18 June 2011,/by Chris Cobb
The images are truly shocking.
Summary executions of bound and gagged young men, the aftermath of rape and murder of young women, and the bloodied corpses of children.
They are civilians, and among the 40,000 victims killed in Sri Lanka two years ago shortly after the government locked its doors to the outside world and set about dealing with its Tamil problem.
There is none of the familiar TV editing when the image stops a split second before the final act. What viewers see during the 60-minute Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields are likely the most horrific scenes ever shown on a mainstream television documentary.
Killing Fields, shown in the U.K. on Tuesday and online through this weekend, has stirred intense though ultimately muted debate over how much graphic imagery is too much.
The documentary is another powerful example of how images shot by a simple mobile phone can have nation-changing impact.
The stated aim of the documentary producers is to push for an independent investigation into those alleged atrocities against civilians during the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s 2009 military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers.
And many believe that an outcome of that investigation would be a trial for crimes against humanity with Sri Lanka’s political and military elite in the dock at the International Criminal Court.
On the basis of this documentary, lauded by British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this week, the prima facie case is strong.
The graphic footage, shown in the latter portion of the documentary, was shot by government soldiers on cellphones and helmet cameras — sick video trophies of the “cameramen” committing murder while filming themselves pulling the trigger or of fellow soldiers doing the same. And images of the bodies of naked civilians being tossed onto the back of trucks while the soldiers make disparaging and sexist remarks.
British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said he was “shocked by the horrific scenes” and demanded the Sri Lankan government respond.
The response of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government was swift and predictable: The footage is fake and the documentary was made to deliberately discredit the Sri Lankan army.
In what would be a laughable comment if the circumstances weren’t so horrific, the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry accused Channel 4 of failing to meet “standards and fairness” expected of a respectable TV network.
Doubtless expecting the blowback, Channel 4 had the footage authenticated by independent video experts. It’s real right enough.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heyns, has called the documentary evidence of “definitive war crimes.”
In an interview with the British daily The Independent, C4’s head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne said: “I don’t urge you to watch this program. It’s horrific. The images will remain in your mind, maybe for years.”
The documentary was shown close to midnight in Britain to protect children from the images.
“But there are probably many adults who shouldn’t watch,” Byrne said. “People who can’t watch horrible stuff on the news. I would definitely say pregnant women shouldn’t look at it. I would rather I had never seen it.”
And Jon Snow, a respected veteran of British TV journalism called the story “the most important I have ever reported. I have reported civil wars before, not least in Central America in the 1980s, but I have never seen such graphic evidence, often at the hands of government soldiers themselves, of what have all the hallmarks of war crimes.”
The late-night showing to protect children and the sensitive is meaningless in the Internet age. Channel 4 immediately posted the documentary on its website (channel4.com) after Tuesday’s broadcast for all to see at any time they choose. It has also been segmented on YouTube.
Dramatic footage shot by Tamil civilians shows the apparent systematic shelling of hospitals while civilians are being treated.
Many of those attacks came after army commanders had been given co-ordinates so they would not accidentally attack the hospitals but, according to one UN official, the Sri Lankan army deliberately attacked hospitals — mostly temporary hospitals deprived of drugs and medical supplies — at least 65 times.
Killing Fields also makes the point that the rebel Tamil Tigers were no innocents. They often used their own people as human shields, holding terrified women and children at gunpoint, and — as we clearly see in the faces of dead Tiger soldiers piled into wagons — many children had been recruited as fighters.
Should the worst of the images have been shown?
Absolutely. The outpouring of outrage across the world, and the calls for a long-overdue independent inquiry, are evidence enough of the documentary’s positive impact.
It is harrowing and ugly but the power of this mix of smart journalism and new media to set the wheels of international justice in motion trumps all else.
Chris Cobb writes for the Citizen.
The Ottawa Citizen