Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Media: If You Are Not Covering Sri Lanka Right Now, Why Not?

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 21 April 2009.

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"A mass slaughter of civilians will take place Tuesday at noon. And everyone knows it." These are the words my colleague used to describe what is happening in Sri Lanka today in his new article for Foreign Policy's online magazine. It is not an exaggeration: what's happening in Sri Lanka is a massacre in progress.

There are over 100,000 civilians trapped in a tiny area, squeezed between the Sri Lankan government forces, who are shelling them, and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) who shoot them if they try to escape. The Army is advancing, and the death toll is rising rapidly. The situation has been compared to Srebrenica -- which many journalists reading this will remember first hand -- but the number of dead already exceeds that Balkan tragedy.

Just because journalists are not allowed into the Sri Lankan conflict zone doesn't mean we don't know what's going on there. We have satellite imagery showing large concentrations of people caught in the fighting, and we have information from reliable sources on the ground. Recent reports that significant numbers of civilians have escaped have not changed the overall figures: independent sources on the ground continue to report 100,000 people or more remain trapped, exhausted, with limited access to food and medicines, and many under fire.

The recent information from the ground -- fresh this morning -- is that as many as 1000 persons were killed in yesterday's operations. The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) have pushed into the No Fire Zone from the north by about 2 or 3 km, and they are currently trying to consolidate their positions around Pokkannai before attempting the next bloody push, which may happen in 2 or 3 days time.

The LTTE are trying to get people to move to the town of Mu'l'li-vaaykkaal, which will become the final battle ground. People are trying to resist the LTTE's demands to be moved, saying they have no bunkers in the south and that they have already had to move too many times.

What can be done? Crisis Group outlined a number of specific steps for the international community in a statement yesterday. Journalists should have a look and try to cover this story not just as some inevitable humanitarian tragedy but as a political problem that political pressure can put an end to.

Of course, some media outlets have been doing an excellent job of covering this crisis: Al Jazeera English, BBC World Service radio and BBC World News come immediately to mind. But other major media outlets have ignored the emergency or given it a ridiculously low priority.

All individuals and institutions with power have responsibility, and the international media are no different. Journalists covering foreign affairs have a duty to ring all available alarm bells when situations get to this level of seriousness and so many human lives are at stake. I urge you to ask relevant officials of your government and of the EU and the UN, what they are doing about it. And ask yourself as a journalist: "If you are not covering Sri Lanka right now, why not?"

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