Censorship Clouds Information on Sri Lanka's War

All that was left of the Sri Lankan Sunday Times editorial page on the dire situation facing the army on the Jaffna peninsula was one word: "CENSORED."

President Chandrika Kumaratunga in May invoked the Public Security Ordinance a law last used under British colonial rule during World War II imposing censorship and suspending some civil liberties in response to a potential humiliating defeat by secessionist Tamil rebels.

The nearly 30,000 defenders on the Jaffna peninsula in the north can only be supplied by air and sea, but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have begun shelling the only airbase on the peninsula as well as the main port.

The Sunday Times, a paper not identified with any leading political party, submitted its article on the Jaffna campaign to the censor. It was returned marked: "This article, picture/map are censored and are not to be published."

Criticism of the government, individual ministers, policies or the conduct of the war are taboo. With parliamentary elections expected in August, the government has its back to the wall, raising questions about whether it is using the national crisis to silence opposition ahead of the voting.

"It boils down to the point that the government does not want to be embarrassed, particularly with elections around the corner," Sunday Times editor Sinha Ratnatunga told Reuters by telephone.

Kumaratunga is walking a fine line between building national solidarity behind the beleaguered army and keeping the worst news from a public that has lived with bloody ethnic war in the north and east of the country for the past 17 years.

The people now only have the government version to go on. Rebel casualties are overstated, army casualties understated. Retreats are unreported, victories are trumpeted.

Sri Lankan journalists say the people are a lot smarter than the government gives them credit for and know Jaffna's fate hangs in the balance despite the official bravura.

The real giveaway about just how perilous the situation is is the persistent talk that Sri Lanka's final option is to ask India for assistance in evacuating troops and civilians.

News Mismanagement

Ratnatunga believes the government should take editors into its confidence and create more proactive censorship to decide what was against the national interest during this crisis.

"The censorship is counterproductive. Government statements are no longer credible. People don't believe them even when they are true," he said.

In an age when war is televised, Sri Lanka's conflict is off the air. There are no phone lines to Jaffna and journalists are banned from going there. Live broadcasts of current affairs programs, political discussions and news are not allowed.

The censor also vets the output of foreign journalists and photographers, both for print and electronic media. So most people listen to the rumor mill or read between the lines for news from the battle front.

Internet users, just 0.04 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people, can log onto several web sites for the rebels' version of events in Jaffna, but newspapers are not allowed to balance their stories with news from these sources.

Even stockbrokerages do not know what to tell clients in their research reports for fear of offending the authorities. Investment house Jardine Fleming's latest comment on Sri Lanka carried the rider that, in accordance with the government's emergency measures, "we are refraining from publishing news and comments relating to military and political affairs."

Kumaratunga told an Indian newspaper this week that once the military situation in Jaffna stabilizes the government could think about ending the censorship, but meantime "demoralizing" stories amounted to "absolute treachery."

She is also concerned that "irresponsible" reporting could inflame communal relations and incite extremists among the Sinhalese majority to attack peaceful Tamils.

Jousting With the Censor

Editors complain that the censor has not explained how their stories could compromise national security, and they are planning to launch a concerted challenge through the courts.

The Sunday Times group has adopted a "comply and complain" strategy in dealing with the censor while others have been more adversarial. So far the censor has shut down three newspapers.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the opposition United National Party, told parliament the ban on the papers amounted to a suppression of legitimate political opposition.

The Sunday Leader, which is closely identified with the UNP, last week lost its right to print for six months after exposing the censor's view of what can and can't be reported.

In May it submitted two identical articles criticizing two political parties the ruling party and the opposition. The censor objected only to the criticism of the ruling party.

On May 28, the Leader went too far. It ran a story under a banner headline saying "War in fantasy land Palaly not under attack," saying the only airbase on the peninsula, one of the Jaffna army's main lifelines, was not being pounded by artillery, there was not heavy fighting north of Jaffna, there were not so many killed and so on.

The censor, realizing the irony of the italicized "not," shut the paper.