FEDERATION OF TAMIL ASSOCIATIONS IN NEW ZEALANDSothilingam Sivaskanthan, of Palmerston North, complained, on behalf of the Federation of Tamil Associations in New Zealand (FTANZ), to the New Zealand Herald on 27 February 2002 with particular reference to two articles published in the Weekend Herald of January 12-13; Dr Malathy Naguleswaran of Christchurch, also acting for the FTANZ, made a formal complaint to the Press Council on 27 May.
In the wake of the 11 September attacks in the United States, New Zealand, like many other countries, re-visited its anti-terrorism law. Around the time the Herald articles were published, draft legislation, under consideration by a Parliamentary Select Committee, was attracting a large number of public submissions. It was proposed that 'reckless' contributions of money to certain declared terrorist organisations should be made a criminal offence. Other countries, including Australia and the United States, have declared the 'Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam' (LTTE), known around the world as the Tamil Tigers, to be a terrorist organisation. Leaders of the Tamil community in New Zealand were concerned that their "legitimate" fund-raising activities, could become illegal under new legislation, if New Zealand followed suit and formally named the Tamil Tigers. Many of their number send money back to Sri Lanka to assist the Tamil community there. Direct funding of the Tamil Tigers is denied. But sending money through any organisation could lead to "a misunderstanding"; moreover, many Tamils here would see the Tigers as "freedom fighters" rather than "terrorists".
The Herald has stated that it was against this background that they decided to inquire into the effects of the proposed new legislation. As a matter of public interest it was important to determine whether the Tamil Tigers had connections in New Zealand. The motive was to inform the public, not to slight the independence struggle or undermine the peace process in Sri Lanka. The newspaper's interest in the topic was signaled in an article on page 3 of the Weekend Herald of 1-2 December 2001 under the headline, 'Tamils fear being swept up in anti-terrorist net".
Two further substantial articles by the same reporter were published on 12-13 January. The first, a double column piece under the headline 'Terrorist Banker's secret NZ visit' was placed prominently on the front page of the Weekend Herald with a sub-heading 'Weekend Herald Investigation' and a reference to the main report, which was spread over one and a half pages in the 'Weekend Review & World' section, and which carried a headline across both pages, "Hunt for Tigers leads to our own backyard". Both pieces raised questions as to whether some Tamil elements in New Zealand may be caught up in world-wide activities in support of the Tamil Tigers' insurgency against the government of Sri Lanka
An editorial, "Terror Intolerable under any Name", which clearly set out the newspaper's forthright opposition to terrorism which targeted civilians, was published in the New Zealand Herald of 14 January, and two Letters to the Editor, broadly supportive of the Tamil position on the war in Sri Lanka, were published on 15 January.
Mr Sivaskanthan in his letter of 27 February complained of what he called an "emerging trend in the Herald's coverage of the war on terrorism, to unfairly target the New Zealand Tamil community." “The poor quality of journalism has enraged our community in many ways.” He contended that the articles in the Herald had "consistently been focussing on the Singhalese point of view" and asked the newspaper to publish, either in the Opinions or the Dialogue section, a letter by Professor Margaret Trawick of Massey University, who was, "perhaps the best informed academic in New Zealand on the conflict in Sri Lanka. "
Mr Sivaskanthan asserted that the Herald 's coverage demonstrated both "biased reporting" and "unverified reporting and writing with a view to mislead." FTANZ's subsequent complaint to the Press Council, signed by Dr Naguleswaran, was, however, restricted to the latter two assertions, and was linked to the principle of accuracy.
The FTANZ took particular issue with what they regarded as statements of fact, in the Weekend Herald articles, to do with: first, a visit to New Zealand by an individual (the 'banker') suspected of being engaged in business - and especially shipping - activities around the world in support of the LTTE; second, claims by a refugee that he had been threatened by Tamil elements in New Zealand; third, a question as to whether some pamphlets circulating in New Zealand were propaganda 'planted' by the Sri Lankan government; fourth, a contention that a Sri Lankan who entered New Zealand on a student visa had been an intelligence officer and tax collector for the LTTE.
The Deputy Editor of the New Zealand Herald responded to Mr Sivaskanthan on 19 March. He first rejected the notion that the articles targeted the Tamil community in New Zealand or were intended as a discussion of the rights and wrongs of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Rather, the intention was to look at the proposed new anti-terrorism legislation in New Zealand and to inquire who, if anyone, might be affected. The Deputy Editor rejected charges of imbalance and inaccuracy. The FTANZ had claimed, in particular, that the newspaper's coverage of a reported visit to New Zealand of the individual suspected of bankrolling Tamil Tiger campaigns was misleading because it implied the visit was recent, when it was five years ago. On the contrary, the Deputy Editor commented, there was information that Indian police had come to New Zealand only last year to investigate the possibility that the man had business interests here; thus his earlier visit was germane to the case made by the Herald.
The Deputy Editor also responded to a piece submitted by Professor Margaret Trawick who had been nominated by Mr Sivaskanthan to write for the paper's Opinions or Dialogue sections. Professor Trawick had made what the Deputy Editor described as " a number of forceful allegations" about the tenor of the Herald's reporting and the position of the newspaper on the issues. These were rejected outright. As a consequence the Deputy Editor concluded that he could not publish the article as submitted. He would however be prepared to look at a rewrite which focussed on the valid point that the Government should not do anything, in regard to support for the Tamil Tigers, while a current cease-fire held.
The Deputy Editor responded at length to the Press Council on 13 June concerning what he described as the "extremely serious" allegations made by the FTANZ "about the quality of our reporting and our motives for investigating this matter". The Press Council has studied carefully his responses against the accusations made. It can find no evidence of any deliberate attempt to mislead or of "unverified reporting". The technique employed by the reporter in compiling the articles was to accumulate a series of assertions based on extensive interviews and study of other material, including reports from intelligence sources. The evidence was not presented as "facts". In matters of this kind, where the hard and fast evidence is unlikely to be made available to the public, because it derives from intelligence sources, this approach is legitimate. The Press Council's principles to do with accuracy in reporting were not infringed.
The Press Council has stated elsewhere its firm endorsement of well-researched investigative journalism. In this case the Herald 's coverage was a service to the wider public, because it cast a light on the potential impact of proposed new anti-terrorism legislation. Views from within the Tamil community were reflected, and indeed given prominence through a photograph of George Arulananthan, President of the Tamil Society, and a caption claiming that the Sri Lankan government is trying to undermine Tamil cultural organisations. It is, of course, now an accepted rubric, in the context of today's wars of terror, that 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter'. There is no way that the Press Council could make determinations on such questions in relation to events in another country. On the other hand there could be few more important matters than the possibility that what a number of other countries have concluded is a terrorist organisation may have links in New Zealand. Investigation of that issue does not reflect any motivation on the part of the newspaper to undermine the Tamil community, which has a respected place in New Zealand life. Rather, the articles represented a useful contribution to an understanding of the far-reaching ramifications of a struggle like that in Sri Lanka.
The Press Council accordingly does not uphold the complaint of the FTANZ against the New Zealand Herald.
(The Press Council notes, as an aside, that a Bill and commentary were presented to Parliament in its last session; no further action has been taken at this stage.)
Miss Audrey Young and Mr Jim Eagles took no part in this Council adjudication.