PRIU - A Taskforce with an Agonizing Mission

“We lost the American Colonies because we lacked the statesmanship to know the time and the manner of yielding what is impossible to keep.”

- Queen Elizabeth II, Independence Bicentennial,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania July 6th, 1976.

Queen Elizabeth may have given the best advice yet to the Lankan policy makers.

While the PA and UNP are engaged in discussions that do not touch on subjects that are key to resolving the Tamil conflict, and instead enacting the duplicitous act of defining the functions of Governor, reminding us of a similar drama performed in July 1987, which Satyendra ridiculed as a ‘Comic Opera’, the PRIU (Public Relations Information Unit) arm of the Government is engaged in a battle that it cannot win.

With the Wanni debacle of last November, and the continued loosening of the grip of Southeastern sector of the Jaffna peninsula, the demoralized government soldiers are engaged in a losing battle for territory they can’t keep, and the loyalty of a population they can’t win.

In this climate, the PRIU is tasked to examine the news that come out every morning and prepare responses to them (at least that is what their news stories appear to be).

PRIU is alarmed by journalists not giving positive interpretations to battlefield news, and have warned Sri Lankan journalists not to attack the civilian morale.

The PRIU hasn’t got one basic maxim straight here. 

Propaganda, broadcast as news, contains an inherent weakness. In the long run it cannot convince astute readers, and loses credibility.

Here is one from a PRIU communiqué:

 “The (PRIU) official also said that some international news services seemed to treat LTTE press releases as gospel, but would not give an equivalent benefit of doubt to government information. When the Tigers say they have made advances, these people just regurgitate it. But when we make advances, they write headlines like ‘Troops claim’ to have done something or other, as if we are making it up. It is truly difficult to understand.”

Difficult to understand, indeed!

Here are a few basic points that will make it easier for PRIU to understand.

1. First and foremost is the test of time. The question is, “Whose press releases have been proven reliable in the past?” People naturally believe whose stories have been proven true.

2. Secondly, the truth. If camps are captured by the Tigers say so. If the reports say ‘we did a strategic retreat,’ or ‘we relocated the camp,’ people will lose interest in reading such stories.

On the capture of MSR, the UPI’s Ravi Prasad says how the Government press release avoided the main point and said “we are holding on to an alternative road to send supplies and reinforcements to Pallai & Elephant Pass camps.’ No one can fault UPI for pointing this out.

3. Don’t blame the messengers. See if the message has validity. The International newswires certainly have no motivation to support an organization labeled as ‘terrorist.’ Avoid veiled threats to silence journalists, especially those of the international wire services. The journalists whose stories invite wrath of the PRIU will become permanently hostile to the State.

4. Support the stories with facts. Hearsay, and wild generalizations will not improve credibility. Avoid features such as “Recent carnage may herald end of Tiger terrorism, a diplomat said”. Which diplomat? Any facts to support it?

5. When conventional battles are being fought, avoid using the word ‘terrorists’ to refer to the LTTE combatants. The Tiger soldiers, one would assume, behave not very differently from the State troops in the battlefield.

The PRIU should grow with the times. The monopoly power the State wielded over the local print media does hold only for news dissemination inside Lanka, and that too only for those who do not have access to electronic media.

Censoring news and banning journalists visiting war areas may have given the State a sense of control of news. But it is a losing battle. This is the age of wireless, satellites and the internet. Truth will be difficult to hide.

M. Sreetharan