Coverage of Prabhakaran in the ‘New York Times’

by Sachi Sri Kantha, May 6, 2016

May 5, 1976 marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As an unusual tribute to the genius of Prabhakaran, I made an attempt to scan, how many times Velupillai Prabhakaran (1954-2009) made it to the New York Times. This has not been attempted by anyone else before. I used the ‘search’ function of to check the entries from the New York Times archive with the key word ‘Velupillai Prabhakaran’. A total of 81 entries were found. This search was performed on May 7, 2016.

Prabhakaran A Leader (2004 book cover)First, I provide the entire listing in chronological order. The caption of the news story, date and the reporting journalist’s (or compiler’s) name when provided are given. Subsequently, I offer my thoughts on who reported these stories and their competence or lack of such to comment on Prabhakaran.


Coverage on Prabhakaran by the New York Times (1987-2016)

  1. Sri Lanka delays lifting Emergency decree in Tamil areas. August 16, 1987.
  2. A Tamil separatist leader dies in protest fast. September 27, 1987.
  3. Killing of civilians haunts Sri Lankan village. August 22, 1989,. Sanjoy Hazarika.
  4. Tamil Tigers are linked to fatal blast in Sri Lanka. October 16, 1997. John F. Burns.
  5. Bombing’s fallout adds to the gloom hanging over Sri Lanka. October 17, 1997. John F. Burns.
  6. World Briefing. November 28, 1998.
  7. Tamil rebels said to recruit child soldiers. July 17, 2000. Barbara Crossette.
  8. Rebels without a childhood in Sri Lanka war. September 11, 2000. Celia W. Dugger.
  9. The blood all over. October 8, 2000. Celia W. Dugger.
  10. World Briefing. November 10, 2000. Terence Neilan.
  11. Britain urges warring Sri Lanka factions to begin talks. November 24, 2000.
  12. News summary. November 28, 2000.
  13. Leader of Tamil Tiger rebels syas he is ready for peace talks. November 28, 2000. Celia W. Dugger.
  14. World Briefing. November 29, 2000. Terence Neilan.
  15. World Briefing. November 30, 2000. Terence Neilan.
  16. World Briefing. December 5, 2000. Terence Neilan.
  17. World Briefing. December 20, 2000. Terence Neilan.
  18. Sri Lanka hits at rebels after they offer truce. December 22, 2000. Celia W. Dugger.
  19. World Briefing. January 12, 2001. Terence Neilan.
  20. Sri Lanka restarts drive on rebels at crucial pass. January 19, 2001. Celia W. Dugger.
  21. Tamil Leaders talks peace, with a catch. November 28, 2001. Celia W. Dugger.
  22. News Summary. November 28, 2001.
  23. Sri Lanka: Government rejects rebel request. November 30, 2001. Celia W. Dugger.
  24. In a tinderbox, Sri Lanka President turns up the heat. December 05, 2001. Celia W. Dugger.
  25. Opposition appears headed for victory in Sri Lanka elections. December 06, 2001. Celia W. Dugger.
  26. Urging peace talks, Sri Lankan opposition defeats President’s coalition. December 08, 2001. Celia W. Dugger.
  27. Truce helps revive hope for peace in Sri Lanka. December 25, 2001. Celia W. Dugger.
  28. News Summary. February 23, 2002.
  29. Truce accord in Sri Lanka could herald peace talks. February 23, 2002. Celia W. Dugger.
  30. After ferocious fighting, Sri Lanka struggles with peace. April 09, 2002. Celia W. Dugger.
  31. News Summary. April 11, 2002.
  32. Sri Lanka rebel voices hope for end to 18-year war. April 11, 2002. Somini Sengupta.
  33. Tentative hopes in Sri Lanka. April 22, 2002.
  34. Sri Lanka: Rebel leader sees mediators. October 24, 2002. Amy Waldman.
  35. Sri Lanka Government sentences guerrilla leader in absentia. November 01, 2002. Amy Waldman.
  36. Sri Lanka: Rebels protest leader’s sentence. November 02, 2002. Seth Mydans.
  37. Sri Lanka: Rebel leader demands autonomy. November 28, 2002. Amy Waldman.
  38. Sri Lanka: Young still forced to join in endless rebellion. January 06, 2003. Amy Waldman.
  39. Sri Lanka faces the Divisions within. January 08, 2003. Any Waldman.
  40. Rival political factions jockey for power in tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka. January 18, 2005. David Rohde and Amy Waldman.
  41. A hawk narrowly wins Sri Lanka Presidential election. November 19, 2005. Somini Sengupta.
  42. Sri Lankan navy and rebels clash, threatening cease-fire. December 23, 2005. Somini Sengupta.
  43. Toll on rise in Sri Lanka’s ‘Shadow War’. December 28, 2005. Somini Sengupta.
  44. Sri Lanka: Explosions rock Capital. January 25, 2006. Shimali Senanayake.
  45. Warring factions in Sri Lanka agree to resume peace talks. January 26, 2006. Shimali Senanayake and Somini Sengupta.
  46. Ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka seem wider than ever. May 11, 2006. Somini Sengupta.
  47. Sri Lanka: Rebels to seek own state. November 28, 2006. Shimali Senanayake.
  48. Sri Lanka’s scars trace lines of war without end. June 15, 2007. Somini Sengupta.
  49. Political leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers killed in an airstrike. November 03, 2007. Somini Sengupta.
  50. Ethnic divide worsens as Sri Lanka conflict escalates. March 08, 2008. Somini Sengupta.
  51. War worsens as Sri Lanka puts pressure on rebels. September 28, 2008.
  52. As Sri Lanka fighting seems near an end, Fears rise over what comes next. February 07, 2009. Mark Mcdonald.
  53. Fate of Tamil Chief at center as Sri Lanka seeks victory. March 20, 2009. Seth Mydans.
  54. Outcome of Sri Lanka’s long war may hang on fate of insurgent leader. August 01, 2009. Seth Mydans.
  55. Inside the Times. April 01, 2009.
  56. Submarine escape for Sri Lankan rebel? April 24, 2009. Robert Mackey.
  57. Sri Lanka reins in its offensive on rebels. April 28, 2009. Thomas Fuller.
  58. Plea for cease-fire help in Sri Lanka. May 04, 2009.
  59. Sri Lanka forces surround Tamil rebels. May 17, 2009.
  60. Sri Lanka ends 26 years of civil war. May 18, 2009.
  61. Sri Lanka says Prabhakaran, Leader of Tamil rebels, has died. May 19, 2009.
  62. Sri Lankan rebel leader also served as cult figures. May 19, 2009. Seth Mydans.


