CHOGM, Channel 4 and the SL Editors’ Guild


Despite all the calls for a boycott, CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka was a roaring success in terms of attendance (and obviously other criteria as well). Not only did the member countries turn up in force, they were also represented at levels not substantially different to the 2011 CHOGM held in Perth Australia. 

South Africa, Guyana, Nauru, Cyprus, Tanzania, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, and SL itself was represented by their Presidents while Brunei was represented by its Sultan and Tuvalu by its Governor General. Zambia, Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi were represented by their Vice Presidents. Samoa, Swaziland, Tonga, St. Kitts & Nevis, Vanuatu, Malta, Lesotho, Solomon Islands, The Bahamas, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand were represented by their Prime Ministers. Papua New Guinea, was represented by its Deputy Prime Minister. Sierra Leone, Belize, Jamaica, Kenya, Barbados, Mozambique, Trinidad and Tobago. India, Mauritius, Cameroon, St. Lucia and Botswana were represented by their Foreign or Finance Ministers, Canada by its Deputy Foreign Minister, Antiugua & Barbuda, Dominica and St Vincent & Grenadines by Ambassadors.

 How does this compare with the levels of the representatives to the last CHOGM held in Perth Australia? The 2011 CHOGM in Australia was attended by 15 Presidents and Heads of State, 20 Prime Ministers,five Vice Presidents, nine Foreign Ministers and two Ambassadors representing various countries. In comparison, the Colombo CHOGM is being attended by 11 Presidents and Heads of State, 17 Prime Ministers, five Vice Presidents, 12 Foreign or Finance Ministers and three Ambassadors. There are two or three fewer members at CHOGM 2013 when compared to CHOGM 2011. Gambia which attended the 2011 CHOGM has since left the Commonwealth. The Maldives which was present in Perth in 2011 is not represented at CHOGM 2013 due to the political uncertainty in that country at present. Two small island states Grenada and Kiribati which attended the Perth CHOGM have not attended the Colombo meeting. However Dominica and Jamaica did not attend CHOGM 2011, but they are present at the Colombo CHOGM. So who’s going to say that CHOGM 2013 was any less a CHOGM than any that was held before this?

 Unlike any other CHOGM held earlier, merely having this meeting here was the result of a wrenching struggle and the President did not mince his words when he addressed the heads of government meeting. He said "If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant to its member countries, the Association must respond sensitively, to the needs of its peoples and not let it turn into a punitive or judgmental body." And that "We must also collectively guard against bilateral agendas being introduced into the organization, distorting Commonwealth traditions and consensus." The latter was a barely disguised reference to Canada’s attempt to scuttle the Colombo summit. During his brief speech the president in a reference to the obsession of some countries with human rights issues asked, "Can we realistically say that the need for basic facilities, healthcare, education, productive employment, access to food and safe drinking water, eradication of poverty and hunger, are of lesser importance than political concerns?" and he ended his speech with a Pali gatha from the Buddhist scriptures which meant, ‘Let not one take notice of faults of other’s or what they have done or not done. Let one be concerned only about what one has done and left undone,’ thus setting the note for his chairmanship of the Commonwealth for the next two years.

While CHOGM 2013 is clearly a great success and feather in Sri Lanka’s cap, allowing the Channel 4 team to come to Sri Lanka was a bad mistake. When Sri Lanka is hosting the largest gathering of foreign heads of state and heads of government in this country in nearly four decades, the last thing you need is a sideshow that steals the public attention from the main event. Having the Channel 4 team here is the equivalent of Mervyn Silva performing for the TV cameras during CHOGM. From the time the Channel 4 team arrived in Sri Lanka there were (clearly government orchestrated) demonstrations against them at the airport, outside the hotel they were staying at and there was a mob in Anuradhapura to stop the train they were travelling in to the north and these were the events that the news channels were interested in - not CHOGM! No head of state arriving for CHOGM got as much publicity as the Channel 4 team – not even Prince Charles.

