan? The people of the East have yet to see any change in the “liberated” East except a change in the label attached to their tormentors. Abductions and extra-judicial killings go on as before. What does Wijesinha have to say about the new extra-parliamentary tactic of abducting families and relatives of parliamentarians before crucial votes in Parliament? Wijesinha, given the nature of his work and the contacts he has, cannot be unaware that the ground situation for the people of the Batticaloa District has not changed one bit. They still live in fear of terrorism unleashed by both strands of Liberation Tigers but now more dangerously because one strand enjoys the backing and protection of the Government and the security forces.

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This columnist has no doubt that Wijesinha is committed to peace, to observance of human rights and the rule of law and to a just political settlement on the National Question. We have also no reason to doubt that he is engaging himself in A?a??E?positive activities in pursuit of peaceA?a??a??. This columnist has no intention of advising him on how to do his job. But we re-iterate that it will serve his cause better if he refrains from trying to defend the indefensible.

War and Journalistic Freedom

The Defence Secretary recently summoned some working journalists from state-owned newspapers and warned them about the reports they filed. He is reported to have told them that if they criticised the armed forces, the Government would not defend them if they were physically “attacked”. In a parallel development, the website of the Defence Ministry has reportedly referred to such media persons as “traitors”. We now have a clue as to the attackers of Keith Noyahr, though Mervyn de Silva was more open when he took on the Rupavahini editors.

War reporting is a delicate task. While the reporter may be privy to operational details, a responsible journalist will exercise some self-censorship. In the case of the current “war” in Sri Lanka, our journalists have shown discretion. If at all, they could be faulted for excessive self-censorship. Corruption, mismanagement and deliberate and unnecessary violation of human rights, even by the defence establishment and the security forces, needs to be exposed. Such exposes only help to win the war, by rooting out the corrupt and the incompetent from decision-making.

William Burchett was an Australian journalist who was in China as a correspondent of the London Daily Express. In 1945, he was the first foreign reporter to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bombing and filed his A?a??E?scoop of the centuryA?a??a?? in his report as a A?a??E?warning to the worldA?a??a?? that radiation poisoning was a reality in Hiroshima. His story was denied and a campaign launched to refute his claim. He was denounced as having fallen victim to enemy propaganda. Later, Burchett covered the Korean War. A US organisation claimed that the North Koreans had massacred all American prisoners. Within ten days, Burchett had filed pictures of US prisoners-ofA?a??a??war playing baseball and basketball and of a General, reported dead, playing chess with his guards. The Australian authorities had also reported a soldier killed in action. Burchett was able to report to the manA?a??a??s mother and to the Melbourne Sun that he was alive and well. For all his trouble, the Australian Government denied him a replacement Passport.

Despite the harassment he underwent at the hands of defence authorities, Burchett was quite clear about what was required in war journalism. He said: “Being discreet is obviously important but pretty much depends on what sort of field you are operating in, what sort of journalistic domain. If someone knew the date of the landing to open a second front during World War Two and they disclosed it, then they ought to be shot, because that would be risking the lives of tens of thousands of people. A lot of the journalists accredited to the allied side at the time had that date but nobody dared jeopardise the whole operation. ItA?a??a??s an extreme example but shows that while the job of the journalist is to get facts back to the public, exclusively if possible, there are limits.”


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