The Microscope

Channel 4 “Killing Fields”: Journalism, Advocacy or Propaganda?

Harshula <>

Last updated: September 11, 2011

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

The UK based Channel 4 documentary, “Killing Fields”, possesses an interesting characteristic. It has the power of accentuating the prejudices and biases of viewers. The reaction found on a variety of forums is arguably more illuminating than the documentary itself.
Those who feel the Sri Lankan government has done no wrong, are further convinced that there is an international conspiracy and the entire documentary is fake. There are those who are convinced that the Sri Lankan armed forces are evil. There are also those that believe the documentary is evidence of the need for a separate Tamil nation and are busy distributing DVDs to Western politicians. The remainder are horrified by the footage and can not watch the entire documentary.
With the broadcast of the “Lies Agreed Upon”[1][1] documentary by the Sri Lankan television station Ada Derana[2][2], we now have two very one-sided documentaries. Only together can any semblance of balance be achieved.
Callum Macrae, producer and director of the Channel 4 documentary, defiantly asserted, “... this film was accurate, this film was carefully researched, this film did not take sides in that war, we were as critical of the LTTE as the Sri Lankan government.”[3][3] The question remains, is the Channel 4 documentary a work of journalism, advocacy or propaganda?

2 Promotion of the Documentary

2.1 “Credible Allegations” versus “Credible Evidence”

The Channel 4 media release for the documentary “Killing Fields” replaces “credible allegations” with “credible evidence”:
“The UN report found credible evidence that both sides of the conflict committed serious war crimes. The report called for an international inquiry - that call has so far has gone unheard.”[4][4]
The ABC’s Four Corners media release also substitutes “credible allegations” with “credible evidence”:
“In June 2010, the UN chief asked a panel of experts to advise him on the evidence available relating to the conduct by both sides in the closing months of the war. In a report published in April this year, the panel of experts concluded that there was credible evidence that up to 40,000 people were killed in the final months of the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and Government forces.” [5][5]
The Darusman Report did not claim to find “credible evidence” of crimes, it referred to “credible allegations”[6][6]

2.2 Civilian Death Toll

On 27/06/2011, at the end of the ABC Four Corners program, Kerry O’Brien promotes the following week’s episode by claiming:
“... when 40,000 civilians were killed, as the 25 year civil war between the Government and the secessionist Tamil Tigers was coming to an end.”
The Darusman report delivered to the United Nations Secretary-General clearly states that the United Nations had an internal estimate of 7,721 civilian deaths during the period of August 2008 to 13 May 2009. It then explains why this should be considered a lower-bound. The Darusman report also states clearly:
“as many as 40,000 civilian deaths.”[7][7]
“... a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage.”[8][8]
Therefore, the Darusman report refers to a civilian death toll range between 7000 and 40,000 in the last five months of the war.
Kerry O’Brien is claiming an integer of 40,000 when the Darusman report claims a range up to 40,000. The difference should be obvious to a credible media organisation.
Ironically, even the media release for ABC’s Four Corners states:
“... investigates allegations that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed ...”[9][9]
ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs confirmed[10][10] the factual error:
“Audience and Consumer Affairs concluded that the statement by Kerry O’Brien was in breach of 2.2 of the ABC Code of Practice. A correction has been posted on the ABC online corrections page, which is available at the attached link;”

3 Introduction to the Documentary

3.1 “Credible Allegations” versus “Credible Evidence”

When the documentary aired on Channel 4 the introduction was conducted by Jon Snow. Kerry O’Brien presented the introduction when the documentary aired on ABC (Australia).
Within the first minute of the melodramatic introduction to the documentary by Jon Snow, he makes a factual error:
“The UN recently published a report that found ’credible evidence’ that both government and Tamil Tiger rebels committed serious war crimes.”
As mentioned earlier, the report does not refer to “credible evidence” of crimes, but to “credible allegations”[11][11]

3.2 Civilian Death Toll

In contrast, Kerry O’Brien’s introduction does not claim “credible evidence” but then makes the following error:
“... but this time it relates to the brutal slaughter of humans, an estimated 40,000 of them.”
As shown earlier, the Darusman report refers to a range between 7,000 and 40,000.
Soon after Kerry O’Brien makes another factual error:
“... the report also covers atrocities carried out by Tamil Tigers in those final weeks ...”
Actually, it covers atrocities carried out by the LTTE at least over the last five months of the war. For example, it covers an incident on the 9th of February 2009 where a female LTTE suicide bomber kills many soldiers and civilians at a centre for displaced civilians.

