Italy, Tigers and The Island

Italian Ambassador in Colombo Pio Mariani has made an issue of two recent references to Italy in this newspaper-one in a news item, UN confirms DM charge of INGO vehicles in LTTE hands on July 03 and the other in an editorial, Probe INGOs with terror links on Aug. 01. (Please see the opposite page for the ambassador's letter and our background material.) While exposing how assets belonging to an INGO called Norwegian People's Aid had got into the LTTE's hands, we pointed out that Italy, among others, had sent truckloads of goods to the LTTE direct in 2005.

Mr. Mariani has not only taken umbrage over our articles but also fired a broadside at us. Ambassadors, including our men and women, are lying abroad for the sake of their countries and their consternation as regards unkind comments affecting their interests and their attempts to counter them are natural. But, it is nothing but hubris and chutzpah on their part to try to ridicule the messenger and pontificate about responsible journalism and newspaper ethics without arguing their case successfully.

Here is the main thrust of Mr. Mariani's diatribe against us: "Those reports [one is an editorial!], represent yet again, another example of careless and superficial journalism, of which, lately, we have seen many examples in Sri Lanka, far from those ethical principles that every journalist should uphold, as pointed out several times by the Minister of Mass Media and Information, when he stresses the need for a more responsible media. The inaccuracy of those articles could have been easily prevented, had their authors taken the trouble to contact this Embassy on the matter."

We are simply intrigued. While the EU is hauling the present Sri Lankan government over the coals over allegations of suppression of media freedom, attacks on journalists etc., Italy seems to subscribe to the Media Minister's assessment of the Sri Lankan media! Mr. Mariani has also thought it fit in his wisdom to copy his letter to The Island to the Media Minister and two other ministers! Curiouser and curiouser!

Well, Mr. Ambassador, we will prove that it was with utmost responsibility that the aforesaid news item and the editorial were penned. Here we go!

The first news item on Italian supplies reaching the LTTE direct was published in The Island on Jan. 05, 2005 within days of the Boxing Day tsunami. (Please see the opposite page.) We said, "An Italian government delegation led by Stefan Zanini of the Italian Foreign Ministry had handed over the consignment to the LTTE in Kilinochchi on Tuesday." The following day (Jan. 06, 2006), we said, "The Sri Lankan government has opposed direct international tsunami relief assistance to the LTTE. This follows Tuesday's handing over of ten truckloads of relief material by an Italian delegation to the LTTE political wing leader S. P. Tamilchelvam in Kilinochchi. The Foreign Ministry had reiterated the government's stand on the distribution of international aid among the tsunami affected districts to the Italian Ambassador Salvatore Zotta. Government sources said that Ambassador Zotta assured that there wouldn't be further consignments to the LTTE."

These two reports, as Mr. Mariani will see, are over three and a half years old and neither the Sri Lankan government nor its Italian counterpart has even tried to dispute them all these years. For, they are factually accurate. Our recent articles were based on them! If the delivery of Italian goodies direct to the LTTE had been done 'with authorisation, approval and under the control of the Government of Sri Lanka', as Mr. Mariani claims, why did the Sri Lankan government raise objections and why on earth did the Italian Ambassador at that time, Mr. Zotta assure the Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry that there wouldn't be any further consignments to the LTTE? If our journalism had been 'careless' and 'superficial', Mr. Zotta should have sent us a thundering rebuttal immediately. He didn't! Mr. Mariani, do you still 'deplore the fact that [The Island] newspaper should play in such a casual, inaccurate and superficial manner with such important issues'?

"The Island is aware," declares Mr. Mariani sagaciously yet quite unnecessarily, "that the Government of Sri Lanka has continued paying the salaries of public servants in un-cleared areas, even though it knows that some of that money will be forcibly taken by the LTTE but I do not suppose that the Government of Sri Lanka can be accused of aiding the LTTE."

A good attempt at obfuscation but very bad logic! A classic non sequitur, to put it precisely! Delivery of goods to a terrorist outfit and paying public servants under its jackboot are poles apart! The government of Sri Lanka, as far as we are aware, doesn't send money to the LTTE for the payment of the salaries of public servants and, therefore, does not commit the offence of aiding the LTTE.

Mr. Mariani regrets that the ill-fated P-Toms, an ill-conceived mechanism devised to help the LTTE share tsunami aid with the government collapsed. "The P-Toms agreement raised many expectations that unfortunately were never to materialise," he says. Some members of the international community sought to promote sharing of tsunami aid between the government and the LTTE so that the latter would be able to gain legitimacy. Little did they realise that had the P-Toms been set up, it would have created a very bad precedent; a terrorist organisation and a sovereign state would have been sharing foreign aid for the first time in the world! That would have sent the wrong message to terrorists the world over.

We have come under fire from several other diplomats over our exposes, which eventually proved to be right. In 2005, we reported that an LTTE leader had been taken to a British warship off the Eastern Coast. Last December, we wrote about a three wheeler ride a western ambassador had taken to an Opposition politician's house in a bid to help lure some government MPs into switching allegiance on the eve of a crucial budget vote. Last year, we exposed a racket where financial information furnished by visa applicants to an embassy in Colombo was being leaked out to kidnappers. (Although we did not name the foreign mission concerned-our intention was only to warn the public-the US Ambassador and the British High Commissioner trained their guns on us collectively due to some misunderstanding. We explained our position editorially and pointed out that our report had nothing to do with their countries.) Later, none other than President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself revealed at a meeting with media heads that there was such a racket. We have exposed how life jackets and boats belonging to foreign organisations have ended up in the LTTE's hands. We were the first to report the abduction of two UN workers by the LTTE last year, a fact that was not known even to the UN Headquarters until then! An attempt by a UN worker to smuggle a micro pistol used by the LTTE death squads into a cleared area was exposed in this newspaper. We were the only paper to say with confidence that 'Sri Krishna', an Indian trawler had been seized by the LTTE and fishermen massacred off the Kanyakumari coast last year while many others tried to blame it on the Sri Lanka Navy. We were proved right when the Maldivian Coast Guard intercepted that vessel with LTTE arms smugglers on board. Among the other matters we exposed were funding by the international community of the LTTE's bogus mine clearing operations and large stocks of arms finding their way into the LTTE's hands from China through the arms black market.

Mr. Mariani finally says that Italy has always strongly and unreservedly condemned any form of terrorism and prides herself to be counted amongst the best friends of Sri Lanka. So be it! As for the delivery of goodies to the LTTE by Italy, we only quote the Vienna Convention of April 18, 1961, the Article 3 (e) of which says that dealing directly with rebel organisations within a recipient state is an unfriendly act. Howzaaat?

Since the good Italian Ambassador has given us some gratuitous advice which is as sweet as vinegar, we wish to suggest to him very respectfully that homework be done before pen is put to paper.

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