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 offensive.
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
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