Mangala’s masterstroke


Last Friday even after the heads of government meeting had actually commenced, a Derana TV team was shown chasing Callum McRae around the CHOGM press room asking him questions about his documentaries. Sri Lanka should have denied visas to the Channel 4 team just as India did. Everybody would have been better off without the news bulletins during CHOGM being full of footage showing people holding placards and shouting slogans against Channel 4. The most damaging of all were the demonstrations on two consecutive days outside Sirikotha, the UNP headquarters. What does it look like when the headquarters of the main opposition is surrounded by pro-government demonstrators during a major gathering of world leaders in Colombo?

The demonstration outside Sirikotha last week showed the amazing ability of Channel 4 to destroy Sri Lanka’s image, by their mere presence, and without even a documentary to show! It was the presence of the Channel 4 team at Sirikotha which attracted the pro-government demonstrators to the UNP headquarters. The world leaders, foreign ministers, businessmen, youth and NGO representatives who were in the country for CHOGM would naturally think that this was what daily life is like for the Sri Lankan opposition. It would be futile to tell any of them that this was a very unusual occurrence and that those who surround Sirikotha usually are members of the UNP itself, calling for the resignation of their leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and that what the government does in such instances is to protect RW by either blocking the roads or deploying the police.  The spectacle of the main opposition party headquarters surrounded by pro-government demonstrators is a blot on CHOGM. Nothing like that would ever have been witnessed in any country that hosted the heads of government meeting.

It was in a way, a political master stroke on the part of Mangala Samaraweera to invite Channel 4 to UNP headquarters as that was guaranteed to provoke a reaction from the government. Nothing that either he or RW did or said would ever have provoked a demonstration by pro-government types outside Sirikotha. Usually its UNP types who would be demonstrating against what they do or say! After last month’s running battle in the Matara town between the pro-Ranil and anti-Ranil factions in the UNP, Mangala Samaraweera was involved in a battle to restore the anti-government credentials of the Ranil faction of the UNP. He even made a statement in parliament to the effect that the government was trying to assassinate him because he was a critic of the government. But that did not make much headway. For a few tantalizing hours it seemed as if he had pulled off what he wanted by inviting the Channel 4 team to Sirikotha. Not only was the UNP headquarters surrounded by a pro-government mob, there was even some low level violence with a few stones thrown and demonstrators banging on the windscreen of RW’s vehicle. The second day was even better with the Bodu Bala Sena joining the fray.

For a brief moment, it appeared that the UNP had assumed the role of principal opponent of the Rajapaksa regime not just in the eyes of the foreign visitors to Sri Lanka, but even in the eyes of the locals. The UNP had been radicalized, defying the government and even resisting and successfully beating off an invasion by the BBS. The anti-Ranil faction in the UNP would have been chewing their rear ends in anguish as they watched months of hard work washed away in a matter of hours. In normal circumstances, those scenes outside Sirikotha should have translated into a consolidation of power for RW. But opposition to him in the UNP is now so strong that the pro-UNP media organizations which have taken the lead in the battle to oust RW from the party leadership hardly missed a step despite the setback.

From the first day the demonstration took place outside Sirikotha, the pro-UNP media was shouting from the rooftops  that Mangala Samaraweera had brought Channel 4 into party headquarters, thus unnecessarily incurring another public backlash against the UNP. That is a line that that they can sell to a very large constituency in the UNP which is jittery about the ‘anti-national’ proclivities of some individuals in the party which they feel is undermining their prospect of being able to come back into power. By last Friday, all that could be heard from the pro-UNP media was that the pro-Ranil faction had allowed pro-LTTE NGOs to hold an exhibition inside the party headquarters and then brought Channel 4 to cover it. Members of the UNP, even parliamentarians have begun openly criticising RW and Mangala Samaraweera for bringing Channel 4 to the party HQ. So it appears that while the sight of pro-government demonstrators outside the main opposition party HQ would have generated international sympathy for the UNP, this may not translate into a revival of fortunes for the pro-Ranil faction at the local level.

 The SL Editors Guild & the British media

While CHOGM is the hottest topic at the moment in Sri Lanka, in Britain the most contentious topic at this moment are the moves that are afoot to regulate the out of control media in that country. The Royal Charter on Press Regulation was given the Queen’s ascent just two weeks ago. This Royal Charter made waves in Sri Lanka as well with the Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka writing to the British Prime Minister David Cameron protesting against the new regulations. The SL Editor’s Guild’s statement got a lot of publicity in Britain. The present writer begs to differ from the Sri Lankan Editor’s Guild and wishes to suggest that the British political establishment should be allowed to put their mad dogs on a leash.  While it is true that Britain has many shining examples of exemplary journalism, there is a section of the British press that is destroying not just Britain but outsiders like us as well – a good example being Channel  4.

