LIES, DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS
Posted on June 14th, 2011

By Don Wijewardana

 This term popularised by Mark Twain applies more potently today than when he wrote it early last century. In fact lying and concocting statistics to prove it have become a major industry today around the globe.

 Two news items appearing in the international media last weeks clearly demonstrate this. One of these related to the war between two internet giants exploding into the open after it emerged Facebook paid a leading public relations firm to run a dirty tricks campaign against Google[1]. The social networking site admitted hiring global agency Burson-Marsteller to place negative stories about Google in newspapers, magazines and online. The PR company had told some selected bloggers that it could help write opinion pieces criticising Google’s system, and then help to place the stories with the media, including The Washington Post, Politico.com and The Huffington Post. It also emerged two former reporters, Jim Goldman and John Mercurio, who now work for Burson-Marsteller, pitched anti-Google stories to American newspapers such as USA Today.

 The other aspect of misinformation was “ƒ”¹…”creating’ news. Martin Fletcher, Associate editor of the Times, who spent six hours in detention in Homs, Syria recently wrote “The protesters have an agenda of their own “”…” a vested interest in portraying the Government in the blackest possible light. One “ƒ”¹…””ƒ”¹…”witness” cited as a source for reports this week claimed that the regime had shut off supplies of water and electricity to parts of the city, and was refusing to let  residents enter or leave “”…” but I saw no evidence of that”[2]. And he went on to say “but there is a tendency by the media outside to accept without question the claims of opposition activists, to treat them as facts”. Furthermore, every time the rebels kill a government soldier they portray it as a killing by the army for desertion. But the BBC pointed out this is often not true.

 For us in Sri Lanka these are nothing surprising for we have suffered through decades on account of a litany of lies that the LTTE continued to spread. In fact the LTTE had mastered the art Goebbels had invented that if you keep on repeating a lie it will eventually stick.

 However, Martin Fletcher and the Times as well as the BBC need to be lauded for pointing out the need for honesty in reporting. They have clearly understood the responsibility of the media to present the facts.

Or have they? It is ironic that it was the very Times, where Fletcher is the associate editor that in May 2009 invented a figure of 20,000 civilian deaths in Sri Lanka in the last months of the Eelam War IV. United Nations and other media outlets protested at the blatant lie. The paper tried to justify it in a number of different ways. One version was that the number of those who died by the end of April the UN had been using in its internal discussions of 7,000, and using the rate of about 1000 a day for May until the 19th. Later the Times claimed that it had extrapolated the number of dead bodies by four. (Why by four and not two or ten?). Finally the Times went on to argue it was the result of an analysis of “aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony,” and what the paper called “confidential United Nations documents.” relying on an anonymous United Nations source. But the UN representatives were not in the combat zone in the final stages of the war. A coordinator for U.N. humanitarian relief, Elizabeth Byrs, had told any estimate of the death toll must be based on extrapolation and guesswork. But the point is if the argument is weak throw in some statistics and that will make it bond. People have no time or the inclination to check the veracity of such figures and often assume that if published it must be true.

Early to recognize this was the LTTE. Its entire promotion of the so-called discrimination against the “ƒ”¹…” Tamil Hindu minority under the Sinhalese Buddhist majority’ was based on the concept Mark Twain popularised. In spite of its false premises it was an argument highly marketable to human rights advocates and NGOs. Foremost among them were Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Such NGOs turned out to be PR firms for the LTTE overnight.  Tiger slogan was a godsend to them to attract donor funds.

But neither the Times or BBC nor any other organization or government questioned the authenticity of the LTTE arguments, the statistics or the “ƒ”¹…”news’ that were broadcast all over the world. In fact it was not only accepted but also added onto by others. Gordon Weiss, an ex-employee of the UN who left Sri Lanka under a cloud, told ABC recently that the death toll could be “ƒ”¹…”between 15,000 to 40,000′ according to his sources. He has not divulged these sources. But just as the LTTE, Weiss knows that only an exceptionally clever and bold journalist would bother to question the credibility of the information like Martin Fletcher questioning the news emerging from the rebels in Syria. In such circumstances picking a number is the way to go if you want to win an argument or pin an accusation. After that all it requires for it to stick is for a number of players to repeat it.

This is clearly how the Darusman report to UN Secretary General calculated the number of civilian deaths. It said “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”. In other words Darusman team did not do any new research: since multiple sources said it they concluded it must be right. And it was this statement that was taken without any of its qualifications and embellished by Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to tell the Human Rights Council that that Daruman report had concluded there was “credible evidence” of 40,000 killed.

