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Cablegate: Trying Times for Journalists in the North and East

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 COLOMBO 000126

SIPDIS


SENSITIVE


DEPT FOR INR/MR, I/RW, I/REC; PA
SA/INS (CAMP, DEAN, WALLER); SA/PD (REINCKENS, SCENSNY,
HROGERS; STRYKER); SSA/PAS

E.O.12958:N/A
TAGS: KPAO PHUM OPRC KMDR OIIP CE LTTE
SUBJECT: TRYING TIMES FOR JOURNALISTS IN THE NORTH AND EAST
OF SRI LANKA


SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED: PROTECT ACCORDINGLY

1. (SBU) Summary. The media scenes in Jaffna and
Trincomalee are dramatically different from each other and
from the scene in Colombo. Local newspapers are king in
the Jaffna media world, with consistently pro-LTTE
reporting and editorials. Coverage of local Muslim issues
in Jaffna is nonexistent. Television, radio and internet
are not viable sources of news on the Jaffna Peninsula. In
contrast, Trincomalee enjoys ready access to national
electronic and print media outlets. Television is by far
the most popular source for news. The vast majority of
Trincomalee residents watch government and independent
newscasts in English, Tamil, and Sinhala. Trinco residents
also read newspapers in their mother tongue, and to a
lesser extent, in English. Reporting from Jaffna and
Trincomalee is difficult: the pay is low and the work can
be dangerous. Professional journalists are few and far
between in both areas. Trincomalee journalists, while
polarized by ethnicity, are compelled to work with
reporters from different ethnic groups in order to get
their stories. End summary.

-----
Getting the news on the Jaffna Peninsula
-----
2. (SBU) Newspapers are king in the Jaffna media world, and
because getting national papers from Colombo up the A-9
road to the North is difficult, local papers reign supreme.
Local newspapers with a strong pro-Tamil bias function as
the primary source of news in the area. Jaffna residents
are not in the habit of cross-checking their news, but even
if they were, would find it difficult to do so. Access to
television and radio is limited because of reception
difficulties - local programming comes from Tamil Nadu, not
Colombo - and is usurped by popular Indian tele-dramas. A
recent improvement to this situation is the late 2003 debut
of government-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation
Tamil National Service in Jaffna. On-line news is
difficult to get: a scarcity of computers means accessing
the internet for news or any other purpose is nearly
impossible for the average Jaffna Peninsula resident,
including journalists.

-----
What Jaffna dwellers read
-----
3. (SBU) Jaffna town and peninsula residents are staunchly
loyal to pro-LTTE UTHAYAN (The Sun), a Jaffna-based Tamil
daily founded nearly 20 years ago. UTHAYAN is famous for
keeping its printing presses running throughout the war,
withstanding mortar attacks and publishing despite
blackouts and a scarce supply of newsprint. UTHAYAN's
staff members eschew electronic layout programs and prefer
labor intensive hand set printing presses, just in case the
lights go out again in Jaffna.

4. (SBU) While circulation figures throughout Sri Lanka are
unreliable, several sources confirm that UTHAYAN
distributes more than 20,000 copies a day on the Jaffna
Peninsula, a number which rivals the circulation of major
national Tamil dailies. UTHAYAN is not distributed outside
of the Jaffna Peninsula. Its absence of reporting on
Muslim issues makes commercial success in the more heavily
Muslim areas of Colombo and the East impossible. UTHAYAN's
three year-old sister paper SUDAR OLI (Light of the Flame)
fills this void, with headlines catering to both Tamil and
Muslim Tamil-speakers in Colombo and the East. Despite its
more Muslim-friendly headlines, SUDAR OLI mirrors UTHAYAN's
editorial content, which invariably ignores Muslim issues
and politicians.

