Thursday, June 04, 2009

A question of credibility

Amnesty International has insisted that the United Nations immediately publicise its estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks of fighting in Sri Lanka. Interestingly, an investigation by the Times newspaper in Britain, drawing on confidential UN sources, stated that more than 20,000 civilians were killed in the last few weeks of the conflict, and suggested that most of them were killed as a result of shelling by the Sri Lankan government.

On Wednesday, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that ignored the plight of more than a quarter of a million displaced Sri Lankans now confined in internment camps by the Sri Lankan military. The resolution failed to call for a fact-finding mission to inquire into allegations of serious violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law by Sri Lankan forces and by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Amnesty International continues to receive consistent reports of widespread and serious human rights violations facing the displaced people, including enforced disappearance, extra-judicial executions, torture and other ill-treatment, forced recruitment by paramilitary groups and sexual violence. The organization feels that by not establishing a similar fact-finding mission for Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Council has demonstrated deplorable selectivity and double standards.”

Here are excerpts from an article that appeared in the Asian Tribune, by Don Wijewardana, an economist and freelance journalist.

The LTTE gave the world not only the suicide vest but also the art of
perpetuating a lie until it becomes accepted as the truth. Now the "Times"
has taken it to new heights. On 29 May the Times reported that evidence gathered by it has revealed that at least 20,000 Tamils were killed mostly by army shelling on the beach as the army closed in on the Tigers. The paper blamed the UN for
underestimating the death toll. The interesting thing is the way they arrived at that figure and how they were able to make sure the army was responsible for most of the deaths. The claim was based on what it said an average of 1,000 deaths each day up to 19 May, the day after the Tamil Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed.

The rest of the media world was aghast. The Guardian and the BBC said they have no good estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks and questioned the methodology used by the Times. The New York Times reported that a coordinator for U.N. humanitarian relief, Elizabeth Byrs, had told that any estimate of the death toll must be based on extrapolation and guesswork. Ban Ki-moon himself told the UN General Assembly "I categorically reject -- repeat categorically -- any suggestion that the United Nations has deliberately underestimated any figures." The Times went on to claim its calculation was based on an analysis of "aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony," and what the paper called "confidential United Nations documents." relying on an anonymous United Nations source.

But U.N. officials had told The New York Times, that they have no good estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks of fighting and questioned the methodology. One described it as a dangerous extrapolation, multiplying by five the figures provided by three doctors who are currently under detention for providing false information. New York Times went on to say that privately, U.N. staff admitted they were puzzled by the methodology used to achieve the new death toll. "Someone has made an imaginative leap and that is at odds with what we have been saying before," one official said. "It is a very dangerous thing to do to start making extrapolations."

I am not quite sure whether the newspaper referred to here is the Times, London, or the New York Times… In any case, if the report is true, it raises serious questions about the credibility of the media and, that too, media considered respectable. Of course, all this arrived on email and sometimes I just wish that the good old days of the postmen would return - at least we knew what was genuine and what wasn't.

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