As an aside, since writing a piece on the subject recently I have been pondering over an observation from an innocent commentator questioning ” if 40,000 were killed in the last 24 hours of the war how did they get rid of so many bodies leaving no telltale signs or unseen by satellites? Disposing of that many bodies would indeed have posed major logistical problems.

 CHANNEL 4 VIDEO

That was not the end of the story. To buttress Pillay’s claim UK’s Channel 4 presented another video purported to be killings by Sri Lankan soldiers. Another South African,UN’s Special Rapporteur on Disappearances, Christof Heyns, promoted the video for the unsuspecting membership of the Human Rights Council.

But the video was another fake which Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, has very clearly demonstrated.[3]  Among other things he questioned the credentials of some of the experts used, in particular Spivack, who was a technical representative for a brand of specialised proprietary software which was used to enhance the video and which was shared with two other experts. He also found that the video had used an optical zoom which only a camera has, (and not shot on a cell phone as claimed) and the video (at last UN has agreed) had been subsequently edited, and in the process put together in the wrong order.

According to Siri Hewavitharana, a world expert on digital video systems (currently Executive Director of IPTV Systems in Sydney, Australia and former head of Cisco’s Global Broadcast and Digital Video Practice division) the channel 4 video did not come from a mobile phone since it had used an Optical Zoom which is not available in any mobile phone Camera to this day. This is confirmed by the existence of more than one video layer, while audio is also not synchronized in with the video. He notes that the technical footprint is identical on both Channel 4 videos indicating they were edited using the same software.

But Hewavithrana’s comments were simply dismissed by UN promoters saying he was a Sri Lankan. The UN hierarchy seems to still judge people by the colour of their skin or where they were born rather than by the content of their contribution.

Similarly when it came to the second video Heynes, no expert in video technology, simply dismissed the complaints and declared before the Human Rights Council  “the video suggests there is enough evidence to open a war-crimes case”.  Using the fake video he was blackmailing the unsuspecting HRC members to agree to an international probe. Heynes’ phony video was intended to reinforce Pillay’s false statistics to wrest a decision from the Human Rights Council, by hook or by crook, to initiate an international enquiry against Sri Lanka.

 This attitude of UN’s own staff is surprising given that fair play and objectivity are supposed to be hallmarks of the work of this august organization. Besides Sri Lanka is an equal partner.

 But in the final analysis we are kidding ourselves expecting justice and fairness from decisions emerging from the United Nations at the behest of major western players. When Lt Smith, US representative at the seminar presenting Sri Lanka’s experience in combating the LTTE, questioned the validity of the claim relating to surrender by some members of the LTTE leadership, State Department representative was quick to distance itself by making the usual comment that it was Smith’s personal view and the US government remained committed to its position supporting an enquiry. That was a great missed opportunity for the US to display that it was open to all views before making up its mind and offer Sri Lanka an opportunity for fair play.

 History seems to be repeating itself at the United Nations. When the US representative convinced the General Assembly with false evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction with Saddam Hussein even prestigious publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal fell for the lie, hook, line and sinker and unwittingly helped Bush and Blair with their misinformation campaign to justify the invasion of Iraq.

 The only difference this time round is that the bidding is done not by country representatives to the UN but by UN employees themselves. The objective of the new strategy is to add greater credibility to the claims. It is all part of the game western countries play to bring about regime change in hostile countries using internal unrest and external pressure. But as history has shown over and over in this game facts really don’t matter. Even if the promoters were eventually proven wrong the damage would have been already done. Obviously it is not justice or fair play that Western countries and UN’s own pursuers are demanding: they want retribution from Sri Lanka for defeating terrorism.

 This is the time we need real friends.


[1] “ƒ”¹…”Facebook red-faced after dirty tricks campaign against Google revealed’ , Dominion Post 14 May 2011, http://fairfaxmedia.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx

 [2] “ƒ”¹…”Syrian regime not alone in pushing misinformation’, The Dominion post 13 May 2011.

5 Responses to “LIES, DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS”

  1. andylingam Says:

    Well said Jazz
    What the col. does not seem to understand is that any govt.’s policy is entirely influenced by the people’s wishes & thinking. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the over-whelming majority of people in this country wanted a military solution to deal with the LTTE and a political solution which does not compromise on soveriegnty and territorial integrity to address the legitimate grievances of the tamil people. While I accept that it has been slow going as far as workig out a political solution, we must also understand the complexities of this issue which spans well over half a century. Hence, expecting the govt. to wrap things up within a short span of two years is very unreasonable. Also, we must analyse the other side of the coin to see if certain tamil parties like the TNA are still pursuing policies for a solution which continue to threaten soveriegnty & territorial integrity.If that were the case, then it would be ridiculous to blame the govt. for lack of movement.