4 International Witnesses

Gordon Weiss claims there were no international witnesses to the final stages of the war:
“By removing those organisations, there were no longer international witnesses to what was coming.”
Callum Macrae melodramatically extrapolates:
“That, a very serious charge in fact because what you are saying is that if they didn’t want witnesses there clearly they were going to do things which they could not afford witnesses to see. There was an intention to do those things.“
Gordon Weiss agrees:
“I think they intended to remove independent witnesses to what was coming.”
Human Rights Watch contradicts Gordon Weiss’ claim:
“The government-ordered September 2008 withdrawal of all UN and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations (with the exception of the ICRC and Caritas) from the Vanni ...” [12][12]
Also a foreign journalist from The Hindu was in the region:
“Colombo-based journalist B Murlidhar Reddy of The Hindu has covered these extraordinary times with a high degree of professionalism. Reddy was the only foreign print media journalist to witness the last phase of the war from inside the war zone.”[13][13]

5 Displaced Civilians

Jon Snow blames the government entirely for the displacement of civilians:
“These were civilians driven from their homes by government forces who appeared to see all Tamil civilians as virtually indistinguishable from the fighters of the Tamil Tigers.”
On January 28, 2009, Human Rights Watch reported:
“The LTTE has long prevented civilians under its control from fleeing to government-held areas. As the LTTE has retreated into its stronghold in the northern Vanni area since the start of a Sri Lankan army offensive in October 2008, the rebel group has forced civilians deeper into territory they control. An estimated 300 local staff members of the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations are trapped in the Vanni because the LTTE refuses to allow them to leave for safe areas. Altogether, an estimated 250,000 civilians are now trapped in the small part of Mullaittivu district that remains under LTTE control.”[14][14]
Human Rights Watch states “the rebel group has forced civilians deeper into territory they control”. This directly contradicts the claim by Channel 4 that “[t]hese were civilians driven from their homes by government forces...”.
If you pay close attention to Jon Snow’s narration you will notice that figures relating to the number of displaced civilians is consistently inaccurate.

5.1 January 2009

Jon Snow claims:
“By the end of January 2009, the remaining Tamil Tigers and as many as 400,000 civilians were now trapped by Sri Lankan government forces.”
However, many sources contradict this claim.
“Monday, 26 January 2009
The military says it is now advancing into the 300 sq km (115 sq mile) triangle of land in which the Tamil Tigers are still operating. There are thought to be about 250,000 civilians in the area in which the rebels are still operating.”[15][15]
Human Rights Watch:
“January 28, 2009
Altogether, an estimated 250,000 civilians are now trapped in the small part of Mullaittivu district that remains under LTTE control.” [16][16]
Washington Post:
“Thursday, January 29, 2009
The United Nations and the ICRC said 250,000 civilians have fled to dense jungle terrain where fighting is raging in the 115 square miles still controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers.”[17][17]
The UN Advisory Panel report also contradicts the claim by Channel 4:
“125. At the outset of the final phase, on 13 January 2009, the Government website reported that, according to independent verifications, the number of civilians in the Vanni was between 150,000 and 250,000. The United Nations estimate at the time was 250,000 (although its subsequent estimates were higher).” [18][18]
The higher subsequent estimate is captured in footnote 54:
“100. From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ, from all directions, including land, air and sea. It is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 330,000 civilians in that small area.54
54 United Nations Documents generally reference a number of 300,000 whereas the Additional Government Agent estimated that there were 330,000 civilians left in the area.” [19][19]
At the end of January the United Nations estimated 250,000 civilians and then later revised it to 300,000.

