The continuing disinformation campaigns in Sri Lanka: Is mainstream media complicit?

This was initially written for and posted on Groundviews. Since it was published, the Sunday Times also carried the same ad on 29 May 2011.

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For the second time in a fortnight, subscribers to the Daily Mirror newspaper have been entreated to an interesting disinformation campaign that appears to be conducted with those embedded within, and possibly with the full support of the Sri Lankan Army and its network of patriots.

The full page ad above was published on the Daily Mirror on 23rd May. A high resolution scan can be downloaded here. At the bottom, the advertisement is attributed to the ‘Free Mass Media Movement’. No such movement exists, or has existed. With the clear intention to obfuscate rather than enlighten, the name is a spin off from the Free Media Movement, which for a variety of reasons, is well known to government and also amongst media freedom activists.

To be fair, the concerns expressed therein about the handling of Osama Bin Laden’s murder raise very serious concerns over the ability of the United States to practice the very policies and practices it preaches abroad, including to our own government. The disconnect between advice and action is stark, but fundamentally, the space for robust, critical discussion and debate within the US over its government’s actions is far greater than the space in Sri Lanka, even post-war.

What is most curious about this ad is that within the text, there is reference to an ‘International Accountability Network’. To reiterate, while the ad itself is attributed to the ‘Free Mass Media Movement’, the text refers to the ‘International Accountability Network’. It was this same ‘network’ that on 11 May 2011 ran a full page ad against the UN Secretary General Panel that looked into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. We did some digging and tellingly found that the sole member of the ‘network’ we could find was the person who set up what is a largely dysfunctional site. When we exposed him, he proceeded to take his CV off the web, but not before we saved a copy of it. As we noted before,

The ’International Accountability Network’ is a fascinating, recent creation. It was registered late March 2011 by an individual called Chirasthi Perera. The domain name record notes the registrant as one Arnold Chira, though a simple Google search of the associated email (a Gmail account) reveals the real name, and a personal website which has his CV. Clearly, the man has some technical training, but particularly revealing is that the one non-related referee noted in the CV is Dr . Thiran De Silva, Head Of IT, Sri Lanka Army along with the fact that this individual is currently a Web Consultant/Trainer to Sri Lanka Army. The ’International Accountability Network’ website is, politely put, a dysfunctional mess with content largely automatically generated from various web (RSS) feeds. The little human curation of this content suggests that the site’s owner seeks to expose the double-standards of the US in supporting the UN Panel’s report in light of the events surrounding the murder of Osama Bin Laden. Absolutely no details about what is exactly is ‘international’ about this ‘network’. Few of the links on the site in fact work. This is most unfortunate, because Chirasthi Perera is associated with other leading sites like Colombo Fashion (as its CEO), Sri Lanka: Awake in a Miracle (sic) and the yet to be launched Colombo Night Life, sites that are clearly about issues of war crimes, crimes against humanity, justice and accountability. Not.

In sum, there is no network, there is no real interest in accountability and there is nothing really international about it other than the money which could have flowed in from ‘patriotic’ diaspora individuals and networks to fund the ad campaign.

In fact, The Hindu paper called this a “mocking ad” of President Obama. Speaking of The Hindu, something quite peculiar happened there as well. Sri Lanka mocks Obama, Ban Ki-Moon was the headline of a story that was published on its website on 23 May 2011, around 14:59:28 GMT. The original URL of the story was http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/article2041735.ece. It has since been deleted. Though we cannot say exactly when it was deleted, the Google Cache version of it appears here. A PDF version can be downloaded here.

In general terms, it’s rather silly for a paper of the stature of The Hindu, which must surely have at a minimum one person at least slightly knowledgeable about web media, to believe that something published on its site could be successfully erased off the web, even if it wanted to. More specifically, we wonder why The Hindu – known be extremely partial to the Rajapaksa regime – deleted this article? It is not just The Hindu. The Daily Mirror, after having published a news story that exposed what was clearly a outrageous lie by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, proceeded, perhaps on account of pressure, to delete it, but not before we read it off its RSS feed, where it is still archived.

A final concern lies with media institutions that run these ads – which are in effect supported by those working in the Sri Lankan armed forces. NGOs engaged in rights advocacy and governance reform, and even this site, are repeatedly and viciously berated for the funding their receive, which somehow makes them everything from agents of the CIA hell bent on regime change to apparatchiks of the West, who can only send their tourists here, and emphatically not their democratic ideals or liberal institutions. But one can employ the language of hate and harm because the sources of funding are in the public domain – online, audited, with the Central Bank, tabled in Parliament with varying degrees of accuracy, published in the media, spat out on TV and radio.

Where does the funding for the ‘Free Mass Media Association’ and the ‘International Accountability Network’ come from? If we are principled in a robust quest for greater transparency, which rightfully includes civil society, then it is particularly revealing that the majority in Sri Lanka today don’t apply these high standards to content that is congruent with the government’s strident propaganda, and can in effect be traced back to its armed forces. While somewhat poorly expressed, the essence of Sohan Fernando’s serious ethical concerns over the publication of dubious ads such as this are useful for mainstream media to consider.

We suspect, however, they won’t. The bogus ‘Free Mass Media Association’ and the ‘International Accountability Network’ offer mainstream media what they need most – money, and lots of it. A full page, full colour ad in the Daily Mirror runs into several lakhs, and perhaps closer to six figures.

Ethics at bay, when coffers are at play?

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