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Review: Sri Lankan Journalism, Its Fact-Finding, and the Internet

June 14, 2009

by Gogol G.

Groundviews did further digging into the Sunday Times’ story about Bob Rae, and its shoddy attempt to use Wikipedia as a source to paint Bob Rae as an LTTE supporter.

As expected, what Groundviews found was a trail of facts that all point to the dubiousness of the original Sunday Times article.  This report from Groundviews is commendable for taking the extra step to investigate this.

However, I’d like to point out and correct something quite glaring.   The Groundviews post starts out saying

In what may be a first for a Sunday newspaper in Sri Lanka, a reference from Wikipedia is used to buttress a case for the alleged pro-LTTE bias of Canadian Liberal MP Bob Rae, recently deported from Sri Lanka after first being issued a visa to enter.

I may be wrong, but I interpret this to say that Sanjana, the Groundviews editor, thinks that this may be the first time that a Sri Lankan Sunday paper used Wikipedia as a reference.  Well, I did my own cursory fact-finding using my internet tool of choice, google.com, and used this search query: site:sundaytimes.lk wikipedia.  I found out that, unfortunately, this is not the first time — by a long shot.  This is a selection from the results of my Google search.

From 2007:

Situation Report – Fight now and pay later
by Iqbal Athas
Sunday Times
May 20, 2007

The MiG-29 multi role combat aircraft, identified as Fulcrum by the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), is Russia’s answer to western combat aircraft. According to Wikipedia internet encyclopedia, the history of MiG-29 started in 1969 when the then Soviet Union learned of the US Air Force’s ‘FX’ programme, which resulted in the F-15 Eagle.

From 2008:

Situation Report – LTTE resorts to gas warfare as fighting escalates
by Iqbal Athas
Sunday Times
October 19, 2008

Tiger guerrillas on the Akkarayan sector have been offering stiff resistance and have resorted to increased use of gas. It is said to be fired from a launcher and had also been used when 120 m.m. mortars were directed at troop positions. The guerrillas this week accused the Army also of using a “tear gas” type of gas but a high-ranking military source dismissed it as “just propaganda.”

Troops affected by it have complained of breathing difficulties, vomiting and skin rash. According to the Army, the gas canisters (See photograph of unexploded canisters recovered from the battle area) contained CS gas. According to Wikipidia [sic], the free encyclopaedia on the internet, CS gas (common name 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) is a substance that is used as a riot control agent and is generally accepted as being non-lethal. CS was discovered by two Americans Ben Corson and Roger Staughton at Middlebury College in 1928, and the chemical gets its name from the first letters of the scientists’ surnames.

The chemical, according to Wikipedia, reacts with moisture on the skin and in the eye causing a burning sensation and the immediate forceful and uncontrollable shutting of the eyes. It says reported effects could include tears streaming from the eyes, running nose full of mucous, burning in the nose and throat areas, disorientation, dizziness and restricted breathing. In highly concentrated doses it can also induce severe coughing and vomiting. Almost all of the immediate effects wear off in a matter of minutes, it adds.

The use of CS in war, the internet encyclopaedia says, is prohibited under the terms of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (signed in 1993) because it could trigger retaliation with more toxic agents such as nerve gas. Domestic police use of CS, however, is legal in many countries. Recently, blank pistol cartridges carrying CS in powder form have been released to the public. These, when fired in relatively close ranges, fully expose the target to the effect of CS, and is employed as a potent defensive weapon in regions where blank firing pistols are legally permitted for such use, says Wikipedia.

The above article comes from Iqbal Athas, who also wrote for Jane’s Defence Weekly and CNN International. I don’t think Wikipedia is wholly unreliable, but for an award-winning defense analyst such as Athas, and someone who actually is paid to work full-time reporting on such matters, it seems a little dubious, IMHO. To his credit, Athas was, of course, by then already under increasingly severe pressure to report “good things” about the government’s war; his writing belied this and showed at what strains he was to do so.  (And if it really isn’t Athas who wrote the above, then we should be even more concerned and dumbfounded.)

On a somewhat-related note, it is also interesting to note that the military source in the above excerpt is said to have denied the use of chemical weapons.  It has been reported by sources on the ground, newspapers, Christian news agencies, and TamilNet that the government did indeed use banned weapons such as chemical bombs and cluster bombs in the “final push” of its decisive military “victory” and slaughter of Tamil civilians in 2009.  The following articles, from 2001 and 2008, show that the use of such weapons has a long history:
Monday, 20 August 2001: Furore over chemical warheads continues
Monday, 01 December 2008: Quick IDP action averts carnage from Cluster bombs

From March 2009:

Politics of the plight of civilians
March 15, 2009
Sunday Times

This is in the Darfur region of western Sudan. The lines of conflict are seen by some to be ethnic and tribal, rather than religious, according to Wikipedia. However, a United Nations report states that the various tribes under attack (chiefly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ) do not appear to have a distinct ethnicity from their attackers.

Conclusion

Following the assassination of most accomplished Tamil journalists, including D. Sivaram (aka Taraki), the assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga and the fleeing of other high-profile Sinhalese journalists and rights activists, what Sri Lankan journalism has been forced to become is plain to see. Again, I’m not saying that the internet is wholly unreliable, including Wikipedia. We all use it, even Groundviews.  Actually, so do The Island, the Sunday Observer, and The Sunday Leader.  But you know, I’m actually glad that they cite their sources.  This shows that they have some journalistic integrity, if that’s any consolation.  I mean, it could be worse.  In fact, all of these traditional print Sri Lankan newspapers use Wikipedia and cite it as a source when they do.  How odd!  Now there is a story worth investigating…

But the internet must be taken with an extra grain of salt, shall we say. Especially if we think that the Sri Lankan government, or its supporters, supporting institutions, and supporting countries have played a hand in things. (Of course, in Sri Lanka, most all institutions are straight-jacketed into supporting what is effectively a fraternal triumvirate dictatorship.)  And I think that was the original point of the commentary on the Sunday Times’ article on Bob Rae — it’s a shoddy attempt by people of influence in Sri Lanka to vilify people around the world using underhanded methods.

Oh, and speaking of dubious activities using the internet, did I mention that WordPress.com one day last week mysteriously suspended our blog?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 15, 2009 12:02 am

    Hi,

    Thanks for this super follow up.

    I stand corrected on the issue of using Wikipedia as a source in Sunday articles. The two excellent AJR articles I point to in the piece on Groundviews clearly note the potential and pitfalls of using Wikipedia in particular and web based sources in general.

    The examples you point to above are very revealing! I’m happy to engage in conversation on how best online sources can be referenced, or whether they can be at all. The point I was trying to make is that whereas Groundviews, for example, points to Wikipedia references through the Apture plugin and direct hyperlinks, at no point has an allegation as serious as the one made against Rae by the Sunday Times being based on a Wikipedia article alone.

    When bad journalism marries contentious web sources, the result is a product that through ignorance or malevolence misdirects and misinforms the public. While on the one hand this is a strong case for strengthening media literacy, it is also a strong case to urgently develop capacities of senior journalists and Editors to more fruitfully leverage the web and Internet in support of independent and professional reporting.

    All the best,

    Sanjana

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