5.2 February 2009

Jon Snow claims:
“By the 12th of February, the old No-Fire-Zone had been virtually abandoned and the government announced a new one about 7 miles long on a narrow sand-spit. As many as 400,000 people flooded there and found themselves trapped ...”
“Feb 1, 2009
The United Nations says up to 250,000 non-combatants are trapped in the area. The Sri Lankan government says the figure is closer to 120,000.” [20][20]
“Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009
The army offensive has pushed the rebels into a 300 sq km (110 sq mile) corner of jungle in the north-east of the island, which aid agencies say also holds 250,000 civilians.
The government says the number of civilians is closer to 120,000 and that the army has a policy of not firing at civilians.” [21][21]
Al Jazeera:
“Sunday, February 08, 2009
Since January 1, around 17,900 have fled the fighting. Aid agencies said around 250,000 were inside the conflict zone before the exodus began, while the government disputed the figures claiming there were only 120,000.” [22][22]

5.3 April 2009

Jon Snow claims:
“At the end of April the government claimed that there were just 10,000 civilians left trapped in the area. In fact there were over 200,000.”
The UN Advisory Panel report states:
At the end of April, United Nations estimates were that 127,177 civilians still remained trapped, whereas the Government said there were only 10,000 persons left at the time. [23][23]
The New York Times published:
“April 24, 2009
More than 100,000 civilians fled from the combat zone earlier this week but the United Nations estimates that anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 civilians remain trapped on the sandy spit of land. Sri Lanka’s Defense Ministry said on Friday that 15,000 to 20,000 civilians were caught in the conflict zone.” [24][24]

5.4 May 2009

Jon Snow claims:
“By now most of the No-Fire-Zone was overrun by the government and on the 8th of May they announced a new one, around 1 square mile in size. 130,000 people were trapped in this area”
The Age contradicts Channel 4:
“May 2, 2009
The UN estimates that up to 50,000 civilians are trapped in a narrow strip of coast where the Tamil Tigers are putting up a last stand. Government forces have said only about 20,000 people were still left in the area.”[25][25]
ABC (Australia):
“Posted May 09, 2009 13:41:00
The guerrillas have been confined to a five-square-kilometre area in the district of Mullaittivu and only three square kilometres of that would be the new "safe zone," Brigadier Nanayakkara said.
The military estimates that up to 20,000 civilians are trapped in the small area where the Tigers are resisting a military advance.
The United Nations has said nearly 50,000 civilians could be trapped by the fighting.” [26][26]
A foreign journalist in the war zone reported:
“May 21, 2009 10:42 IST
From April 20 to 23, over 125,000 civilians fled from the Tigers’s clutches and went over to the government side.
This was the defining moment when Sri Lankan Tamils emerged from the war zone. The LTTE and thousands of people were shrunk into a 12 square km area. The entrapment was real, but they didn’t surrender.
Outside the war zone the government declared 20,000 people were with the LTTE. UN agencies estimated the figure at 50,000, but there were actually 70,000 people with the Tigers.
The LTTE understood that the end had come, the game was over. Probably, Prabhakaran and a few of his men were in the last 500 square metre area. On May 15, 16 and 17, the last bunch of 70,000 people came out.”[27][27]

5.5 Why Inflate the Number of Displaced Civilians?

Gordon Weiss conveys the implications of inflating the number of displaced civilians:
“I think the only explanation is that it was deliberately misleading and I think that the reason for that is because they didn’t want to account for the number of people killed inside the siege zone.”
Channel 4, quite rightly, accuses the Sri Lankan government of underestimating the number of displaced civilians. Ironically, Channel 4 then deliberately inflates the number of displaced civilians, presumably to imply a larger civilian death toll. The Channel 4 documentary has lingered dangerously into the territory of propaganda.

