May 14, 2009 / 1:14 PM / 11 years ago

Q+A: Sri Lanka's propaganda war

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tiger rebels are again trading blame over reported attacks on civilians, which diplomats say sparked the U.N. Security Council and U.S. President Barack Obama to speak out.

Here are questions and answers about why it is so hard to separate fact from propaganda in Asia’s longest modern war:

CAN JOURNALISTS OR AID AGENCIES GET INTO THE WAR ZONE?

Foreign journalists get in sometimes, mostly on guided trips chaperoned by the military. Some have been given wider access, but not as much as local and state reporters who are right on the frontline. The Tigers used to give similar guided tours. Only the International Committee of the Red Cross has consistently been inside since the government moved out foreign aid groups last year, save for their local Tamil staff.

WHAT ROLE DOES PROPAGANDA PLAY?

Given there is no unfiltered access to the war zone, an enormous one. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) early on recognized the power of influencing public perceptions, and have only improved during the 25-year war. They have their own cameramen to record images for propaganda and fundraising. Programing that had been carried on LTTE TV stations around the world — which the government got shut down on anti-terrorism grounds — is now carried on websites. The Voice of the Tigers radio still broadcasts. But their main outlet to the English-speaking world is the website www.TamilNet.com, which is blocked in Sri Lanka. The LTTE has media spokesmen, and activists from the Tamil diaspora who email news outlets and slip what they say are videos or pictures from the war zone to journalists.

DOES SRI LANKA’S GOVERNMENT DO THAT KIND OF THING TOO?

Yes. Since the current government came to power in 2005, it has taken the propaganda war right back to the LTTE. The defense ministry’s www.defense.lk website is one of the island’s most popular and draws a third of its viewers from outside the country. It publishes video and images from the battlefield, government statements, and pro-government news stories culled from across the world. Each page has a Facebook posting link. The government also has state-controlled TV, radio and newspapers, and a phalanx of spokesmen.

SO DON’T THE VIDEOS AND PICTURES TELL THE WHOLE TRUTH?

Rarely, simply because only interested parties to the conflict are vouching for their authenticity. Recent images the Tigers say are from the war zone are a good example. The bloody pictures usually come from a single e-mail, said to be that of a government doctor. There is no way to prove that or even when or where the pictures were taken. The government says the doctor is doing the LTTE’s bidding. The photos almost simultaneously pop up on TamilNet and other websites sympathetic to the LTTE, and are emailed to news organizations. The government also publishes photos and videos of captured weapons, dead Tiger fighters and combat, and has its own partisans out in cyberspace who forward emails and photos and try to deconstruct LTTE images. Like the LTTE material, there is no way to prove their authenticity.

HOW DO THE FOES TRY TO CONTROL THE MESSAGE?

Both sides are not shy about accusing media institutions of bias or lying. The government last week deported a British news team for what it said was a fabricated story. Journalists in Sri Lanka throughout the war have suffered the threat of violence, arrests and harassment from both sides, according to rights groups.

DOES ANYONE HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF WHAT IS HAPPENING?

The Tigers and the government do, as do people who are or were in the war zone. The foes will, like combatants throughout recorded history, give only their side. Refugees who have been interviewed have given harrowing narratives, and most have fallen somewhere between the extremes.

Editing by Alex Richardson

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