5. (SBU) Although UTHAYAN's editors vehemently defend their
independence and argue that they reflect the aspirations of
all Sri Lankan Tamils, the paper's general reporting and
editorials are invariably supportive of the LTTE and its
activities. UTHAYAN's editorials regularly comment on the
peace talks, world affairs, and issues of concern to Jaffna
residents through a pro-LTTE prism. Editorials from
December 2003, and January 2004 yield examples: commentary
about a Jaffna shooting incident critical of the government
(12/11), an explanation of LTTE taxation and economic
policy (12/17), a caution that India should support the
LTTE (12/18), a series of commentaries critical of
international involvement in Sri Lanka, particularly
American involvement (1/5, 1/7, 1/8), the LTTE political
wing leader's comments on respecting the ceasefire (1/14),
and regular mentions of the "LTTE as the sole
representative of the Tamil people."

6. (SBU) While UTHAYAN's reporting and commentary ignore
Sri Lankan Muslim issues, the newspaper's editors strongly
identify "the Tamil struggle" with the plight of the
Palestinians. When comparing the two groups, UTHAYAN's
editors claim Tamil and Palestinian desires for
independence are parallel and are both stymied by the
interference of big world powers. Anti-American editorials
make frequent appearances, although the editors were warm
and friendly during APAO's visit to their office in the
fall of 2003. The editors took pains to note that it is
the foreign policy of the United States they disliked, not
Americans per se.

7. (SBU) Other Jaffna-based Tamil papers have much smaller
readerships. EELANADU (Eelam Country) is the unofficial
mouthpiece of the LTTE in Jaffna. Founded last year and
funded by the Tigers, its editors have an "open door" with
senior LTTE members, possibly even with Prabhakaran.
Circulation estimates for EELANADU range from 3,000 to
8,000 copies per day. VALUMPURI (Shell), the rumored
former mouthpiece of anti-LTTE Eelam People's Revolutionary
Liberation Front (EPRLF), has changed its stripes. No
longer anti-Tiger, it sells about 3,000 copies a day.

8. (SBU) National Tamil newspapers don't stand a chance
with Jaffna readers, to the distress of local government
representatives who think a more unbiased source of news
would be helpful to their cause in Jaffna. The morning
opening of the A-9 road from Colombo to Jaffna means papers
from the capital don't arrive in stores until midday.
Accordingly, independent Tamil dailies THINAKKURAL (Daily
Voice) and VIRAKESARI (Bold Lion) each sell only about 200
copies daily in Jaffna. VIRAKESARI's Sunday edition
arrives on Saturday and sells about 3500 copies.
Government-owned Tamil daily THINAKARAN (Daily Sun), widely
viewed as pro-Muslim, doesn't sell well at all. The Sri
Lanka Army presence in Jaffna means limited copies of
English and Sinhala dailies are flown in or trucked up
daily. While the Sri Lankan armed forces are their primary
audience, government departments also read them to keep up
with the government notices published in these papers.

-----
Jaffna's journalists
-----

9. (SBU) Working as a journalist in Jaffna is not easy.
The pay is very low, and as a result, most reporters must
have another source of income. Journalistic
professionalism is limited. Most reporters have not had
formal training, and many do not have university degrees.
Reporting is low-tech, usually by telephone and rarely by
fax or e-mail. Jaffna's reporters are divided into two
journalists' associations - one much more pro-LTTE than the
other. Few reporters report recent threats from the
Tigers, despite the LTTE's history of threatening
journalists on the peninsula. In the past, journalists
have also received threats from the Sri Lankan Armed Forces
and Tamil militia groups opposed to the LTTE. In 2000, a
Tamil reporter working for BBC and Tamil daily Virakesari
was killed in Jaffna, allegedly for reporting on human
rights violations by the Eelam People's Democratic Party's
militia, a Tamil party opposed to the LTTE. The case is
still unresolved.

