31 October, 2020

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Arts Festival Becomes A Government Mouthpiece

By Frances Harrison –

Frances Harrison

Perhaps most shocking was that they came in military uniform to an arts festival. It could have been a bold move to include a session on war reporting in the latest literary event in the Sri Lankan capital – Colomboscope. Sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank and organised by the British Council and Goethe Institute, the boundaries of freedom of expression should at least have been nudged forward a little.

But three of the four-member panel were government spokesmen. The only dissenting voice a very articulate German war correspondent, who didn’t seem to have actually reported on the end of the war in 2009 (another journalist was invited, but later pulled out). She looked increasingly frustrated and uncomfortable as the session proceeded and she came under attack as part of an undefined western conspiracy against Sri Lanka. Her words about coming to terms with the past were applauded by the audience but made little impact on the panelists bent on rewriting history to their advantage.

You only have to read the comments on Twitter to chart the mounting frustration of Sri Lankan journalists in the audience and see how badly managed the event was. There was very little time for audience participation, that might have challenged the views of the panel, where the moderator clearly did not.

The session was entitled ‘Counting the Bodies’, which is suspiciously similar to my book ‘Still Counting the Dead’. There was a willful misquoting of my book too. As part of the argument that wild casualty figures were part of a foreign conspiracy, the number of 147,000 dead was wrongly attributed to me. This is a number cited by a compatriot, the Bishop of Mannar, in his submission to an official commission. It isn’t a figure for the dead, but for the missing and that too derived from government statistics. My book cited the Bishop’s figure, as it did the government’s figures, which vary from zero to seven thousand dead. It’s hard to imagine the two military spokesmen were not properly briefed – this was deliberate obfuscation. Interestingly the military spokesmen received warm applause from members of the audience, clearly comforted and soothed by their assurances that tens of thousands of people were not slaughtered after all.

The debate was supposed to focus on the problems of war reporting but ironically half the panel were those who’d caused the problems – and on purpose. No independent witnesses were allowed by the Sri Lankan army into the no-fire zones – aid workers or journalists and access to the refugees who fled was strictly controlled.

At least I watched ‘Counting the Bodies’ on YouTube (below) and didn’t have to buy a ticket for the event. I hope next year Colomboscope has a session on the end of the war in 2009 where there are three international war crimes lawyers and human rights activists and only one government representative who had nothing to do with the war. That would balance this year’s session.

The British Council in Colombo declined to comment on the session, but emphasised that the festival was “independently curated” by someone outside the council. What’s shocking as a UK tax payer is to find my money is being used to whitewash war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. This is insidious and highly political for an arts festival and not something the British Council should be involved in again.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?fv=q5PU6quAOi4

*This article is first appeared in Asian Correspondent

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Latest comments

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    This is disgraceful. There seems to be no end to government interference in what should be a fair and open discussion. The crimes committed by this government must be so bad and ugly, that they have to send goons to keep covering it up in a format like this. This country has gone to the dogs – journalists attacked, kidnapped or killed, media silenced and intimidated, any voice that speaks against it, attacked, communal violence gone unchecked, condoned or protected, and absolutely no freedom in an arts festival to speak out.
    This is worse than a dictatorship.

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      Many thanks for alerting us to this – threat to progressive cultural activities from the military dicatorship!
      International donors need to be more circumspect about which local partner organizations they select and who they work with, or, liberal organizations like BC and Goethe may inadvertently end up funding the enemy – the cultural censors, human rights violators and the “cultural activities” of the Balu Sena and the military dictatorship that is highjacking education and arts and the culture industry in Lanka!
      this is a good wake up call to the donors re. working too closely with the Rajapakse regime.
      Jeffrey Dobbs of GLF has been hobnobbing with Gota the Goon too it seems..
      What a circus!

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    Dhaksha,
    I agree.
    The Uthayan newspaper has been attacked again and three employees injured,by army intelligence.

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    As a UK tax payer I wish to express my strong displeasure at the British Council’s involvement in an event which seems to have been designed to whitewash the war crimes committed by the Sri Lanka army during the war

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    Arts Festival Becomes A Government Mouthpiece….and
    You have become the mouth piece for the Tigers & their Diaspora.

