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Review: Critique of TVO’s Coverage of Sri Lanka

March 23, 2009

By Gogol G.

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TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin recently did a show about the current Sri Lankan crisis that found itself the center of controversy. Several accusations of bias were leveled at the show before it even aired.  The Agenda maintains a blog with entries to discuss topics from each show they produce.  On their taping, they mentioned the blog entry for this episode and asked viewers to express their thoughts there following the show.  What followed was an intense discussion.

I was quite happy with the way the show was arranged.  Bob Rae was brought in to give a few minutes-long background of the Sri Lankan conflict, and I was happy to hear a recounting of Sri Lanka’s history that not only had no factual errors, but also had a good holistic understanding of the whys and whats.  So often, re-tellings of Sri Lankan history are far-fetched.

The inclusion of Anna Neistat was a good counter-balance to the panelists in the discussion, who were set up to represent “sides” in this conflict.  Each side — pro-Tamil/anti-SL government and pro-SL government/anti-LTTE — had 2 “representative” speakers.  Neistat’s presence was merited by the recently-released report by her organization, Human Rights Watch, which was thoroughly detailed and accurate.  Prior to that report, many international NGOs, human rights workers, and media agencies working on the ground in Sri Lanka have been too timid to be critical of the government, or else have had their visas revoked or denied — leaving us with a dearth of expert opinion.  And such was Neistat’s role — the “neutral” expert.  Steve Paikin did a wonderful job in directing the flow of discussion, managing time, protecting panelists from getting cut off, and ensuring that questions were not being sidestepped.

Now, I think that such designations were necessary to ensure that equal airtime is given to the two main competing perspectives.  It is necessary to equip the many viewers who are unaware about Sri Lanka with some background prior to the discussion, and provide them someone they trust to navigate that discussion.  In The Agenda’s first blog entry of the show [The Agenda blog entry 1], they defended the fairness of the presenters and the composition of the panel — I agree with them. It’s perhaps necessary to organize the format of the discussion this way to shield one’s conscience from the vociferous howls of bias as best as possible.

But I do have minor, subtle critiques that are significant and need to be understood.  By designating two panelists each to represent a “side,” we actually erase the nuances in their public stances.  For example, Professor R. Cheran, albeit an advocate for Tamil autonomy, as an overwhelming majority of Tamils are, has publicly gone back and forth between his moral support and heavy criticism for the LTTE.  The Sri Lankan government, however, says he parties it up with Prabhakaran and is some special adviser — which is absurd.  Lenin Benedict was asked to represent the pro-Sri Lankan government side, and as a Tamil, this might appear to have a certain credibility.  But Lenin Benedict is also someone who has claimed that 99.9% of Tamils in the Diaspora support the LTTE and take orders from them — which is absurd (not to mention contradicts his previous statements), and actually, offensive to many Tamils who don’t support the Tigers yet are thus painted otherwise.  Benedict’s organization (Canadian Tamil Democratic Cultural Association) is part of an umbrella group that sought to get Canadian police to investigate Mano Ganesan, a Tamil MP who was first runner-up for the US’s first annual Freedom Defender’s Award for human rights in 2007, during Ganesan’s visit to Canada in 2008. (Sri Lankan MoD – How Mr. Mano Ganeshan fits in LTTE agenda and his Canadian Tour )

Disinformation campaign against Mano Ganesan:

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For confirmation of this organization’s participation in this umbrella organization please refer to the forum members listed in the below screenshot:

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*Please note we are not opposed to the press release’s stated position.

The trap we also might find ourselves in with this format, justifiably having equal airtime and equal numbers of people with outsiders as “neutral”, is that these viewpoints are seen by many initially as equally valid and equally suspect.  The blog entries have done a bit to shine an in-depth light on what the crucial issues are, what mutual understanding exists, and what is preventing the two sides from finding a compromise.  (The Agenda blog entry 1, The Agenda blog entry 2)  (I summarized my points from the blog in 2 parts — Part 1 & Part 2)

I do have one or two minor critiques of Steve Paikin, and that is after hearing a comment from Anna Neistat accusing the LTTE of war crimes, Steve Paikin fielded the response to David Poopalapillai, spokesperson of the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC), as the natural person to answer.  This implies that CTC represents the Tigers and indirectly pressures CTC’s Poopalapillai to adopt that stance.  The TV format is unfortunately limited in time and does not allow a thorough response that affords enough time for the panelists, the moderator, and guests to address such issues, and we can only deal with what we are given.  This is perhaps the result of attempting to cover a whole country and conflict within 30 minutes, and it might be an indication that it would be appropriate to have follow-up show(s) to give us a better appreciation for the missing details, nuances, context, etc.

