By Michael Roberts –
Ravi Nessman at Sea on Tavis Smiley Show, 18 February 2009: how not to report on war
Ravi Nessman was Associated Press Bureau Chief in 2008/09 based in either Delhi or Colombo. He was carried to the war front on day visits in October 2008 and late January 2009. He was certainly located in Colombo when asked by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to speak to America on the show that is simply titled Tavis Smiley. This show usually features “a unique mix of news and pop culture to create a thought-provoking and entertaining program. A hybrid of news, issues and entertainment, it features interviews with artists, activists, news makers, politicians and everyday people.”
On the 18th February 2009 in “episode 18 of Season 6, Smiley interviewed Dr Palitha Kohona and then Ravi Nessman . For a live hearing of the latter session with Nessman, see;
Critical Comments are inserted at the end of this word-for-word record of the interview.
“Interview with Associated Press Writer Ravi Nessman on the Tavis Smiley Show,” 18 February 2009
Smiley Q: The government there has been accused of targeting civilians the UN.. in fact has …. Has….something to say about the strategy of the government in Sri Lanka Um.. what.. what’s your sense as a journalist of how that part of the story is being covered with regard to accusations against the government?
Nessman A: This is a very difficult story to cover as a journalist. The worst one is a black hole(unclear) we are barred from going in … most aid workers are barred from going in, so all of these accusations are fly back and forth a lot of it is ..is based on.. on scattered reports that we are getting, the very few reports we are able to get and from what we are able to get from ..um ..Doctors up there who are the very few people there with telephones that that ‘s the work from some of the witnesses who fled, from civilians who left, is that the government appears to be shelling in this very small area with tens of thousands of civilians and that seems to be causing a lot of civilian casualties. On the other hand the Tamil Tigers have been accused by some of the civilians who fled, of shooting at the fleeing civilians. The government says that ..um.. they are being used as human shields to.. to. .. prevent the government offensive from taking that last bit of land. Both sides deny all the accusations against them but what seems clear from the reports is that civilians are being killed, and they are being killed by both sides.
Smiley Q: So given that again that the Tamil people are…. at least those who are fighting, are boxed in now to this area in the north east part of the country.. … you have any sense of how much longer it will be before at least the official, if I can use that word the civil war that is under way … how long before this part of this story is over?
Nessman A: We can’t get up there and the information is so scattered that we are getting are ,….um…. you know, we hear reports of battles that are rumoured that may or may not even be happening , massive casualties on one side, massive casualties on the other…. I can’t tell you if the….if the Tamil Tigers even retain a conventional fighting component right now … or are still maintain a massive army up there. We have absolutely no idea. Um ..the President himself said on February fourth we are just days away, the government was just days away from victory over the Tamil Tigers. But this is more than two later and there’s still fighting going on. So it’s … it’s very difficult to know what’s exactly going on in the North, how long it’s going to go on for, what kind of fighting is.. is actually happening, what the capabilities are of both sides.
COMMENTS in point-form:
1. It would be simplistic for us laymen to think that “embedded” western reporters in Western wars get to see the knitty-gritty of action. USA is notoriously cautious about their accreditation. Much war correspondent reportage tends to be technical and about hardware as Kate Adie tells us. A great deal depends on the cartographic context and the character of the battle theatres. Where there are no static lines and the battlefield area is a mosaic, or where a war engulfs a large city where journalists reside, there then they get to film live action. It is in such theatres that reporters die.
2. Nessman’s interview is a striking revelation. It combines profound ignorance with prejudice, slant and lie.
3. For someone located in Colombo in late February 2009 to say that he did not know whether the LTTE retained a “conventional fighting force” reveals a degree of astounding blindness. While some scepticism towards GSL announcements is (was) understandable the video footage on TV screens with their Sinhala commentary, as well as tales from Tamil civilians who had escaped from their corralled situation, would have indicated that the Tigers retained their mortars and artillery and that such gun barrage exchanges were continuing (these lasted till mid-May in fact).
4. It appears that Nessman, fellow Western journalists and even UN circles were like the proverbial three blind monkeys in excluding the reports that were being produced by Indian journalists such as Muralidhar Reddy. Reddy has indicated that “the international wire agency contingents had a closed mind to reports in The Hindu group of publications” and, looking back today, retains the “impression [that] the reports from the western agencies barring the BBC Sinhala were very poor.… they had no extra information from either side. Most stories were alarmist [about] `civilians caught in conflict’ (email note, 21 January 2014).
