Sri Lanka's Killing Fields
Channel 4, 14 June 2011, 23:05
The documentary Sri Lanka's Killing Fields , which presented evidence of alleged war crimes in the final stage of the Sri Lankan civil war, generated 118 complaints and alerted
Ofcom to a range of potential issues including impartiality, offensiveness and the broadcast of misleading material.
Sri Lanka's Killing Fields was a documentary which focused on: the conclusions of the UN report by the Secretary-General's Panel
of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka ( UN Panel Report ) into the Sri Lankan civil war in 2008/2009; the actions and policies of the armed forces of the Sri Lankan Government and of the Tamil Tigers ( LTTE ) towards the civilian
population at this time; and the call, by the survivors of the conflict, on the international community to investigate the potential war crimes set out in the programme.
The information about potential war crimes presented in the programme, which
supported the UN Panel Report findings, was drawn from a dossier of evidence including film (such as mobile phone footage), photographs and eye witness accounts collected by Channel 4 in the previous two years.
The Sri Lanka government were also
displeased with being shown in such a poor light. At the time of broadcast Sri Lankan diplomats and leading forensic video 'experts' contested Channel 4's claims of accuracy. They claimed that video footage used to support the killing fields story was
faked or altered
- Due Impartiality and whether Channel 4 has presented the policies, arguments and actions of the sides involved in the conflict in a balanced way
Rule 5.5: Due impartiality on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy must be preserved on the part of any person providing a service.
- Misleading Material and whether the footage and eyewitness accounts obtained by Channel 4 (which was presented in the programme as the evidence that war crimes were committed) may have misled viewers through the broadcast of faked or manipulated
material, and was presented in such a way that materially misled the audience.
Rule 2.2: “Factual programmes or items or portrayals of factual matters must
not materially mislead the audience.”
- The programme included a number of images of murdered and tortured bodies, and also of partially clothed women who, it was suggested in the documentary, had been sexually abused prior to their death. Ofcom considered this material was potentially
Rule 2.3: In applying generally accepted standards broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context.
Ofcom Decision: Not in
breach of the rules
Due impartiality does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of the argument has to be represented. Due impartiality may be preserved in a number of ways and it
is an editorial decision for the broadcaster as to how it ensures due impartiality is maintained.
In this case, Ofcom noted that:
- Channel 4 did seek to include the viewpoints of the Sri Lankan Government and produced evidence that it had put all of the significant allegations included in the programme to them for a response in advance of the programme. As the Sri Lankan
Government chose not to respond in full, Channel 4 could only broadcast the limited statement provided; |
- the programme included - when the relevant evidence was presented - several official statements previously made by the Sri
Lankan Government regarding the events in the final stage of the civil war. The narration at various points referred to the Government's official position. The programme also included clips of Government officials setting out that position stating for
example that: there had been zero civilian casualties ; it was engaged in a humanitarian rescue operation ; all the civilians inside the no fire zones were rescued by government forces; and, that the first video of an execution shown in the
programme was a fake. The programme also explicitly referred to the Sri Lankan Government's rejection of the UN Panel Report;
- the subject matter of this documentary was clearly presented as being about the final stages of the Sri
Lankan civil war, and in particular, the serious effects on many in the civilian population of the offensive of the Sri Lankan Government against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) held areas of Sri Lanka. It was never intended to be an analysis
of the entire conflict or the actions of the LTTE and Sri Lankan Government during the duration of the civil war as a whole. Consequently, the programme was only required to maintain due impartiality of the specific subject matter presented - which
detailed the Sri Lankan Government offensive against the LTTE held areas at the final stage of the conflict. While the subject matter did present evidence which predominantly covered the actions of the Sri Lankan Government offensive, the documentary
included explicit references to the LTTE activities at this time where this was relevant.
Ofcom therefore concluded that overall Channel 4 preserved due impartiality in its examination of the Sri Lankan Government's actions and policies during its offensive and there was no breach of Rule 5.5.
On the topic of faked or misleading
material Ofcom noted that:
- with regard to the overall editorial context, before the alleged faked footage was broadcast, the presenter Jon Snow explained that no international observers were allowed to enter the conflict zone and the official footage from the Government
of Sri Lanka suggested its activities were humanitarian only. Therefore, the alleged footage of executions and torture, filmed on the mobile phones of Sri Lankan Government soldiers, according to Jon Snow represented public evidence of war crimes
which demand proper investigation . Ofcom therefore concluded that the broadcaster provided viewers with this editorial justification for the inclusion of the mobile phone material and other supporting evidence;
- the broadcaster
took steps to ensure the view of the Sri Lankan Government – that the footage was faked – was made clear to viewers. With regard to the first clip shown, the presenter Jon Snow explained that the same footage had been shown previously on
Channel 4 and it had been denounced as fake by the Sri Lankan Government . He then explained: the footage has since been authenticated by the UN although the Sri Lankan Government refuses to accept that . With regard to the second clip Jon
Snow highlighted this was shocking new video evidence of the shooting of three bound prisoners filmed on a mobile phone. He also advised: we have had this footage analysed by experts who say it shows no signs of manipulation and appears to
depict genuine executions. Metadata encoded within the video indicates it was recorded on 15 May 2009 in the last few days of the civil war ; and
- the programme included eyewitness accounts and photographs to corroborate that the
incidents of torture and sexual abuse recorded on mobile phones were not isolated, as well as other footage which the programme therefore claimed depicted systematic war crimes.
It is Ofcom's view that the broadcaster therefore ensured that the audience was not materially misled regarding the nature of the content by taking reasonable steps before the broadcast to establish that the material was not faked or manipulated, and
informing the audience of those steps during the programme.
And on the subject of offensive images, Ofcom said that the images included in this programme, whilst brutal and shocking, would not have exceeded the expectations of the audience for
this Channel 4 documentary scheduled well after the watershed with very clear warnings about the nature of the content.
Not in Breach of Rules 2.2, 2.3 and 5.5