    Living off the developing world as Brittain is bankrupt due to an unjust and murderous war Brottain waged on Iraq.

    That much pathetic.

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    One of the greatest ironies of Martha Gelhorn was that she never saw the horror being committed against native communities across continental America. She only saw horror across the water. In the wake of the Chilcot inquiry and death tolls reaching many multiples of mullaivaikka, one can assume something like the Gelhorn effect is occurring here.

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    I am sure many will see the irony of this protest from Frances Harrison. Having herself lied and lied and lied again about the ending of the war in Sri Lanka (e.g. the Sri Lankan government “stands accused (in two UN reports) of crimes against humanity and murdering possibly seventy thousand of its own citizens”), she has the cheek to accuse others of “wilful misquoting”!

    In this case it’s Still Counting the Lies by Frances Harrison.

    Very appropriate reference to the blinkered hypocrisy of Martha Gelhorn from Bedrock Barney, by the way.

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    Frances

    The LTTE rump advocating human rights is like the devil quoting scripture. If your one-sided reporting designed to white wash the war crimes of the LTTE is accepted as journalism, I have no problem accepting military men as art aficionados. It is maintaining “balance” as you put it aptly.

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      Oh …. about the UK tax money …..

      Where were you when tax payers’ money in the UK and many other western democratic countries were gifted to LTTE front organizations in exchange for Tamil ethnic vote by corrupt politicians, and the money was used by the LTTE to finance its terrorist activities in Sri Lanka?

      This is a very good example of the kind of one-sided reporting you peddle as journalism without shame.

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    Why don’t you keep the f*** out of Sri lankan affairs and count the number killed by your murderous country the world over during the last 150 years? Is it ok for the empire? You have a God given right to reduce the population?

    You want to start in May 2009?

    You are a sad liar and no one takes you seriously.
    Give up!

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    Unfortunately The majority Sinhalese and their sympathisers are not matured enough to even consider other people point of view.
    This is why the journalist are either threatened to leave the country or killed. This is very very obvious. The BBC itself, which again funded by tax payer, is not neutral during the massacre or ongoing genocide. Very early days 30 , 40 years on of the famous BBC reporter was asked to leave the country. The current reporter(CH) is not neutral,and says whatever the government would expect him to say. This is again unfortunate and wasting our tax payer money. Not for the sake of Tamils , but for the sake of world interest, the truth should come out. Why Syria and Irag, the BBC always talk about–Why not the biggest crime of the world happening in Srilanka is not a news any more.
    There are still good journalist. Dear FH keep up your good work

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    Frances Harrison – What you say on the cyber space of CT cannot be said in Iran, your husband’s land where the Ayatollahs have had a whale of a time destroying democracy and freedom. Why don’t you start counting the dead and disabled in Iran including that muck raking Kasra Naaji who claims he is a relative of the Shah of Iran.

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    GETTING BACK TO THE COLOMBO SCOPE, I THINK THAT THE PANEL THAT DISCUSSED THIS ISSUE WAS WOEFULLY UNBALANCED. THERE IS NO GETTING BEHIND THIS FACT. FROM AN AUDIENCE POINT OF VIEW IT WOULD HAVE BEEN MUCH MORE INTERESTING TO HAVE HAD A BALANCED PANEL ARGUING THE PROS AND CONS OF THE SUBJECT UNDER DISCUSSION, “WHO COUNTED THE BODIES”.
    FOR THIS LAPSE I THINK ASHOK FERRY MUST BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE AS HE WAS THE COORDINATOR/ORGANISOR FOR THIS SESSION AS WELL AS THE COLOMBO SCOPE. IF AS THE ARTICLE SAYS SOMEONE PULLED OUT, FERRY SHOULD HAVE HAD A STANDBY. POOR ORGANISATION, IN FACT THERE WERE MANY LAPSES IN THE WHOLE ‘SCOPE’ WHICH I WILL NOT DWELL ON HERE, BUT SUFFICE IT TO SAY THAT IT WAS A POOR SHOW ALL IN ALL. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN INVIGORATING TO HAVE HAD A BALANCED PANEL DISCUSSING A VIBRANT TOPIC.

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