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Telling the truth about war

by Savitri Hensman, 21 January 2009

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The Guardian, 19 January 2009

Ethnic nationalism has a quasi-religious appeal, and in times of conflict the state may be treated as a god

“Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.”

So wrote Lasantha Wickramatunga, in a chillingly powerful editorial published after his death. The editor of the Sunday Leader, a vigorous critic of the Sri Lankan government, was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital, Colombo, on 8 January.

At times of war, journalists can come under enormous pressure not to report inconvenient truths. This comes in part from governments intent on appearing in a favourable light. For example, the Sri Lankan authorities have been keen to publicise the successes of their military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who have been battling for a separate state. They have been less willing for the cost of the conflict, and the plight of ordinary Tamils, to be exposed. Neither side has given priority to the safety and welfare of civilians, or seriously sought a political solution based on strengthening equality and regional democracy.

This is far removed from the image portrayed by state propaganda of heroic and victorious soldiers under a wise and virtuous government. The Israeli government, likewise, has been putting much effort into its media strategy, with considerable success, though a few journalists such as Uri Avnery continue to portray a different picture even within Israel. He has been harassed and physically attacked for his views.

But it is not only governments which press journalists to distort their coverage. Ethnic nationalism has a quasi-religious appeal to much of the public, and in times of conflict the state may be treated as a god, with government leaders its high priests. Critics are widely regarded as traitors, and treated as if they were blasphemers.

"Traitors like you, like your boss, play into the hands of terrorists," reads one response to a news report about an opposition MP who had dared to question the conduct of the war. According to an article published on LankaWeb in early January, "When the whole world has engaged in the ’war on terror’, Sri Lankan brave armed forces have claimed the first great victory for the records [sic]. Within few weeks or couple of months Sri Lanka shall be cleaned from the menace of terrorism as the terrorists will be eliminated and the start of eliminating of other political traitors shall begin. Thank you Mr President Mahinda Rajapaksha, secretary of defence, commanders of the armed forces, police, all other security forces, institutions and all servicemen and women! May you all be protected and guided by the noble triple gem and all good guardian deities!"

Though God or the Buddha may be invoked by such "patriots", these would seem to serve as little more than mascots: it is the nation which must be worshipped and its leaders (or those who claim to defend its interests) obeyed. In the course of this, the usual ethical rules can be ignored.

Such an approach not only fuels violence but is also profoundly morally corrupting, undermining what is best in society, and undermining apparent victory.

As Uri Avnery warned, "War – every war – is the realm of lies ... The trouble is that propaganda is most convincing for the propagandist himself. And after you convince yourself that a lie is the truth and falsification reality, you can no longer make rational decisions."

"The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel," wrote Lasantha Wickramatunga.

“From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves.

I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your president to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish.”

Painful truths must be faced if people are to be free to thrive.