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Macrae has his say

2013 Nov 26

By  Arthur Wamanan

Callum Macrae, true to form, played news-MAKER as opposed to journalist, but this time not on account of creative, selective and highly editorialized reportage but because his in-your-face reputation came to Colombo ahead of him Callum Macrae, true to form, played news-MAKER as opposed to journalist, but this time not on account of creative, selective and highly editorialized reportage but because his in-your-face reputation came to Colombo ahead of him
The Nation emailed some questions to Channel 4’s controversial Callum Macrae while he was in Sri Lanka.  His response is given in full below.

Q: What kind of impression and understanding did you get of Sri Lanka during your stay? How do you assess the ground situation?

Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited and I have met many people who have been very kind and friendly. I had hoped to be able to get a better picture of what is happening in the ground for myself, but unfortunately this has not been as easy as I hoped. We have been followed by intelligence agents everywhere we went and our freedom to move has been very restricted. A good example of this would be when we tried to travel to the North.
There are two versions of the situation there.

The government and its supporters say the place is transformed: There are new roads, new schools, former fighters ‘rehabilitated’, hotels being built and elections held, they say.
But the Tamils who live there tell another story. They speak of ongoing misery of military occupation, of a climate of fear. A place where thousands remain homeless while army land-grabs continue unabated. Where thousands are still missing – and many women who remain are victims to the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of repression.

Of course, the way for journalists to get to the truth is to go there and see for yourself. But despite assurances that we would be free to travel from the President himself, we were prevented from doing so. The only people who knew we were on that train were the two intelligence officers who followed us from the hotel. Yet, when we reached Anuradhapura there were several hundred pro-government demonstrators and a large number of journalists there who besieged us and stopped our train. One has to ask who tipped them off and organized them.
So we are left with only one way of assessing which of the two versions of the situation in the North is accurate. Was it the people who say everything is fine who tried to stop us seeing things with our own eyes – or was it the people who say things are terrible? I think the answer is obvious.

Q: You have been invited by President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a meeting. What is the status? Will you meet him?

We keep being told we are invited, but the invitation has not yet arrived. I hope it is true – I very much look forward to hearing his point of view and interviewing him about the allegations of war crimes and the concerns over human rights in this country.

Q: Have you met any prominent politicians/activists during your stay here?

We have met a number of prominent people, but the climate of fear makes it difficult for some to talk to us – and the limitations on us – for example, the fact that we were excluded from the list for the press conference with the President which was due to happen Friday makes it difficult. In fact, that press conference was itself then cancelled. However, despite these restrictions we will continue to try to meet politicians and activists of all views.

Q: Your attempt to visit the North proved unsuccessful. Would you attempt to travel to the North again?

I would very much like to get to the North, but we are running out of time, and I very much suspect that we would not be given the freedom to travel unaccompanied by intelligence officers, which would, of course, be essential if we are to operate according to the internationally accepted norms of freedom of the press.

Q: Your documentaries on the final stages of the war have evoked negative reactions from Sri Lanka. There are many issues regarding authenticity.

You raise a number of issues about the films. I will try to deal with all your concerns in a brief manner, son that in accordance with journalistic norms you can use all of it and not selected elements. You ask about the footage. This was collected over three years and more is still emerging. Most of your comments seem to concern the footage taken by Sri Lankan armed forces members, mostly on mobile phones, which depicts the execution of prisoners and other atrocities. When we received such footage we subjected it to the most rigorous examination to check its authenticity. First of all, we submitted the footage to an independent team of forensic digital image analysts who work for the British courts. They carefully analyzed and authenticated the footage checking the technical meta-data and examining each frame for evidence of editing or image alteration.
They looked at visual clues like the direction of the light – and were even able to tell us what kind of phone or camera took each clip. They also compared the images of the same scene shot on different devices. There were no discrepancies.
The material was also analyzed by a leading forensic pathologist, who has worked for both British and international courts. He examined the medical evidence. The wounds, the nature of the blood spatter, the way the bodies fell and so on. He too concluded there was no evidence to suggest any of the images were faked. Separately, the UN’s Special Rapporteur commissioned an investigation conducted by a separate set of independent experts. He then reported: ‘The overall conclusion reached by the experts is the video is authentic… The view in the video footage is neither doctored nor staged; it shows real people being summarily executed.’

I’m afraid that there is no doubt that this evidence is not faked. These things really did happen.
As for the suggestions that our editing was biased or in some way distorted. The fact is that these suggestions have been tested completely and found to be untrue.
Our investigation – conducted over three years and including two TV docs and the new film, No Fire Zone – was subjected to very strenuous scrutiny. In the UK, we have an independent regulatory body which supervises ethical issues and to which any member of the public can make complaints. Sri Lankan Government supporters made over 100 complaints about our TV coverage to this body, the Office of Communications (OFCOM). After lengthy investigations every single complaint was rejected. It was accepted that we had carried out an extensive investigation, verified the authenticity of this material and subjected evidence to rigorous journalistic analysis and cross-checking.

The evidence comes not just from us, but from a whole range of bodies. The UN panel of independent experts concluded as we did, that crimes were committed by both sides, but most deaths came as a result of government shelling of the so-called No Fire Zones. A second UN investigation by a completely different team, the Petrie Report – found more evidence of war crimes. And then there’s the evidence in the leaked US cables, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) descriptions, the satellite images with their conclusive evidence of shelling.
The version of events from the Sri Lankan government, on the other hand, has changed and varied as the new evidence has emerged. In the final weeks, it was still insisting that claims it had a policy of ‘zero civilian casualties’ and on the last day of the war it declared, unbelievably, that ‘all of the civilians who were inside the No Fire Zone have now been rescued by government forces.’ Even the government now admits 7,000 died.

The problem is so much of what the government says is simply implausible. Take their claims they weren’t using heavy weapons, for example, the claims they maintained even while heavy weapons were regularly shown in use on government TV news reports!
The fact is that we – as well as investigators from the UN, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch – all have proof of our claims. It is the government’s version of events which flies in the face of the available evidence.
You also ask about the rules of war and imply that we do not address the crimes of the LTTE. I have even heard it suggested that we in some way sympathize with the LTTE. This is simply untrue and all you have to do to establish that is at the films. We accuse the Tigers of committing war crimes. We show evidence – in the form of terrible footage - of their use of suicide bombs against innocent civilian targets. We accuse them of using child soldiers, of shooting at civilians in the No Fire Zone. It is a cause of extreme concern to me that the media in Sri Lanka continues to imply that we are sympathizers of the LTTE when the proof that we condemn them unequivocally is to be found in our films. The idea that these same newspapers accuse US of shoddy journalism is even more ridiculous.

On your question about Iraq, etc. I am a journalist and film-maker who has reported on several wars and allegations of war crimes. It is a fact that I have made more films investigating war crimes and appalling abuses of human rights by British and American forces in Iraq than I have made on Sri Lanka. I repeat. That is a fact. You can check it out on the Internet! I have lost count of the number of times pro-government journalists in Sri Lanka have asked why I never make films about that. Again it is not me guilty of shoddy journalism! I wish such journalists would check their facts before making these statements.

However, while on the subject of journalism, can I also state that I am very aware of the difficulties faced by any Sri Lankan journalist who tries to do their basic job which is to constantly scrutinize the actions of their government and call them to account when necessary. It is what I do in the UK – it is much more difficult and dangerous here.
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