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Military spokesperson asks newspaper to change photo caption

(FMM/IFEX) - The following is a FMM press release:

FMM regrets Military Spokesperson's Letter to Sudaroli

In a letter dated 25th September 2008, addressed to the Tamil language Sudaroli newspaper, military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakakara, writing in the name of and under the official aegis of Military Headquarters, stated that a photo caption in the newspaper "will create tension among the people and confuse the Security Forces who are serving to safeguard the sovereignty of the country."

The photograph in question was of five school children in the besieged Vanni districts cramped in a bunker looking at the sky with anxiety in their eyes. It was first published by the BBC Sinhala website (see photo at ).

FMM is seriously concerned about the fact that the military has taken upon itself the task of interpreting and requesting changes even to photo captions in a newspaper. While FMM is pleased that the newspaper stood by its caption, in the light of recent events which increasingly portend restrictions on freedom of expression in the interests of military morale, and a military establishment that is ominously sensitive to what it perceives as criticism, we regard it as wholly unacceptable that the military spokesperson should feel entitled to request a newspaper to change or withdraw any expression of opinion, photo captions included. This is clearly a violation of press freedom.

Sudaroli, a Tamil language daily published in Colombo, reproduced the photograph with the caption, "Oh my God, don't drop bombs on us." In his response the military spokesperson says, "This photograph publicizes that Air Force is carrying out attacks on wrong targets and in such a way as to endanger the children [sic]."

It is indisputable that in any war, air raids or long-range artillery attacks on "identified enemy locations" sometimes hit civilian targets and cause death and destruction to civilian life and property. It may not be the intention of the military to cause damage to civilian targets, but we would stress that, intention notwithstanding, the result is the same. The Sudaroli newspaper has every right to take up its own editorial position in respect of both the need for and the manner of prosecution of the war, and indeed to attach a caption of its choice on a photograph, as newspapers everywhere have done before and continue to do.

FMM demands that defence spokespersons respect the freedom of expression of the media and desist from attempting to impose their own interpretations on media content, with the unstated yet menacing expectation that their injunctions will promptly be heeded by the media.

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