Every rule in the book was broken. At least for us laymen – watching the horrific footage screened by Channel 4 last Tuesday – it certainly did look like every rule in the book was broken two years ago when Sri Lankan forces closed in on a defeated LTTE.
Naked prisoners shot in the head; the dead bodies of women who had been raped, dumped on a truck; the immediate aftermath of a shell landing on a hospital – images caught on mobile phones of the atrocities committed in the final months of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, left most of us shell-shocked. Sick, nauseated, to the core. This mind you, was not just battle footage – but crimes against humanity rarely if ever before captured on camera and shown on television. I could think of only one other similar situation – Srebrenica.
The video, said to be shot by soldiers or escapees – it is not clear who – is almost unwatchable. The authenticity of the footage remains challenged by the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa – which, unfortunately for Sri Lanka, hired a sole expert by the name of Siri Hewavitharana – a Sri Lankan born Australian citizen who the Defence Ministry describes as an expert to debunk the footage aired by Britain’s Channel 4.
According to Hewavitharana, the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, shows ‘doctored images’ of the undressed bodies of bound Tamil women who appear to have been sexually abused being thrown on to trucks by laughing Sri Lankan soldiers. At one point in the film, one soldier tells his comrade: “Pose with the bodies!”
Channel 4 contends that the footage was authenticated by four experts: forensic pathologist Daniel Spitz, forensic video-analyst Jeff Spivack, firearms-evidence expert Peter Diaczuk and forensic-video expert Grant Fredricks.
The programme also contains footage said to be shot by Tamil civilians on personal cameras and mobile phones showing systematic shelling of hospitals.
It contains testimony from UN officials, including Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, who alleges that there had been “roughly 65 attacks on medical points that were treating civilians”. He says: “It probably constitutes a war crime.” Vany Kumar, a British biomedical technician who was caught up in the fighting when visiting Tamil relatives and was under fire in the hospitals, gives evidence as a witness to the attacks.
In The Independent last week, C4’s most senior news executive defends the decision to broadcast the images but also warns viewers against tuning in. Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs, said: “I don’t urge you to watch this programme. It’s horrific. The images will remain in your mind, maybe for years.”
Channel 4 first showed images of Sri Lankan troops committing alleged summary executions in 2009, soon after the end of the war. The Sri Lanka government on that ocassion too accused the broadcaster of fabricating the footage.
At the time we published two news stories regarding the footage following which both the News Editor and myself, received threats, written in red ink warning that we would be “chopped” to death if we did not stop writing.
If ever an argument holds strong in favour of the media using distressing images to jolt society the C4 video is an excellent example. We are the tool – to provoke moral umbrage – to convey or reveal hidden truths against humanity, to make people shout for justice in the face of crimes committed by both sides in a war where there were no witnesses – for action to be taken – then we must do our job and stand tall holding up that mirror to society – without fear or favour.
What is deeply worrying in this context – in the light of the C4 video is the shyness of the Sri Lankan media. Our media needs to take some deep introspection on what prevents us from doing our job. Is it fear, prejudice or lack of respect towards humanity?
That the LTTE assassinated presidents and invented the suicide belt, that the Tigers used civilians as human shields, is no defence from the charge that Sri Lankan soldiers may have summarily executed prisoners in their custody.
Sri Lanka is trying to pretend these events are now confined to history, as the economy and tourism pick up. They are not. This evidence has to be faced. Mahinda Rajapaksa must hold those that need to be held – responsible. He must show sincerity in punishing those that carried out such crimes if indeed they were. For only, then can the path to reconciliation be walked.
The goal of defeating the Tamil Tigers was not wrong. The organisation ruthlessly used civilians as human shields and had few qualms about killing non-combatants. Any judicial inquiry should seek to punish its crimes too. But the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa is in danger of squandering the real opportunities presented by peace through its refusal to seek a broader reconciliation with the disadvantaged Tamil community. A transparent investigation into suspected war crimes is part of that process.