There was much soul searching in Britain following the revelation that some media organizations engaged in practices like hiring private investigators to hack into the phones of targeted individuals and to bribe officials to obtain information they need.  This is what precipitated the setting up of the Leveson Commission in 2011. Lord Justice (Brian) Leveson released in November 2012 a four volume report titled "An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press". The Royal Charter on Press Regulation seeks to implement some recommendations made in this report to ensure greater accountability of the British media. Alex Owens, the senior investigating officer in the British Information Commissioner’s Office, which investigated the phone hacking scandal told the Leveson Committee that he was never allowed to so much as speak to any journalist much less interview them in relation to criminal proceedings. The Information Commissioner’s Office sought to deal with the press involvement by way of the Press Complaints Commission. Thus even the law enforcement authorities feared the British press.

The fact that this Royal Charter has got the support of all three main political parties in Britain, the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal-Democrats is an indication of the public outrage in Britain at the practices of a certain section of the Press. Indeed, the circuses that we have been seeing over the past few days in relation to Channel 4, reflects the outrage of the Sri Lankan public against a section of the British media.  Channel 4 has shown us Sri Lankans what the British public has to endure on a daily basis. The Leveson report observed that Immediately after the death of Princess Diana, (who was basically hounded to death by a section of the highly predatory British media) there was an improvement in the way the media conducted themselves due to public outrage. But after a couple of years things had started deteriorating again.

The British government can hardly be blamed for trying to rein in the British press. But while there may be a need to regulate the British press in the larger interests of the public, there is no need to regulate the Sri Lankan mainline media because we are not out of control predators like many sections of the British press.  The Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka is certainly right when they say that the British Royal Charter on Press Regulation may become a prototype for press regulation in other countries as well. But this is a danger we will have to live with.  Lord Leveson observed in his report that "a press that is free and nothing else will not necessarily enhance democracy."

At times the Leveson report reads like a report on the British press coverage of the Sri Lankan conflict. Before Channel 4 came on the scene, it was the British print media and in particular The Times that started publishing wild allegations of war crimes against Sri Lanka. The Times said in a report on Friday the 29th of May 2009 that according to UN sources that they declined to name, that up to the end of April 2009, the civilian death toll was around 7,000 and that after the 1st May 2009, this increased exponentially to about 1,000 a day until the war ended on the 19th May. On the basis of this calculation, they claimed that the final death toll was around 20,000. That was the first casualty figure to appear in the foreign press in relation to the Sri Lankan war.  

But in August 2009, the US State Department put out a compilation of reports on incidents that had taken place between January and April and the US had collected every bit of information they could from all available sources including the ICRC and the UN but the casualty figures in the US report do not come anywhere near the figure of 20,000 mentioned in The Times and certainly not 1,000 per day from the 1st to the 19th of May 2009. There was no way that the Americans could have missed a casualty figure of 1,000 deaths a day over a period of two weeks, which clearly shows that the number of 20,000 was mere speculation. To this day, the UN has never officially put out any casualty figure for Sri Lanka.

In relation to the number of civilian casualties in Sri Lanka’s war, The Times was quoting UN sources that could not be named. Lord Justice Leveson, referring to the abuse of confidential sources by the British press, observed that in such instances, the reader has no way of knowing whether there was a source at all or whether the source was reliable and that it was impossible, for readers to assess for themselves the evidential basis for what is apparently being put forward as fact. While on the one hand, there was an obligation on journalists to protect their confidential sources, some journalists habitually refer to ‘sources’ even where the latter do not exist.