-----
Getting the news in Trincomalee
-----

10. (SBU) Trincomalee is home to a vibrant mix of English,
Sinhala and Tamil print and electronic media outlets.
National media dominates the area. Accordingly, 90% of
area residents get their news via Colombo from government
and independent television broadcasts in English, Sinhala
or Tamil. Government and independent radio broadcasts are
also available in all three languages. In particular, the
BBC's Tamil service is popular with Tamil speakers. Trinco
residents read newspapers in their mother tongue, and to a
lesser extent, in English. Internet news is difficult to
access, as it is for most residents of Sri Lanka.

11. (SBU) Newspapers come from Colombo, but are typically
provincial editions of the national dailies. Major
independent Tamil dailies VIRAKESARI and THINAKKURAL sell
several thousand copies each day, while independent Sinhala
dailies LANKADEEPA (Light of Lanka), LAKBIMA (Land of
Lanka), and DIVAINA (Island) sell several hundred copies
daily. Government-owned Sinhala daily DINAMINA's (Daily
Sun) popularity is limited.

12. (SBU) Muslims read some national Tamil dailies, but
prefer government-owned Tamil THINAKARAN as it focuses more
on Muslim issues than other Tamil dailies. THINAKARAN also
employs more Muslim journalists than other Tamil
newspapers. Frequently anti-American Muslim papers with
small circulations can also be found in Trincomalee.
Muslim-oriented Tamil weeklies, NAVAMANI (New Bell),
MEELPARVAI (Another Look), ENGALTHESAM (Our Nation), and
MUSLIMKURAL (Muslim Voice) come from Colombo in small
numbers.

-----
Reporting from Trincomalee
-----

13. (SBU) During APAO's fall, 2003 visit, many sources took
care to describe local Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils in
familial terms - living together as brothers and sisters -
but journalists described a more polarized reality. Long-
simmering ethnic tension in Trincomalee and its environs
has created a group of journalists with distinctly
different viewpoint and agendas. Local reporting reflects
stronger ethnic bias than members of the local population
will admit to. This phenomenon is complicated by editors in
Colombo who further distort the bias to fit their editorial
agendas, particularly if the story highlights the distress
of their ethnic constituency in the Trincomalee District.

14. (SBU) Reporting in Trinco can be tricky. Given the
area's history of both military and Tiger terror, a Tamil
reporter will likely have difficulty reporting a Sri Lanka
Army story, and a Sinhala or Muslim reporter may not be
able to report on an incident in an LTTE-controlled area.
Depending on their ethnicity, journalists aren't allowed
access to certain areas, or might not cover stories in
areas where they do not feel safe. Nearly all Trinco
reporters are paid by the story, and do not receive a
salary. Economic necessity dictates that despite their
often divergent worldviews, Muslim, Sinhala and Tamil
journalists share information with each other. Nearly all
journalists recount instances when they relied on a
reporter from another ethnic group to help them get the
facts of a story, and give examples of when they did the
same for reporter from another ethnic group. But while
they share information for professional reasons, their
actual reporting tends to reflect their own biases.

15. (SBU) There are three full-time professional
journalists in Trincomalee, all of whom work for multiple
media outlets. Other journalists are part-time and have
less training and experience. The small core of
professional reporters submit their stories by e-mail, but
everyone else uses the phone. Threats to journalists in
Trinco are quite common, sometimes even from members of the
same ethnic group. Nearly all reporters recall instances
of intimidation or attack and note that journalism is a
dangerous profession in Trinco.

16.(SBU) Comment. Journalists all over Sri Lanka work in
difficult conditions, but the conditions in Trincomalee,
and to a greater extent, Jaffna, are especially trying. On
a basic professional level, these journalists find it more
difficult than their counterparts in other parts of Sri
Lanka to access modern technology for transmitting and
fact-checking information. More troubling, reporters in
Jaffna and Trinco enjoy less freedom in their reporting
than do other journalists in Sri Lanka. Living and working
in an area with strong LTTE influence means that a
journalist's reporting must be acceptable to the LTTE. Or
as one source put it, "you're asking for trouble." End
comment. LUNSTEAD

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