6 Civilian Death Toll

At around the half-way mark, Jon Snow claims:
“The United Nations panel has now concluded that as many as 40,000 people died in the final few weeks of the war.”
Actually, the Advisory Panel did not claim “as many as 40,000 people died in the final few weeks of the war”. The advisory panel refers to the last five months as the “final phase”:
“Throughout the final phase from January until May 2009 ...“[28][28]Footnote 82, p.41.
It then refers to the “final phases” and states clearly “a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage.”:
“E. The number of civilian deaths
132. There is no authoritative figure for civilian deaths or injuries in the Vanni in the final phases of the war.
137. In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths.”[29][29]
A factually correct statement would have been ’as many as 40,000 people died in the final five months of the war’.

6.1 Omission of Critical Findings from the Darusman Report

The Channel 4 documentary omits mentioning to the audience a critical finding in the Darusman report, namely:
“177. The Panel’s account of the allegations associated with the final stages of the war also reveals six core categories of potential serious violations committed by the LTTE:
(c) Using military equipment in the proximity of civilians. The LTTE fired artillery from the NFZs, in proximity to IDP populations, and fired from or stored military equipment near IDPs or civilian installations such as hospitals. They did this even though they knew that it would provoke a response from the SLA and that any retaliating artillery would cause harm to civilians. Sometimes they fired from among civilians before quickly moving away, leaving the civilians on the receiving end of the return fire.”[30][30]
The narration of the Channel 4 documentary exhibited disingenuous bewilderment on why Sri Lankan Army fire would land in NFZs, hit IDPs and hospitals. The Channel 4 documentary deliberately omitted such a pertinent fact which would have challenged the accusation that the Sri Lankan army was intentionally targeting civilians.
Most in the West are not familiar with the LTTE’s history and tactics. The use of military equipment within close proximity to civilians was used by the LTTE against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. This was documented by University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna):
“21 October was the day of the massacre at the hospital. The Tigers were there: maybe it was a deliberate ploy on the part of the L.T.T.E.. They came in two lots. When the doctors had pleaded with them to leave, the Tigers went away only after firing some rounds widely and leaving some weapons inside. The Indian army came an hour or so later, at which time there was no retaliatory fire. But they stormed the hospital and brutally killed, taking the lives of the sick and those who were caring for the sick in and around the area. The killing went on throughout the evening, night and the next morning.
The pattern became established - the Tigers would lure, and sometimes kill a few jawans. Then the Indian army would run berserk - shoot, stab, molest and rape. It was unarmed defenceless people who were paying the price. The famed cadjan fences of Jaffna were burnt; sometimes whole settlements of huts were burnt. Invariably houses, and public buildings were shelled or bombed. Kondavil, Kokuvil, Urumpirai, Kopay, Manipay, Sandilipay, Pandatheruppu, Chavakachcheri, Suthumalai....there was hardly any village to tell a different story.
They continued to lure the army, just to run away, letting the people face the result. It was cruellest of all when they told the people that another 500 to 1000 must die for them to have a viable international publicity campaign. This was not an isolated instance or the statement of a group without contact with the leadership. It was pronounced at many places and in many forms. When the people were starving, wandering around like dogs for rice, the Tigers issued leaflets asking the people to boycott Indian distributed food.”[31][31]

6.2 “Lies Agreed Upon” Documentary

The “Lies Agreed Upon” documentary also contains an error when attempting to graphically illustrate the civilian death toll. Initially it claims that the Additional Government Agent (AGA) estimated a civilian population of 305,000 in the second No-Fire-Zone which was at the time higher than the United Nations’ original estimate of 250,000. It then chooses to use the AGA’s estimate but inexplicably decides to round it down to 300,000 during the calculations.
Both the International Crisis Group and the Darusman Report claim that the Additional Government Agent estimated a civilian population of 330,000.
International Crisis Group:
"Crisis Group has credible evidence that there were 330,000 displaced civilians in the second NFZ and adjacent areas as of mid- to late-February." [32][32]
Darusman Report:
“100. From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ, from all directions, including land, air and sea. It is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 330,000 civilians in that small area.54
54 United Nations Documents generally reference a number of 300,000 whereas the Additional Government Agent estimated that there were 330,000 civilians left in the area.” [33][33]
The “Lies Agreed Upon” documentary does not attempt to explain this discrepancy.

