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Eelam war IV: Fighting Tigers on MEDIA front

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Eelam war IV: Fighting Tigers on MEDIA front
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An influential section of the media stepped up pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government as the LTTE launched Eelam War IV with a massive attack on Trincomalee and the Jaffna frontline in August 2006 after almost succeeding in blasting troop carrier Jetliner as it approached the Trincomalee harbour carrying over 1000 officers and men.

The August offensive marked the beginning of major ground battles after three years of low intensity confrontations and a media campaign which vilified what a section of the media called the Rajapaksa troika. Although, the President and Basil Rajapaksa had skilfully engineered a series of crossovers in Parliament to strengthen the ruling coalition and also won over many media personalities who had been with the UNP, the enemy retained a powerful media grouping which took on the government until the very end of the LTTE last May. An attempt by the LTTE to reach an agreement with the government, shortly before the army wiped out its leadership on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, with the help of a British journalist revealed the level of their relationship. To the credit of the government, it effectively used those UNPers who had been at the forefront in the campaign against Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election campaign to target the UNP as well as the LTTE.

A section of the media accused the government, particularly Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of grave human rights violations. The Rajapaksas were also accused of bribing the LTTE to prevent Tamils living in areas under their control from voting for UNP presidential election candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government faced an uphill task in countering the hostile media. UNP dissident Minister Keheliya Rambukwella received the appointment as the Defence Spokesman as no one wanted to earn the wrath of the JVP. Some of his colleagues said that Rambukwella was inviting the LTTE to assassinate him. The government also set up the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) under Lakshman Hulugalle’s leadership to strengthen the coverage of the war. The army media, particularly its website as well as the Defence Ministry website played a pivotal role in countering the LTTE propaganda.

The President went to the extent of appealing to the media to write whatever it wanted on any other issue but not to impede the war effort. He reiterated that nothing could be allowed to undermine war against terrorism. Except for the late H. L de Silva, Gomin Dayasri, Wimal Weerawansa, Champika Ranawaka, Udaya Gammanpila, S. L. Gunasekera and Professor Nalin Silva were among few people who backed the armed forces efforts right through. The LTTE and its international supporters would have exploited the so-called presidential commission on major incidents to their advantage if not for the good work done by a few dedicated Sri Lankans. Those who sane praise of the President, Defence Secretary and armed forces chiefs hadn’t raised their voices in support of the government until the army took the upper hand on the Vanni front.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recently told this correspondent that a section of the pro-LTTE media was playing a different tune after annihilation of the LTTE, including its leadership. The outspoken official said that a once hostile press as anticipated had thrown its weight behind the government.

Sri Lanka’s most successful service chief General Sarath Fonseka, too, expressed a similar sentiment when he shared a meal with a group of journalists at the General’s House at the height of the Vanni battle several months before his troops put LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to death. Fonseka did not mince his words when he revealed that he declined to be interviewed by a particular paper known for its support for the LTTE cause.

The Defence Secretary and the former army chief fashioned the government’s bold response to hostile local and foreign media which blatantly exploited the situation to undermine the government. A section of the Indian press, at the behest of interested parties caused immense problems, particularly SLN operations in the Gulf of Mannar directed at LTTE supply lines from Tamil Nadu.

Navy spokesman Captain D.K.P. Dassanayake, a few weeks before the final battle on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon asserted that the pro-LTTE media had slowly turned its back on the group. Dassanayake, in the presence of the then Northern Commander Rear Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake told a group of visiting journalists at Chalai that the pro-LTTE media had been disappointed by the Tigers collapse. Dassanayake played a significant role in thwarting a media campaign targeting Sri Lanka’s efforts to cripple clandestine sea movements across the Gulf of Mannar. His untiring efforts, I believe, contributed immensely to Sri Lanka’s overall strategy to counter adverse media coverage, both here and in India. But as security forces spearheaded by army chief General Sarath Fonseka gradually took control of the situation, the pro-LTTE media, too, slowly disassociated itself from the group.

In fact, even before the final battle last May, some had abandoned the group fearing being targeted by the government. The recent controversy over the alleged existence of a list of journalists on the payroll of the LTTE highlighted the contentious issue.

Now, that the LTTE had been finished off, it would be pertinent to discuss the entire gamut of media issues relating to war and politics.

In the run up to parliamentary elections early December, 2001, the UNP set the stage for an unprecedented act of treachery. The UNP triggered a media furore by accusing the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) of planning to assassinate its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in the run up to the poll. Wickremesinghe declared that DMI operatives, including some LTTE turncoats planned to target his campaign bus. The then army chief Lieutenant General Lionel Balagalle, move assured the UNP leadership that the army wouldn’t target Wickremesinghe or in anyway interfere with the peace process. But the UNP went ahead with its campaign based on the perceived fact that the army conspired with the CBK government to sabotage the Oslo-led peace process.