In the first part of my blog comments, I respond to Anna Neistat’s accusation of “war crimes” by agreeing with her findings of the LTTE yet criticizing her accusation as not situated in the context of hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians being starved, bombed, denied medicine, and put into internment camps.  Again, I find the HRW report fantastic, but I also sense room for us to overlook the idea, or myth, of “neutrality”.  In a general sense, I don’t believe in “neutrality” — what person doesn’t have his/her own personal opinions on a topic?  These will be manifested in his/her interactions.  (EX: do we say “crimes against humanity”, “war crimes”, “abuses”, “unavoidable excesses”?)  And this connects back, in a sense, to the trap we must be conscientious in avoiding.  We must not analogize our notions of compromise in situations like these to a 50-50 division of some quantifiable commodity, or consider that fairness or neutrality is a place we can reach that is equidistant from two opposing sides.  Although bias is a natural consequence of holding an opinion, which itself is a consequence of thinking, we need not fear a lack of neutrality, but rather, understand how our stances will disagree and why as we work towards some notion of ‘fairness’ that we as humans can hold in our conscience.  So Paikin nearly apologizes to Neistat as he says goodbye to her — and understandably so, given the way that the show’s panelists sidestepped addressing her questions and instead challenged the credibility of a good report.  The panelists’ counter-claims may or may not be true, but we should be careful to note that we ought not think it wrong for the panelists to have challenged conceptions of Neistat’s pristine neutrality.  We would be committing a logical fallacy if we did so, and unwittingly guilty of our own biases if we fail to recognize it as such.

The comments by other people on The Agenda’s blog entries regarding the show were thankfully intelligent and did not resort to name-calling and personal attacks.  (The comments left on blogs, youtube videos, etc. are a different story, and this is especially true in proportion to the progress of the Sri Lankan military in the war).  There seemed to be a clear division of response to the program — a clear dismissal of the show by people supportive of the Sri Lankan government, and mostly high praise from Tamils supportive of Tamil autonomy.  I am a Tamil supportive of Tamil autonomy, and I found the responses by the panelists quite lacking at times, and the cause for many groans and eye-rolls.  Others similar to me described the panelists’ handling of the issues in much stronger terms and said they felt that much was to be desired.  Nonetheless, I was happy because The Agenda did an impressive job with their research, giving some balance to the show, treating the topic sensitively, and through their blog, making a principled stand on the work that they’ve done and decisions that they’ve made.  It’s rare to see mainstream media do an even-handed job regarding Sri Lanka and pick up all of the nuances (although it must be said that lately, the UK newspapers have done superbly as well). For a TV discussion show, this was of good quality especially for a first attempt.

I enjoyed Daniel Kitts engaging with the responders on the blog.  There was an intense response, especially from Tamils (or at least, people who support the Tamil struggle for rights).  Daniel  mentioned in the 2nd blog entry, “As I write this, 222 comments have been added to my original post about last week’s Sri Lanka program. … I should mention that last week’s discussion on Sri Lanka is all-time number one viewed video on our website, with more than 7,400 views thus far.”   Perhaps we Tamils are just that desperate for decent coverage of our issues.  I, for one, think so.  In the comments from other users, I saw things that I have seen and heard before — intense support and complete justification for the LTTE, or intense critics of the LTTE who find a way to blame all of the country’s ills on them, explanations of government genocide, and justification of excesses in the name of anti-terrorism.  As polarized as discussions can be, I was personally impressed to see that many people came forward to give very personal accounts of their experiences.  This is an example where our abstract notions of “neutrality” may mislead us.  These people have lived and grown up through the periods of growing strife, and are thus personally linked to the issues in ways that may cause us to instinctively dismiss their neutrality, and thus, part of their credibility.  But seen another way, these people are first-hand witnesses to the history we refer to.  Their lives are real, human examples of the very theoretical ideas we discuss and bandy about.  My contributions to the blog comments hopefully added explanations and nuance to the discussion that most non-Tamils are not privy to.  I also put forth the theoretical frameworks that I find best suited for understanding the conflict as well, and I think they cover most issues.  I did not mind Daniel “getting provocative” at the end and asking hard questions.  It was a great opportunity to uncover information that is largely unknown and/or misunderstood.  It also allowed us space to also question things we think we already know.  And I’m thankful for him to address the issues head-on.

So all in all, I’m proud of TVO and The Agenda for a job well done.  And let this also be an open letter of thanks — nuances and all.  😉

Sincerely

Gogol G.

For a recap of the ideas I presented in the blog, see:

Explaining the Sri Lankan Conflict – Part 1

Explaining the Sri Lankan Conflict – Part 2

For more on Mano Ganesan see:
Opinion: From M.I.A. to George Galloway – How the West Encourages Silence

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One Comment leave one →
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