Many witnesses who came before Lord Leveson complained of stories being inaccurate or misleading. When Lord Leveson asked one newspaper editor whether they ‘spin, embroider and weave around the edges of the story’ in order to ‘make it more appetizing and entertaining to its readers’,  the editor had cautiously replied " I wouldn’t quite put it in those words, but as I say, it’s written in a style that we know works for our readers." Lord Leveson’s conclusion was  that "Consideration will need to be given to whether insufficient standards of care have been applied to avoiding the publication of inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, with a view to attracting purchases." He observed that the requirement for accuracy is the foundation stone on which journalism depends and that there is evidence of deliberate invention and fabrication of stories by sections of the British press. Lord Leveson further observed a tendency for sections of the British press to report political and social issues inaccurately in order to fit into the worldview of the media organization.

He observed that fictional stories published by newspapers very quickly become "popular truth" by virtue of repetition in other newspapers, blogs and websites. (This happened to the estimate of 20,000 civilians killed in Sri Lanka which was published by The Times, and repeated by almost all the other news outlets quoting The Times.) Some of the findings of the Leveson inquiry seem to refer directly to the practices that Channel 4 has adopted in relation to Sri Lanka. One was the willingness by media organizations to run stories supplied by third parties with little or no basis in truth. (Channel 4 has been using video clips supplied to them by third parties and broadcasting them as evidence for one thing or another in a situation where such video clips can easily be manufactured in Tamil Nadu.  Even commercial Sinhala films are dubbed in Tamil Nadu.)  Leveson also observed that some sections of the press have deliberately invented stories with no factual basis in order to satisfy the demands of a readership (or viewership as in the case of Channel 4).

There was one such instance in relation to the Sri Lankan Tamil question that has to be mentioned here. During the last few months of the war in Sri Lanka, thousands of Tamils camped outside the British parliament demanding that the British government intervene to stop the war in Sri Lanka. One Tamil protestor Parameswaran Subramanyam went on hunger strike. Lord Leveson observed that a story in the Daily Mail alleged that Subramanyam had sustained himself with McDonalds hamburgers during his hunger strike and quoted an anonymous ‘police insider’ and ‘a source’ saying that police surveillance cameras had captured him eating the hamburgers. The story, it transpired, was entirely untrue: there was no police surveillance, there was no consumption of hamburgers and the Mail paid substantial damages for defamation!

In one instance, a leading journalist appearing before Lord Leveson admitted to have digitally altered a photograph to show Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed kissing, when the original showed nothing of the sort. So alteration of material to tell an attention- grabbing story is part of the stock in trade of the British media and one of the reasons for the introduction of the Royal Charter on Press Regulation. Leveson also stated that sections of the press had taken ‘agenda journalism’ to a point where it transgressed into the realms of invention and/or reckless inaccuracy. Another observation was that the willingness of newspapers to pay for stories encouraged distortion and exaggeration on the part of sources and incentivized fabrication of material, particularly as the materials provided may frequently go unchecked and unverified.

 What the Royal Charter envisages is to set up a ‘Recognition Panel’ which would accredit the self regulatory bodies voluntarily set up by the media organizations and ensure that these self regulatory bodies met certain criteria. Publishers, civil servants and politicians serving or retired would not be allowed to sit on the Recognition Panel which will be the apex body in the regulatory set up. The Recognition Panel will accord recognition to a self regulatory body only if it meets 23 criteria. These criteria stipulated among other things that the regulatory body should be governed by a board independent of both the media industry and the government. However these regulatory bodies were to be funded through a levy on member media organizations. The self regulatory bodies were to have a standards code which must take into account among other things, the interests of the public which included preventing the public from being seriously misled, and the rights of individuals, the treatment of other people in the process of obtaining material and respect for privacy where there is no sufficient public interest justification for breach of privacy; accuracy, and the need to avoid misrepresentation.

 The self-regulatory body would hold members strictly accountable for any material that they publish, including photographs, however sourced. All self regulatory bodies should have an adequate and speedy complaint handling mechanism and they should hear from anyone personally and directly affected by the alleged breach of the standards code. The regulatory bodies should have the power to impose fines of up to one million pounds on any member for serious or systemic breaches of the standards code. The promulgation of this Royal Charter means that those affected by the villainy of sections of the British media will have proper redress for their grievances. After experiencing what The Times and Channel 4 did to this country, how can anybody in Sri Lanka argue that the British media does not need regulating? It is no accident that it was The Times which started the war crimes fabrications against Sri Lanka that was also responsible for the phone hacking scandal which has now led to this Royal Charter on Press Regulation.

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