The appearance of a promotional supplement paid for by Sri Lanka in the same edition as a story detailing claims of torture by the country’s security personnel was far from serendipitous
Sri Lanka‘s civil war, in which tens of thousands of people were killed over a period of 26 years, ended just three years ago. Since then Sri Lanka has been fending off allegations of human rights abuses against its Tamil population to restore its image around the world. Both faces of the country were on show on the same day in the Guardian in what many readers thought was at best a bizarre juxtaposition and at worst an example of crassness or hypocrisy.
A front-page story on 6 June, under the headline “Tamils deported to Sri Lanka being tortured, victim claims“, laid out detailed allegations that Britain is forcibly deporting asylum seekers who are then tortured in Sri Lanka.
Much of the detail was provided by the testimony of one man who claims he was left scarred and suicidal after a two-week ordeal. The former member of the Tamil Tigers’ intelligence service said he was tortured by Sri Lankan security personnel after the Home Office deported him and two dozen other asylum seekers in June 2011. He escaped by bribing his guards, and again fled to London, where he is making another claim for asylum.
Publication of his story – which turned to page 6, accompanied by a graphic picture of the scars on his back – followed a high court decision a week before that halted the deportation of 40 people to Sri Lanka at the last minute, citing human rights concerns. Later that day, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s president, had to cancel a speech in the City of London after concerns about the threat of large demonstrations by Tamil rights groups.
It was a powerful story, which was why readers were puzzled when they found a 24-page supplement on Sri Lanka funded by the country’s government distributed with the same issue. The supplement’s producers ran the following disclaimer down the side of its front-page illustration: “An independent supplement distributed in the Guardian on behalf of The Report Company, who takes sole responsibility for its content. Our sponsors have no control over the content of this editorially-led supplement.”
The headline on the front cover is “Sri Lanka. Asia’s next wonder?”, and the supplement’s clear focus is – unsurprisingly – to promote the country. The civil war is addressed. The first feature, headlined “The place to be”, suggests in a standfirst that “after three years of peace, old wounds are beginning to heal”. President Rajapaksa was interviewed for the supplement, and in it he talks of being able to convince the world in the next few years that “Sri Lanka is truly the emerging wonder of Asia”.
Human rights issues are also addressed. GL Peiris, Sri Lanka’s minister of external affairs, “bemoans a ‘very sharp, almost obsessive focus on the human rights issue'” that he says is driven by the influential Sri Lankan diaspora and what the author of the article calls “a sometimes sensationalist media”.
As one reader put it: “Wonderful juxtaposition of today’s page one headline … and the front cover of your special supplement … Serendipity or what?”
I take the point, but it could not be anything less like serendipity, the occurrence or development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way, as the New Oxford Dictionary puts it. However, I think this unhappy accident is at least clear evidence that the editorial content of the Guardian is not influenced by commercial considerations.
Sponsored country supplements have been distributed with British newspapers for many years. Until two years ago, such supplements in the Guardian would only appear after the commercial department that deals with them had had discussions with colleagues in editorial, but this practice has slipped. It will now be restored to ensure that there is a fuller picture of any problems with any country being considered for such a supplement.
Although the disclaimer on the supplement says the Guardian is not responsible for the content, the act of distribution by the newspaper lends a perception of endorsement – probably more so than a normal advert would – and the opportunity this affords to governments is not one we should provide lightly, if at all.
It is entirely reasonable that Sri Lanka wants to put the past behind it, but the evidence of our front-page story shows that it has not done so, and we should not have distributed this supplement.