When I was asked by al-Jazeera Television to be interviewed with regard to an article in the Guardian about the latest Channel 4 film on Sri Lanka, they kindly sent me a link which showed previous stories on Sri Lanka. The most prominent below the current story was an article by Gethin Chamberlain entitled ‘Civilians held in Sri Lanka camps face disease threat’.
The name and the headline brought back many memories of the tremendous threats Sri Lanka faced back in 2009. The article was written by Gethin Chamberlain in Menik Farm on April 20th that year. This was part of an effort we made then to show journalists what was going on. Most of them reported honestly, in particular the Indian journalists, who were able thus to assuage the fears of many of those in Tamil Nadu who might have succumbed to negative propaganda.
In that sense those of us who wanted an open policy with regard to journalists were justified. But we were not helped by Gethin Chamberlain and a few others, who somehow seemed determined to denigrate Sri Lanka at every conceivable opportunity. The headline he used on April 20th exemplifies this approach, with its highlighting of a ‘disease threat’.
But we were used to this by then. For several months before this, we had read reports that noted that there had been no epidemics amongst those the Tigers had forcibly taken with them when they retreated, despite the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which they were forced to live. But most such articles predicted an epidemic soon, though when nothing of the sort occurred, there were no plaudits for our health services, which we kept going throughout the war. Similarly, there were constant warnings of possible outbreaks of disease at Menik Farm, with no appreciation by journalists of the fact that they were proved wrong. Not unsurprisingly, none of them picked up on the appreciation extended by the UN to the Sri Lankan government for having avoided the catastrophe that had been so confidently predicted.
Gethin Chamberlain was not in fact the Guardian correspondent, as I was firmly told by the actual correspondent in India, he simply wrote for the Guardian while the regular correspondent was away. Sadly this happened a lot in those crucial months, so we had to make do with young Gethin. He in turn seemed to rely heavily on ‘Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka’, with a typical quote from whom this particular story ends. He ‘said of the camps: “It is a nasty place to be and it is distinctly uncomfortable’.
With Gordon as his principal informant, it is no wonder that the stories Gethin filed over the next few weeks had constantly to be corrected. On May 29th there was a story by Gethin along with a Julian Borger that was headlined ‘UN calls for inquiry on ‘unacceptably high’ civilian death toll in Sri Lanka’. The website reveals however that
‘The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Tuesday 2 June 2009.
In the headline of this article we overstepped the facts. The United Nations has made no such call. As the story reported, this suggestion came from the head of the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs, who was also quoted as saying that some member states had little appetite for such an inquiry.’
It was in that article that Sir John Holmes, the Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was cited as having denied that the Times claim that 20,000 civilians may have been killed was not ‘based on UN figures’. But that admission is now forgotten, and instead we have opinions from unnamed UN officials, including a comparison with what happened in Gaza. The fact that we were dealing with a heavily armed terrorist organization on Sri Lankan soil, holding civilians as hostages, whereas the Israelis were attacking established communities, is forgotten. We are presented as villains, with Israel an unfair target of international criticism by anonymous UN officials who clearly think that the UN is wrong in this regard.
A few months later we have yet another correction of a Gethin Chamberlain article. This says
‘The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Friday 2 October 2009.
In the article below we said that according to the UN, only 2,000 people had been released from the Sri Lankan government’s internment camps for Tamils. This was incorrect: between 5 August and 14 September, the UN says, 5,153 people were returned to their places of origin. A further group of 6,615 – mainly people who are older or have disabilities – were released into host families or homes for older people up to 9 September. That makes a total of 11,768 released from camps. Another 2,788 people were transferred to their districts of origin between 11 and 15 September but were living there in transit sites (that is, camps). According to UN figures, a total of 262,599 people remained in the internment camps on 15 September.’
Interestingly enough, the article states baldly that ‘the UN says only 2,000 have so far been released.’ The conclusion is inescapable that Gethin has been once again talking to sources in the UN who deliberately tell lies. They may not realize they are liars, because they think they are serving some sort of cause, but it is sad that a journalist, even an irregular one, is not more careful.
I say this advisedly, because there is no correction made of Gethin’s most outrageous lie. This occurred on May 21st, when he wrote
‘Detainees in one of the camps told the Guardian that a number of female Tamil Tigers have been murdered after giving themselves up to the authorities. The bodies of 11 young women were allegedly found with their throats slashed outside the Menic Farm camp near the town of Vavuniya, according to people being held behind the razor wire perimeter. The women’s short haircuts are understood to have made them easily identifiable as former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The bodies are said to have been discovered in the last two weeks, but there is no way of confirming the allegations because access to the camps is heavily restricted….
An official who has visited the camps recently – whose identity is known to the Guardian – said the women’s bodies had apparently been found close to zone II of the camp, where about 70,000 of the more recent arrivals are living under canvas.
“A couple of weeks ago, 11 bodies were discovered. All these women had short hair. This is a tell tale sign of women newly recruited to the LTTE. According to unconfirmed reports, these women had their throats slashed,” the official said. “According to my sources, there are about 1,000 cadres currently in zone III and II of Menic Farm.”
The official said no one was sure who was responsible, but other female residents now feared for their safety. “They have heard reports of women being killed … so now women have told me they feel afraid.”
This story was a complete fabrication. I checked with the UN officials responsible for Protection, who were in and out of the camps, and who were quick to report anything they saw as an aberration to me. They confirmed that there was no basis whatsoever for this story.
Gethin admitted as much when I met him in India a few months later. He told me that he had relied on a source he thought was trustworthy, but he realized now that that source was not reliable. I asked him why he had not issued a correction, but he thought that was not necessary. When I asked him what he proposed to do, he said that he would not be using that source again.
I was appalled. Here is a man who makes an outrageous allegation, and does not correct it when he finds out it is wrong. In a sense I could understand that, since doubtless the Guardian would never again have used material from such a gullible fool if he admitted to such a mistake.
That was what I thought then. But, reading through the article again now, in preparation for the interview with al Jazeera, I realize that Gethin is not as innocent as he pretended he was, when we met in Delhi. He claims he got his information direct from ‘Detainees in one of the camps’ but this was obviously untrue from what he told me. He did not when he wrote the story have contact with ‘people being held behind the razor wire perimeter’.
Indeed, on an earlier occasion too, though blame was attributed then to an editing change, a correction had to be made when a report he filed seemed to be from Colombo. A May 12th article was annotated to read ‘This article was amended on Wednesday 13 May 2009. An editing change to a byline made it appear that our correspondent was reporting from Sri Lanka. The byline should have read Gethin Chamberlain and agencies in Colombo.’ This has been corrected.
In the case of the 11 women, Gethin does admit towards the end of the article that the Guardian was only spoken to ‘through a third party with access to the camps’. But this does not modify the assertion that ‘a number of those detained said they had heard about the discovery of the bodies outside the perimeter’, whereas what Gethin really means is that someone told him that several detainees said they had heard about such a discovery.
All this suggests connivance in deceit between a journalist and an official. If there were greater regard for truth, the Guardian – which Gethin claims knows the identity of the official concerned – should make it clear who this is, why they believed him, and why they have not apologized for such a whopping lie. But it is too much to expect a newspaper to admit such massive errors – just as it was too much for those who broadcast videos they use to denigrate the Sri Lankan government to explain why they lied about the date of the original video, why they lied about the fact that it was edited, why they continue to give credit to officials they know tell lies. And, more worryingly, they have not bothered to engage in any investigation of why such officials have lied so egregiously.