[Posthumous Notices]

  1. Tiger by the Tail. May 21, 2009. James Ross.
  2. Tamil rebels confirm Leader’s death. May 25, 2009.
  3. Tamil Tigers confirm death of their Leader. May 26, 2009. Mark McDonald.
  4. Sri Lanka disputes report of 20,000 dead. May 29, 2009. Robert Mackey
  5. Tamils now languish in Sri Lanka camps. July 13, 2009. Lydia Polgreen
  6. Sri Lanka: Separatist leader arrested. August 08, 2009. Lydia Polgreen
  7. Tamil Tiger supporters win vote in Sri Lankan town. August 10, 2009. Robert Mackey
  8. Rajaratnam and the Tamil Tigers connection. October 18, 2009. Michael J. de la Merced.
  9. Cry for self-rule by Tamils is muffled by reality. February 08, 2010. Lydia Polgreen.
  10. Wages of Tamil insurgency paid by the poor left behind. February 23, 2013. Manu Joseph.
  11. Revisiting the horror in Sri Lanka. February 28, 2013. Manu Joseph.
  12. U.N. Rights Council to vote on resolution on Sri Lanka. March 19, 2013. Nick Cumming-Bruce.
  13. A People without a story. May 12, 2013. Aatish Taseer.
  14. In Andhra, Maoist rebels pin hopes on memories of the dead. May 15, 2013. Rahul Pandita.
  15. Bad history mars Indian movie only Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. September 02, 2013. Suhrith Parthasarathy.
  16. New inquiry on Sri Lanka points to possible war crimes. February 05, 2014. Nick Cumming-Bruce.
  17. Sri Lanka denounces push to open War inquiry. February 2014. Gardiner Harris and Dharisha Bastians.
  18. On Anniversary, a victory parade and a crackdown in Sri Lanka. May 19, 2014. Gardiner Harris and Dharisha Bastians.
  19. In Sri Lanka, barriers fall in a land marred by bloodshed. March 06, 2016. Joshua Hammer.


