When Sri Lankan forces repelled a raging eight-week Tamil Tiger
offensive this month, the government of this deceptively tranquil
island breathed a huge sigh of relief. Army sources reported many
acts of bravery by Sri Lankan troops, who rallied after heavy
Yet due to a news blackout, the heroism of the soldiers got scant
coverage in the Sri Lankan press.
Press censorship here reached full force this spring when a
stronghold called Elephant Pass was taken for the first time by the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The loss signaled a
critical moment in a 17-year ethnic war - since the Tamil Tigers
appeared ready to take the Tamil-majority city of Jaffna, giving
them a capital for the separate state they desire in the north.
Yet with no journalists allowed in the war zone, and with an
ongoing official 20- person censoring team - readers abroad knew
more about the war than ordinary Sri Lankans.
Press censorship in wartime is nothing new. But the official
strictures are now so pervasive in Sri Lanka, experts say, that they
symbolize a deeper condition in which the jungle war - whose outcome
still hangs in the balance - has become an abstraction in the
nation's own skyscraper-studded capital. Most of the majority ethnic
Sinhalese in Colombo, in an informal poll, have never traveled to
the 90 percent ethnic Tamil north country.
To have reported on the heroism of the soldiers, for example,
would also raise questions about the gravity of the war situation -
and be grist for criticism of the government.
Indeed, numerous critics and diplomats say the distance between
elites in Colombo, and the actual state of hostilities in the North,
would require a novel like "Alice in Wonderland" to describe.
The ugly and petty infighting among wealthy ruling families in
the capital has led to media controls that go far past reasonable
measures, they say. Such a state slows a resolution of the war -
which requires new levels of cooperation between the two main
political parties, which have long exploited each other's troubles,
even at the expense of the larger crisis in Sri Lanka.
"It is like living in a fantasy world," says Jayadeva Uyangoda, a
political scientist at the University of Colombo, "The ruling class
demonstrates an amazing capacity not to read the handwriting on the
wall. This is a nasty time for us. The fall of Jaffna would have
serious consequences. But we don't really discuss it."
Currently, Sri Lankan papers often publish white space or a
"censored" logo where text has been edited out; the BBC and CNN TV
cable feeds on the island are blacked out during reports on the
fighting. Private newspapers are scrutinized by the information
ministry more closely than the public press, in this highly literate
society. Several editors and journalists say in recent weeks they
have started a dangerous practice of self-censorship, rather than
write stories that will get cut.
Technically, only war news and commentary that could "incite"
violence is verboten. But in practice the guidelines are so fuzzy
that the official red pencil marks out much news perceived simply as
negative, editors say - from reports on labor strikes, to comment on
how the war affects the local economy, to the fact that a government
military recruiting drive for 15,000 soldiers has only netted about
1,000 new recruits. No live broadcasts are allowed.
"The magnitude of the war and the suffering doesn't get through -
the censorship hides it," says Jehan Perera, spokesman for the
National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. …