7 Execution Videos

During the JVP uprisings many Sinhala youth were executed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. So it is entirely plausible that the execution videos are authentic.
Channel 4 presents two videos of executions. The first was broadcast in 2009 and the narration describes it as:
“In this sequence recorded on a mobile phone by Sri Lankan government forces, naked Tiger prisoners are executed with their hands bound behind their backs.”
The second was broadcast in 2011 and the narration describes it as:
“One man who seems to be in charge issues instructions on how the prisoners, who appear to be Tiger fighters, are to be killed.”
Channel 4 does not claim the victims are civilians, although some media describing the Channel 4 documentary refer to the execution victims as civilians.

7.1 Video Experts Hired by the United Nations

Much of the argument surrounding these videos boils down to authenticity of footage versus file integrity. The fact that the video file has been edited means its integrity has been compromised, but that does not mean there is evidence that the authenticity of the footage has been compromised. However, if one was to attempt to compromise the authenticity of the footage, then the integrity of the file would need to be compromised too. If one was to present an edited and unedited video as evidence in a court of law, the unedited version would be considered more credible. It is quite common for the plaintiff and defendant to trigger a battle of the experts.
The experts hired by the United Nations expressed the following concerns in their first report in 2009:
“There are unexplained characteristics of this file, the most troubling of which from a file integrity standpoint is the text which appears in the final 17 frames of video. Notwithstanding this potentially suspicious feature, there may be a legitimate explanation, and as stated previously, file integrity must not be confused with authenticity. Even if the video was transcoded from another format to .3gp, the conversion does not by itself invalidate the events recorded.”[34][34]
When concerns regarding the first video grew louder, a second video appeared in 2011 confirming that the first had been an edited subset of the second video.
“SL1.3GP contains five distinct segments. The second segment corresponds to the first 542 frames of the VideoDJ.3GP recording. An Absolute A-B arithmetic operation was used to compare the pixel values of each corresponding frame from both files; the test result indicates that the visual content of the corresponding 542 frames is identical. According to the metadata retrieved from the file submitted for analysis, encoded dates and tagged dates for both video and audio components indicate the recording was made on July 15, 2009 at 13:17:23 UTC (Universal Time Coordinated), also known as GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) or Zulu Time. This time, if correct, would be 18:47:23 local time in Sri Lanka based on the standard offset of GMT + 5.5 hours (Daylight Saving Time is not observed in Sri Lanka). The encoded date is well after the alleged date of the incident and, if accurate, would tend to discredit the recording’s authenticity without a logical explanation for the discrepancy, as with the first file analyzed, VideoDJ.3GP. In addition, SL1.3GP was encoded three days before VideoDJ.3GP. Again, the encoded date is not conclusive evidence of the actual recording date and time, because it is derived from the mobile device’s date and time setting, which can be manually set by the user with many mobile phones. In light of new evidence, specifically the additional content of the newly released recording which is composed of a compilation of multiple segments, it is now readily apparent that both the video originally broadcast on Channel 4 and the newly released extended version are the product of a basic editing software.” [35][35]
The following comments were made about the audio:
It is important to note that the temporal rate of the file submitted for analysis (7. 416 frames [progressive scan] per second) is insufficient to determine the precise instant of weapon discharge based on visual evidence. For this reason, video/audio synchronization is approximate at best, and does not provide a reliable reference for determining if the audio track has been edited. [36][36]
The second video also had been edited:
“Content analysis revealed that there are five different segments within SL1.3GP. Within each of these segments, there were no breaks in continuity (particularly during weapon discharge events), no additional video layers, and no evidence of image manipulation. The segments are arranged out of chronological order, based on the increasing number of bodies present in the segments, and the final segment appears to have been recorded at another location based on differences in natural/geographical features, and the fact that four bodies were visible in the video, as contrasted with the fourteen distinguishable bodies visible by the end of the first four video segments.
Based on the progressive body count, the first three segments appear in reverse chronological order; the correct order would be Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1.
The existence of five separate and distinct recorded segments within the file, one of which contains 542 frames of video identical to the previously released recording (VideoDJ.3GP) provides conclusive evidence that these files are the product of editing.
The fact that editing in any form has been applied to the recordings submitted for authentication will quite understandably generate skepticism or even suspicion. However, it is important to understand the distinction between the type of rudimentary editing possible on a mobile phone (that all available evidence indicates was used in this case) and the capabilities of a powerful computer based non-linear editing system with sophisticated filters and effects.
This analyst again repeatedly requested access to the device purportedly used to make the recordings for the purpose of comparing photo response non-uniformity and image sensor noise profiles present in the recordings submitted for analysis with exemplar recordings generated by the device. To date, the device has not been made available, nor has information regarding the specific make and model of the device. The identity and status of the person(s) who created the video files is unknown to this author. In the absence of the actual device, authenticity of the recordings cannot be determined to an absolute certainty. Notwithstanding the inability for any analyst to make an absolute definitive determination under these circumstances, the results of testing procedures and content analysis are persuasive that the events depicted on the available video/audio recordings are authentic.”
The second report refers to one of the concerns in the first report regarding the text in the last 17 frames:
“26. The appearance of an ‘A’ in the last 17 frames of the first video was also a matter of concern. According to Mr. Spivack the rudimentary editing possible on a cell phone can produce such an effect. (p 13)” [38][38]