My Thoughts

Just because Prabhakaran had received news coverage in the New York Times, simply does not mean that the purported coverage was fair and decent. The simple reason is that all the journalists reported by the New York Times editorial desk were linguistically challenged, culturally challenged and historically challenged oafs. On top of that, not a single one could meet Prabhakaran face to face for an interview. Thus, what they could provide was cliché adjectives such as “ruthless and reclusive”, “chubby face with the black bottle-brush mustache” and one who “pioneered and perfected the use of the suicide bomber” after scanning the predominantly biased reporting emanating from Colombo media owned by Sinhalese media barons.

One of my favorite bloopers is from John Burns (b. 1944), “referring to Velupillai Prabhkaran, the fisherman’s son who commands the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.” [New York Times, October 16, 1997]   Apart from his government job as a district lands officer, did Prabhakaran’s father Tiruvenkadam Velupillai have a side job as a fisherman?  Not a single Eelam Tamil would vouch for it.  This is from the winner of two Pulitzer prizes for journalism!  Who cares about accuracy in reporting, if one can fiddle with facts about a so-called ‘terrorist’.  That’s the colonial British racist strategy.  Didn’t Churchill insult Gandhi as a ‘half naked fakir’?

I provide two more bloopers from two American women journalists.  The first is from award-winning journalist Barbara Crossette (b. 1939), that the Tigers led by Prabhakaran were “secretive and radically leftist”. [New York Times, July 17, 2000]  If one cannot read Tamil language or meet with Prabhakaran, the typical ruse adopted by these American journalist oafs is to simply tag the Tigers, as “secretive and radically leftist”.  What proof can Ms. Crossette offer to show that the Tamil Tigers were “radically leftist”?  According to the Wikipedia entry, Ms. Crossette served as an editor of New York Times and was its United Nations bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.

The second one is from Celia W. Dugger.  She reported verbatim, [”Mr. Prabhakaran is mentally ill, seriously,”, New York Times, Oct. 8, 2000] what the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga told her without any verification of the pejorative fact promoted by a self-serving politician, on her own.

Here is the roster of journalist oafs who have written about Prabhakaran to the New York Times.

Sanjoy Hazarika, John F. Burns, Barbara Crossette, Celia Dugger, Terence Neilan, Somini Sengupta, Amy Waldman, Seth Mydans, David Rohde, Shimali Senanayake, Mark Mcdonald, Robert Mackey, Thomas Fuller, James Ross, Michael de la Merced, Lydia Polgreen, Manu Joseph, Nick Cumming-Bruce, Aatish Taseer, Rahul Pandita, Suhrit Parthasarathy, Gardiner Harris, Dharisha Bastians and Joshua Hammer.

When one studies the above list, in early days Americans as well as British-born journalists covered the Sri Lankan beat.  Then, with financial downturn, the New York Times management opted for ‘regional or local relays’ (such as Indian and Sri Lankan journalists) who shared their bylines with a Westerner.  Nonetheless, almost all reporters had no fluency in Tamil language.

For a comparative scan, I also checked how many times Prabhakaran’s contemporaries in Sri Lanka had received mention in the New York Times.  For this survey, I omitted the names of those who had served as the Presidents or Prime Ministers of the country.  By virtue of the ‘top dog’ position they have held, they do receive higher entries for their occasional jaunts and meetings with visiting dignitaries.  Here are the results for nine of Prabhakaran’s contemporaries.

Lalith Athulathmudali – 55 (between 1983 and 1994)

Sarath Fonseka – 49 (between 2006 and 2016)

Neelan Tiruchelvam – 23 (between 1985 and 2009)

Lakshman Kadirgamar – 16 (between 1995 and 2008)

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – 14 (between 2008 and 2016)

Gamini Dissanayake – 11 (between 1977 and 1995)

Appapillai Amirthalingam – 11 (between 1979 and 1994)

Rohana Wijeweera – 8 (between 1987 and 1989)

Veerasingham Anandasangaree – 3 (in 2000)

Among these, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka and Veerasinghm Anandasangaree are still living.

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