    If one were to observe the past 13 or more election results in SL, then it becomes crystal clear as to why this govt. is ‘on the saddle’. Col. Hari, to be honest, the past election results have not even been close. Infact, most of them have been a real ‘butt kicking’ for the main opposition.For those who are harbouring any doubts, make no mistake about it, the people are very much with this govt.

    As for your comment about the re-settlement of tamils in the North/east being inadequate, you must realize that SL is not a wealthy country with unlimited financial resources. The govt. is doing the best it can with the resources in hand. If SL did have unlimited financial resources, we would have settled our tamil people far sooner and with far better infrastucture and facilities.Also, we would not be asking India for assistance as far as building houses, railway lines,roads, de-mining and so on. In the circumstances, I would say that SL govt. has done a fantastic job in looking out for the 300,000 plus tamil people.

    When dealing with human rights and accountability, this govt. would have to deal with this matter in it’s entirety.While dealing with abuses on the SL forces side, the govt. would also have to deal with abuses by the LTTE.The govt. cannot be selective on this matter.Afterall, the LTTE were as brutal or even more brutal than the forces in most instances. With the entire military leadership of the LTTE decimated, how can the govt. implement accountability realistically. And even if the govt. were to implement accountability and punish all those who were responsible, I would ask you if continuing this vicious cycle of blaming & punishing each other would do any good for the two communities as far as beginning the process of healing and more importantly finding a lasting solution.Afterall, in this conflict, nobody can claim to hold the higher moral ground.If we talk in terms of communities, I would say that both communities have blood on their hands.

  2. Raj Says:

    I totally agree with andylingam. It is easy to criticize but difficult to improve.

  3. ranjit Says:

    Andy we need reconcilliation and healing not blame game. Already thousands of innocent lives was lost on both sides. We have to stand up unitedly man no going back to those dark days. Evrybody should support us than believing terrorist left overs around the world. without believing in garbage vedeos and bogus photographs from the same mind set of traitors to the Motherland the western Governments should believe us and help us to build the whole nation. Tamils are not outsiders they are our own citizens,because of one barbarian our own people were divided in to two groups and fought a bloody war which both sides lost their loved ones. Those who fought by the gun died by the gun at the end so now is the time to reconcile and forget the past and to move on.

    We have to discuss all our issues related to our major problem we are facing today together in a democratic way and try to find a solution rather going behind India or any other western Governments. Only people who can bring us together and solve our problems is the present Government under the wise leadership of President Mahinda Rajapksa nobody else because he is the one who brought us freedom and serving the people of all races as one big family. Others can provide us advise and other favours as friends not as enemies. We need all our friends to help us without siding with one particular race. Sri Lanka is one nation which serves all citizens alike. Do not try to divide us again. “Theruwan Saranai” ,”May God bless all”, “Peace be upon him”.

  4. andylingam Says:

    As We both communities have blood on our hands So We both have to work hard for these Karma !

    I am sure every ( inc Sinhalese) one watched last night C4 prgram had tear in eye !
    example three girls were cring not able to go near to (wondered) dieing mother as with in another few minitus bomber will be in the sky !
    Can you belive they were living in 21st century Bhuddha’s Holy land !!!

    Very sad………………….

    Hope & pray our future generation won’t go through this in our Mother lanka !!!

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Question: Have any films been made showing the suffering & pathos caused by llte killings ? I have seen dead bodies of ltte victims on film, but never the utter despair and sadness of the families of victims …. such a film would complete the picture, and compliment the one from Ch.4, showing the other side of the story.

    Another constructive thing to do would be collect signatures from both the South & the North from ordinary citizens in a countrywide statement (Letter of Condolence), expressing sadness about the war and offering condolences to the families of those who died, to all the Sri Lankan families, Sinhala & Tamil (include the ltte), and Others, who incurred loss of life within the family. I would suggest that such a letter include the loss of life incurred during the JVP uprisings too, and include the message to the families who lost lives at the hands of the JVP and the families of the JVP members who died. The local newspapers could carry the main message.

    The same Letter of Condolence could be signed at Provincial level, perhaps at each of the provincial Municipalities.

    Let’s put an end to these internal conflicts and the suffering they caused. Let’s bring Closure.

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