5. So, who did Nessman and his kind rely on? They absorbed, as he himself tells us, the telephone messages from the Tamil medical doctors caught up in the war zone and who were, as we know, courageously and assiduously helping those wounded and dying. But these doctors were under LTTE orders and, as Dr. Shanmugarajah has recently clarified, they were exaggerating or fabricating tales of enormous death and horror. In line with the LTTE strategy of inciting international intervention particular emphasis was placed on the allegedly deliberate targeting of hospitals [whereas Shanmugarajah’s summary shows now that the damage to the makeshift hospitals was limited and probably collateral].
6. Nessman tells the Americans that “the war zone is a black hole” and then again that “we cannot get up there;” so [all we have is] “rumours” – which, he added, indicated “massive casualties.” In brief, both then and afterwards, Nessman was party to the widespread claim that this was a “war without witnesses.” Here, then prejudiced blinkers appear to be compounded by duplicity and dishonesty. But we know that he had been taken to the front earlier on two occasions. Fortunately Kanchan Prasad has snapped him on plane enroute circa 27 January 2009 and at the rear battlefront interviewing officer Ranjan Udawatta with a cameraman in tow. Thus, we are entitled to ask: “what did he discover then?” Maybe not much. But what did Associated Press and other reporters do with their lines of contact with SL Army officials and with fellow reporters such as Prasad and Reddy. The conjecture that flows from this set of circumstances suggests that a coterie of Western reporters in Colombo and some UN officials (including perhaps Gordon Weiss) had shut themselves off in some attic and were only on the look-out for news that would support a “ceasefire” and “humanitarian pause.” They were remarkably BLIND to the fact that their humanitarian morality was plasticine in a grand LTTE strategy. As Simon Jenkins in England – going against the grain of liberal agitation over there — told his readers: “in Sri Lanka a rudimentary study of the past three months of fighting would have told Miliband that a ceasefire would be pro-Tamil, not just “pro-humanitarian.”
7. As part of this partisan position, this coterie in Colombo not only swallowed the tales of “massive casualties” and “attacks on hospitals,” but gave oxygen to rumours and tales of cluster bombs and chemical weapons being deployed by the government forces. An Associated Press report referred to the evidence presented by one Alan Poston from the UN Development Action Group’s mine clearance programme which alluded to scrap metal explosions injuring some children, an incident which suggested “unexploded sub-munitions.” Who signed this press note: none other than Ravi Nessman! Not surprisingly, he has an occasional small actor’s role in the Groundviews article that took up TamilNet suggestions and tried to demonstrate the use of cluster bombs – even though the authors simply did not have the technical expertise to distinguish different types of ordinance and munitions.
8. Nessman seems to have moved on to become AP Bureau Chief in Jerusalem. He is presently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He is, clearly, well connected and carries clout. Be forewarned .
 For his news report then, see Ravi Nessman, “Sri Lanka’s civil war rages in the shadows,” 4 October 2008, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-10-04-949219519_x.htm.
 Kate Adie, “Kate Adie of BBC: reporting on war and women at war,” 2 January 2014, [originally 2006] http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/kate-adie-of-bbc-reporting-on-war-women-at-war/
 There five Ministry of Health doctors as well as about ten LTTE recruits. The latter in particular were probably hard-line Tiger enthusiasts.
 Michael Roberts, “Dedicated Medical Work Amidst the Heat of War, Death and Propaganda: In the Vanni Pocket,” 8 January 2014, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/dedicated-medical-work-amidst-the-heat-of-war-death-and-propaganda-in-the-vanni-pocket-2009/#more-11562
 V. Shanmugarajah, “Dr. Veerakanthipillai Shanmugarajah’s Affidavit Description of Conditions in the Vanni Pocket in Refutation of Channel Four,” 5 January 2014, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/dr-veerakanthipillai-shanmugarajahs-affidavit-description-of-conditions-in-the-vanni-pocket-in-refutation-of-channel-four/
 Simon Jenkins, “Simon Jenkins pulverized Miliband’s assinine foreign interventions in 2009,” 2011, http://www.aspensrental.com/simon-jenkins-pulverized-milibands-assinine-foreign-interventions-in-2009/
 See Citizen Silva, “The Use of Cluster Bombs in Sri Lanka: Fact or Fiction,”http://www.scribd.com/doc/92760423/The-Use-of-Cluster-Bombs-in-Sri-Lanka-Fact-or-Fiction. Also see Gerald Peiris, “Striving for Evidence of War Crimes: “Cluster Bombs” and Other Dud Weaponry,” 30 Jan 2014,http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/striving-for-evidence-of-war-crimes-cluster-bombs-and-other-dud-weaponry/#more-11755.