8 Reaction

8.1 Sport

“Paul Marsh, chief executive of the ACA, said the airing of the documentary had helped ensure the players would be acutely aware of their role as ambassadors for the game when they arrived in Sri Lanka at the end of July.
"I’ve had a little bit of feedback [about Four Corners], not necessarily from players who are going on the tour, but I’ve had a bit of feedback," Marsh told ESPNcricinfo. "It was an eye-opener for everyone I’ve spoken to, and hopefully that’ll bring a bit of focus to what’s going on there.
"From a cricket perspective the guys are going over there to play cricket and they’ll be good ambassadors, they will bring some joy to the people of Sri Lanka like they have done in the past, and that’ll be their focus, to put on a good series over there.
"We’ve been through this before with other countries, players play an apolitical role as sportspeople, plus as individual players they’ve always got their own options as to whether they tour, who they meet, who they mingle with and these sorts of things. At this stage there’s no reason the tour won’t go ahead, but we’ll make sure the players are aware of all the issues."“[39][39]

8.2 Members of Parliament

“General Business—Notices of Motion
Notice given 5 July 2011
*323 Leader of the Australian Greens (Senator Bob Brown): To move—That the
(a) notes:
(b) urges the Australian Government to support an international call for an independent investigation into war crimes committed by both the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.”[40][40]

9 Conclusion

Is it possible for an objective person to still think the Channel 4 documentary is a credible work of journalism? The producer/director believes that by criticising the LTTE he has provided balance. He completely misses the point that balance is achieved by conveying different points of view. It is clear that the Channel 4 documentary does not adhere to the principles of news and current affairs.
Maybe it was intended as a work of advocacy? Whatever the intention, the Channel 4 documentary is a combination of journalism, advocacy and propaganda. Those that are intent on burying their head in the sand and claiming it to be fake need to recognise that it does raise some valid questions that Sri Lanka needs to answer.
If you seek truth and justice, it is disingenuous not to acknowledge the factual errors littered throughout the Channel 4 documentary. Some media and advocacy groups have promoted the documentary quite passionately. It may be time for these groups to decide whether they believe that ’the ends justify the means’. These groups should also consider whether the short term gains by promoting this documentary will be negated in the long term. Have they not learnt anything from the controversial Nayirah testimony?[41][41]
Sri Lankans should watch the documentary, but beware of the factual inaccuracies in the narration. For those of us who are far removed from war, it unflinchingly conveys the horror of war. It should be a reminder to us all, particularly those barracking from a distance, why we should not walk down that path ever again. If you disagree, you should consider whether you are willing to take the first step, instead of asking others.

10 Version History


[28]Footnote 82, p.41.