The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 14 May 2011, headed Australian entangled in a final act of civil war. It concerned events at the end of the long war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).
A reader, Harshula, complained about the article's treatment of an incident in which surrendering Tamil leaders, allegedly under a white flag, were reportedly killed by government troops. He said it should have mentioned that a United Nations report specifically categorised this allegation in a group about which it had been “unable to reach a conclusion regarding their credibility”. The article had later quoted the UN report as saying that it was “unable to accept the version of events held by the government”, yet this comment actually concerned events other than the "white flag incident".
Harshula also complained about an assertion in the article that a leader who died in the incident had previously offered an unconditional surrender. He said that a later reference to contents of leaked cables should have included their mention of another leader's offer to surrender to a neutral third party as well as the LTTE's failure to respond to the government’s request for the names of leaders who were willing to surrender.
The newspaper agreed that the UN had been unable to reach a conclusion about the "white flag incident" but said it had called for further investigation, which the newspaper had then undertaken in great detail and reported in the article. The newspaper also argued that the UN’s comment about the unreliability of the government’s version of events included this incident. It pointed out that the UN report had agreed that there was an offer of unconditional surrender. It said the extra material from the cables was not relevant or necessary for balance.
The Council considered that the UN report’s reference to government unreliability did not relate to this incident and that reference should have been made to the report’s inability to arrive at a conclusion about the incident. These problems led to the article being misleading and lacking in balance. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on those grounds.
Harshula complained that the article’s focus on the involvement of a former Sri Lankan official, who is also an Australian citizen, unfairly cast him as likely to be a war criminal without any reference to any law that he may have broken. In particular, it mentioned that he “stands accused, in an application to the International Criminal Court, of complicity in the murder of surrendering Tamils”.
The newspaper pointed out that the official had been quoted at length in the article and in an accompanying front-page article, which also mentioned that the application was by named Tamil groups, not by an official source.
The Council considered that the extensive quotation from the official had provided sufficient balance on this issue and accordingly this element of the complaint is dismissed.
The Council noted that the newspaper had already corrected two other errors in the article and had offered to publish a letter or article by Harshula to express his views. It welcomes these responses but is concerned that such errors occurred in an article of this kind. It understands why the complainant wanted the newspaper itself to rectify what he saw as inaccuracies and imbalance.
Notes (not required for publication by the newspaper):
The Council has agreed to the complainant's request not to publish his full name in this adjudication but it was known to the newspaper during the complaint process.
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission”. It also applies General Principle 2: "Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence''.