Tamilnet and the LTTE

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Media Practice | 06/11/2007
Although Tamilnet’s stand vis-à-vis Tamil nationhood and its bias towards the LTTE is clear, it remains a preferred news source for three reasons.
MAYA RANGANATHAN tells us what they are.


It is indeed little difficult to see them being treated with equanimity in the press. Whenever and wherever they are written about, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) provoke extreme reactions. But love them or hate them, it is difficult not to marvel at the way they employ the media for their own purposes.


In South Asia and in all those countries that the Sri Lankan Tamils have made their homes, the assassination of the LTTE political head and chief negotiator early Friday morning, was received with great anxiety. Ever since the rebel group’s political ideologue Anton Balasingham succumbed to cancer, Tamilchelvam, the ‘political head’ of the LTTE has been the man in the news.


With the western media paying little or no attention to the happenings in the interiors of strife-torn Sri Lanka, the only source of any authenticity was the online news site Tamilnet. The only news source that has access to information in the north and east, Tamilnet has spawned academic articles, the most famous of them being Mark Whitaker’s works, particularly on its editor ‘Taraki’ Sivaram, who was found brutally killed near Colombo in April 2005.  (See. Also of interest is the book, ‘Learning Politics From Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka’ by the same author.)


Although Tamilnet’s stand vis-à-vis Tamil nationhood and its bias towards the LTTE is clear, it remains a preferred news source for three reasons. Firstly, it is perhaps the only English news site that has reporters in the north and east. Secondly, it is able to update more frequently than most other news sites and lastly and more importantly, it employs the inverted pyramid style of writing and follows a ‘seemingly’ objective style of reporting that have come to be accepted tenets in news reporting world-wide.


Thus, Tamilnet which put out the story of Tamilchelvam’s death at 7.30 a.m on Friday (November 2) was quoted by almost all the websites, including the BBC news website (which only added that "correspondents" opined that it was a great loss for the rebel outfit) and The Hindu in Chennai.


It is for precisely this reason that Tamilnet reportage becomes significant.  Although the news site quoted a matter-of-fact communiqué from the LTTE headquarters to "the people of Tamil Eelam, Tamil Diaspora and the Global Community", what is interesting is the way in which the reportage was structured.


The first story simply quoted the communiqué and the conferment of the title of Brigadier on the "slain political leader". Four hours later appeared a report on the homage paid to the LTTE chief negotiator for his "selfless sacrifice for the Tamil Eelam struggle" by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Quoting yet another "brief media release", Tamilnet reported the TNA as saying, "although his death is destined to create thousands of new Thamilchelvans who will doubtless serve our freedom struggle with dedication, we shudder at the repercussions for peace of this act by the Sri Lanka government."


What surely could not be mentioned is the loss to the war for Eelam, for the LTTE with or without Tamilchelvam, must be made to seem invincible. In a paragraph, ironically placed near the link to a story on 25 Sri Lankan army killed in Mannar clashes, the TNA spokesman underlines "the insincerity of the Rajapakse government’s peace claims".

Two hours later, the insincerity of the Rajapakse government was highlighted in the report titled ‘Jubilant Sri Lanka threatens to wipe Tigers out’.  The story sourced from Reuters reported Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as saying, "This is just a message that we know where their leaders are. I know the locations of all the leaders, that if we want we can take them one by one, so they must change their hideouts." He supposedly added, "When the time comes only, we take them one by one (sic)." Perhaps, observers of the Sri Lankan Tamil situation will aver that if indeed Mr Gotabaya succeeds in his plan, he would have only borrowed a leaf out of the Tigers’ book, of annihilating the enemy "one by one", when the time comes!

The initial reaction to his trusted lieutenant’s "cowardly assassination" was for the LTTE supremo to quickly announce the successor which was again carried in a story of no more than four lines. This was followed up nearly two hours later with a picture story on V Prabhakaran paying respects to the dead soldiers.  No time for tears or remorse, just an unmentioned resolve to carry on. A report on his emotions at the death of his "younger brother" appeared almost a couple of days later. 

Interestingly, most of the political leaders in Tamil Nadu who expressed their anguish at the assassination seemed to have taken the cue from Tamilnet reports, with known LTTE sympathizer P Nedumaran almost repeating the TNA statement reported by the news site that the murder of Thamilchelvan will spawn "hundreds of Thamilchelvams".

If objectivity is treading the fine line between ‘news’ and ‘views’, here’s a lesson from the news site that carried Thomas Erskine’s words in its homepage on Friday: "The press must be free; it has always been so and much evil has been corrected by it. If government finds itself annoyed by it, let it examine its own conduct and it will find the cause."


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