An insightful and hard-hitting article written by William Horsley of the BBC College of journalism, part of the BBC academy. .

Monday 26 July 2010 .

The 30-year Sri Lankan civil war ended last year with government forces crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels. Some reports say there may have been as many as 30,000 civilian casualties in the final months of the war. Calls for an international war crimes inquiry were rejected by the Sri Lankan government, which set up its own “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”.

Who cares – especially when governments make it hard or dangerous to get the story? Should the Western media be doing more in places like Sri Lanka?

The war brought allegations of atrocities committed on both sides and feelings are raw among Sri Lankans of all backgrounds. A discussion at the Frontline Club shed some light on issues of censorship, journalism and state power in times of bitter conflict.

The moderator, the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, had recently recorded a series of HARDtalk interviews in Sri Lanka. The Frontline audience saw a Channel 4 News report by Jonathan Miller from last year, showing what were alleged to be cold-blooded killings of Tamil prisoners by Sri Lankan soldiers. The video’s authenticity had been challenged, unsuccessfully, by the government as part of an information war.

Jonathan Miller said his and other Western news organisations had tried hard, and sometimes taken physical risks, to cover the war and its aftermath. But the Sri Lankan authorities’ restrictions on the media had made it an information “black hole”.

He cited reports that 15 Sri Lankan journalists had been killed over the past three years. Violent attacks and abductions were still going on. In the past year alone, 29 others had been forced to flee.

At almost every turn, points raised by Miller and other critics were contradicted by another invited speaker, Douglas Wickramaratne, a political analyst and president of the Sinhala Association of Sri Lankans in the UK.

He insisted that Sri Lanka is a real democracy with an independent judiciary; that no sovereign state would accept the interference of an international war crimes investigation; that Sri Lanka has freedom of the press, with a diverse and critical media; and that the West was hypocritical when it complained about the Sri Lankan government’s conduct of a war against an enemy which had used child soldiers and suicide bombers.

Britain, he argued, had passed emergency laws and adopted a shoot-to-kill policy against suspected terrorists after a much smaller number of deaths from one day of terrorist bombings in London.

The debate provided a stark example of how two incompatible views of a complex situation can co-exist. It demonstrated how an information war is a competition to define the terms of the argument. And it made clear how in such situations the role of independent news media – both local and global – is crucial.

So, should the Western media have done more to report human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. And should Western governments have done more to prevent them?

Yes and yes, said several speakers.

Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International said she had been refused entry to Sri Lanka for over a year. She talked of a “climate of fear for journalists” which had led to a veil of secrecy covering up a much wider pattern of human rights abuses.

None of the 15 recorded murders of journalists in Sri Lanka in the past three years had led to successful investigations, she said. She blamed not only the lack of an independent judiciary but a failure of nerve by other countries which had not pressed Sri Lanka hard enough to comply with its pledges under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other agreements. She warned that a cycle of impunity would store up trouble for the future.

Edward Mortimer, a former senior UN official who now advises the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, saw Sri Lanka as a test case of the international commitment that, after the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre in the 1990s, such things should never be repeated.

Yes, he said, the Western media should pay more attention. And so should countries like South Africa, India and Brazil – democracies in the developing world which had learned the value of governments’ commitment to human rights standards after coming through their own struggles against dictatorship and repression.

The latest annual report by the Committee to Protect Journalists reckons that Sri Lanka is the fourth-most dangerous country for journalists in the world – more dangerous than Colombia, Afghanistan or Russia.

There’s a message here for all who care about free and independent media. Jonathan Miller said other countries had shown an interest in copying what had come to be known as the “Sri Lankan option” of unrestrained military action, disregard of humanitarian issues and a clampdown on the press.

You could say that alone makes the Sri Lanka story everyone’s business. For sure, the Frontline event demonstrated the vital role of bold and independent journalism in the harshest of conditions – especially when it’s really hard to get the story.

A video of the Frontline debate ‘Sri Lanka: could the West do more about human rights and press freedom?’ can be viewed here.