Victory at all costs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 May, 2009, 12:00am

Sri Lanka's government crowed victory over Tamil rebels on Wednesday. Tamil Tigers' leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his lieutenants were dead, it chortled, beaming a video of what it claimed were their corpses to the world. The end of the civil war is obviously good for the nation; the fighting hampered development and had led to the erosion of vital institutions like the rule of law and democracy. But the final weeks of the conflict also highlighted an issue increasingly prevalent around the world: media strangulation.

The government denied journalists access to the war zone. Those who disobeyed were threatened and arrested. Aid workers were barred from refugee camps and hospitals. The three doctors who bravely got word to the world of the atrocities being committed against civilians were this week bundled into custody.

War crimes of the worst kind may have been committed. International laws that are supposed to protect the sick, wounded and homeless during conflicts seem to have been ignored. There are unconfirmed reports of hundreds being killed when hospitals were shelled and it appears that tens of thousands of non-combatants were used by the rebels as human shields. Sri Lanka claims to be a law-abiding democracy, yet it could well have carried out the worst kinds of abuses against its own people.

Words like 'may have', 'could have been', 'would seem' and 'perhaps' have to be used liberally when discussing the military's final push. The lack of journalists and other independent sources of information means that no one knows for sure what happened. UN agencies are still being denied access to refugee camps. The final battle ground remains off limits. With suspected rebels being gunned down on sight and Tamil civilians silenced, it seems certain that the only version of events will be the government's.

Sri Lanka is not the only country where this is happening. Myanmar and Somalia also readily come to mind. Beijing tightly controls access to Tibet , Xinjiang and other sensitive regions. There are scores of such nations and places, under the thumb of governments in the name of 'national security', 'stability' and 'ensuring peace'.

They are being helped by the state of global media. The economic crisis has cut deep into budgets, leading to foreign bureaus being closed and correspondents sacked. Newspapers have been especially hard hit; the internet and other so-called 'new media' have eroded advertising revenue and circulation figures, forcing closures, downsizing and online-only editions.

The result has been on show in Sri Lanka. Armchair journalism has abounded, more often than not ill-informed and trivial. The New York Times, which has more resources at its disposal than many other media groups, covered the war from New Delhi and Bangkok. In the absence of balancing information, what the government handed out was dutifully broadcast or reprinted.

War correspondents deserve the utmost respect. Braving death or injury to let the world know the truth about a conflict is a selfless act. That said, the job is necessary to keep combatants honest.

Much is made of the wonders of 21st-century technology. Never before has the world been so connected. Data and imagery get better with each satellite launch. But such advances are still not good enough to stop a government from committing genocide or keep the participants in a civil war honest.

Sri Lanka is a small island, a long way from the centres of global power. It does not have abundant quantities of natural resources that the world needs. The end of its civil war has been dutifully recorded by many media outlets, but greater attention has been paid to the region's more accessible events: turmoil in Pakistan and Afghanistan, India's elections and piracy off Somalia.

The situation is lamentable. A lack of foreign correspondents leads to ignorance about foreign affairs. By shutting out journalists, governments can ignore the international obligations they have signed up to, to protect the rights of their people. In the end, we all suffer: mass murders will take place, democracy will be denigrated and the threats to global security will grow.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post