Detained without charge in Sri Lanka

I’m a regular subscriber to Jurist, a legal news site run at the University of Pittsburgh. They write excellent explanations and backgrounders of the most interesting legal happenings around the world. This afternoon, I got news that Sri Lanka will be easing emergency regulations and reducing how long the terrorism suspects can be held with out charge. A few days ago, Sri Lanka’s president pardoned a journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam, who was arrested in 2008 under the country’s stringent anti-terrorism laws.

I wrote a piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review last year about Sri Lanka’s broken judiciary — the the emergency rules that extend executive power, violence against attorneys, and the inaccessibility of legal counsel, particularly for those from the embattled North. Much has changed on the island since the end of major conflict between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) last year, but judicial and constitutional problems still plague the country. The piece I wrote about this was a bit long [PDF] so here’s an excerpt:

A journalist’s role in reporting on conflict

Two Sri Lankan bloggers who I read regularly have recently had interesting things to say about the reporters who write about the long conflict on their island. They raise fundamental questions about the role of journalism in society, a debate that is heightened in conflict zones.

Blogger-turned-columnist Indrajit Samarajiva gave this quick bit in a recent post:

“I don’t get why the international media wants to come in and gawk when Sri Lankans are suffering and the pictures are bad, but doesn’t want to see or help actual improvement. Wait, I do get it.”

Is journalism a civic engagement? James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly has argued for “civic journalism” since his book Breaking the News came out in 1997. Here’s how he sums up his argument in Slate:

“The main argument of the public journalism advocates was that reporters and editors should think of themselves as being inside society, affecting through their coverage the way other people thought and behaved, rather than being wholly detached observers from outside. When viewing a society somewhere else in the world, members of the American press accept this point immediately. They know that the existence and quality of information flow will have a huge impact on other aspects of that society—whether people can hold their government accountable, how realistic a picture they have of other cultures, how unified or divided they seem.”

Journalist-turned-blogger Nalaka Gunawardene has a different take on journalists’ roles:

“What we lack – and urgently need – is plain good journalism that covers development, conflict and other issues as an integral part of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving the planet, or making world peace, sound good at beauty pageants. But these catch-all lines don’t give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism that lacks accuracy, balance and credibility – the core tenets of the profession.”

Gunawardene cites remarks by Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy:

“The reporter is there to report. We should be careful not to weigh down the media with additional responsibilities over and above their primary task of providing information. A healthy media environment is diverse and plural; it is there to explain but not take sides. The profession of journalism needs no justification and no sophisticated qualification.”

I’ve written about access to information in Sri Lanka for the Far Eastern Economic Review and continue to delve into the issues surrounding journalism in wars. I’ll be participating in a panel about reporting from hot spots in July at the South Asian Journalists Association’s annual convention, so I am culling ideas for framing the conversation. Are the main questions practical — how can journalists access information and stay safe? — or is it important to focus the discussion on the role of journalism in violent conflicts? Send me your thoughts, especially if you plan to be at the convention.

some recent Sri Lanka reports

When the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) published a report a co-author and I did on the conflict in Sri Lanka, I did not get much of a response. But when they put that report online, the emails and comments began. If new journalism is meant to create community conversation, I hope that this article has done new journalism proud.

The comments on FEER really get to the heart of the debate over Sri Lanka’s current conflict, and indeed anti-terror campaigns around the world. Prasad writes, “Extreme situations require extreme measures and you need extreme personality who will not flinch to carry out what is needed. Gotahabaya [Rajapaksa, the Defense Secretary] is one of these rare men.” John Holmes comments, “Every war has collateral damage. There is no denying that innnocent people get caught in the “cross fire”. Unfortunately this is part of war. However this article is biased, anyone could see. There is no mention of the atrocities committed by the tigers.”

And so the question is, if Sri Lanka’s war is a “war on terror,” what are acceptible casualties? Emily Wax of the Washington Post has done some powerful reporting from Sri Lanka that illuminates both the top-down and bottom-up effects of the war and government counterinsurgency tactics. In a Feb. 22 article, she writes:

But as an end appears to be drawing near, the Tigers continue to practice their brazen, often innovative warfare, including an air raid on the capital Friday night — a flashy show of power that left at least three people dead and 48 wounded. The Tigers invented the suicide jacket, a bomb-laden vest, and the ongoing suicide and guerrilla attacks will persist in Sri Lanka until the Tamil minority is fully participating in society, analysts and diplomats said.

Still, the Sri Lankan government is winning the conventional war, according to military and political analysts, who note that officials took several hard-line steps: They marshaled public opinion to their cause by painting the conflict as a war against terrorism; courted China for weapons without restrictions on their use; and skirted dissent by journalists, aid workers and civil society groups whose public scrutiny of the government and its war efforts was denounced as treasonous, human rights groups have charged.

“In a post-9/11 scenario, ‘terrorist’ became a very dirty word. The government suddenly had an advantage in the international arena in fighting the Tamil Tigers, an organization that the FBI called ‘the most ruthless and efficient terror organization in the world,’ ” said Kusal Perera, head of an independent news Web site, Lankadissent.com. “The world scenario changed in favor of the government.”

Wax’s report, Privacy Goes Public in Sri Lanka, explains profiling and harrassment at security checkpoints, which gives insight into how daily life has changed as detention and questioning by the government become more and more common. The Defense Secretary has given a few interviews about his plans for counterinsurgency; one of the earliest was with the BBC. More recently, SBS of Australia did a lengthy report on the conflict, which ended up being about, well, how difficult it is to report on the conflict. Simon Montlake of the Christian Science Monitor wrote about how Mr. Rajapaksa was influenced by U.S. tactics in its war on terror. For a strong, and larger portrait of the conflict see the Al Jazeera program, Dining with Terrorists.

For recent updates, particularly about the United States’ reactions to claims of human rights violations, I gave a very short interview for the Asia Society podcast, The Weekly Fix. Anil Kalhan gives a good roundup of recent international interventions on the SAJAforum of the South Asian Journalists Association.

Olympics+

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people lately about how the world is covering the Olympics. Along with the palpable excitement and pride on the part of Chinese people, and intrigue and appreciation on the part of folks from other parts of the world, there is a lot of frustration out there.

Is the world looking too closely at politics and human rights and freedom of speech in China? It’s nothing new that the Olympics are politicized by the media (and many other parties) — is there something different and worse about what is happening for China? Or maybe, the media is not paying enough attention to the China’s politics.

Perhaps there’s something more important here — what happens after the Olympics? Will the world still be watching China? Or will they suffer China-burnout and start running cursory stories about mining accidents or human rights and focus solely on financial news?

Here are a few links that might be of interest on these topics:

On Western bias:
China Daily’s reportage on Ban Ki-Moon’s comments

On the Beijing organizing committee and the IOC’s conflicts with the press and each other:
The New York Times’ detailed account of a daily press briefing

On China’s future post-Olympics:
Daniel Lynch in The Far Eastern Economic Review

And here’s a totally different way of looking at the Games (via history) by my former Cal classmate Anka Lee: San Francisco’s local NBC station is publishing his blog (also here). He’s also making short videos.

Would love more links — what have you been reading about China? Do you find the focus fair?