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Wednesday, August 20, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Rapping About 'Genocide'

In Wednesday's New York Times, a headline on page A5 read: "To Some Sri Lankan Ears, Dissonant Undertones in an Acclaimed Rapper's Music." The story, from the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo by correspondent Thomas Fuller, began: "To many Americans, Maya Arulpragasam, known as M.I.A., is the very pregnant rapper who gyrated across the stage at Sunday's Grammy Awards. Yet in Sri Lanka, where she spent her childhood years, M.I.A. remains virtually unknown. And some who do know her work say she is an apologist for the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels fighting in the country's long-running civil war."

Actually, those Americans who watched the Tavis Smiley program on PBS on Jan. 28 had a pretty good exposure to her views about what is going on in her native country, and a couple of dozen viewers from here and abroad wrote to me to say they did not like it and that her claims of a "systematic genocide" by the government against the Tamil minority in the country are false. They were all also critical of Smiley for providing a "platform" for the popular singer's political claims, for not knowing enough about the situation in that country, and for allowing such powerful statements to go unquestioned and unchallenged in front of a PBS audience.

A representative sampling of the letters is printed below. The civil war in Sri Lanka has been going on for more than 25 years and it has, by any measure, taken a horrific toll, especially on civilians trapped between the Sri Lankan army and the insurgent Tamil Tiger rebel group, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE. The Tigers began an uprising in 1983 demanding a homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority, which are mostly Hindu and represent about 10 percent of the population. The great majority of the population is Sinhalese and mainly Buddhist.

That deadly struggle has cost an estimated 70,000 lives on all sides over the years in a country of 20 million, and still threatens many more lives as climactic battles are now being fought and the rebels are reported to be on the verge of defeat. But as far as I can tell, no major human rights group such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch has described the situation as "genocide," meaning a planned and systematic killing of a whole people or nation.

Fuller quoted M.I.A.'s "genocide" statement on the Smiley program in his Times article and described the singer's views as "on the outer fringe of opinion about the conflict." An official from Amnesty International quoted in the Times' account said, "This is a conflict in which both sides have terrible human rights records. The Tamil Tigers have a long history of child recruitment, hostage taking, forcing civilians to the front lines. It's complicated to assign blame."

What's the Evidence?

I'm not vouching for the accuracy of the views in the letters below because there are strong partisan assessments on all sides of this. But it seems to me the criticism of Smiley's role is fair because he essentially invited her views and offered a "platform" without any probing. "When you say there's genocide happening there, what's your sense for why a story of genocide isn't being covered more in the media? Why don't we know more about this?" he asked. M.I.A. said it was "due to the propaganda." But the larger, unstated reason, which did not surface during the program, is that none of the reporting agencies one usually looks to for such judgment has made that judgment.

M.I.A. did, however, make a good point that very often people around the world don't understand that the Tamil Tigers and the Tamil civilian population are two different things and that it is the civilian population that is suffering. But then she went on to say "we're managing to wipe out the whole Tamil population, the civilians, and that is why you don't hear about it, because the propaganda in the media, because if you're a terrorist organization, you don't have the right to speak . . . The Tamil civilians don't have the right to speak. Or right to live."

There are prohibitions and obstacles to coverage of the situation by both sides, but there has been a fair amount of reporting from Sri Lanka by The Washington Post's Emily Wax, for example, and by British newspapers and international human rights organizations. But, again, this has not been described, thus far, in any of these places as genocide.

M.I.A., who left Sri Lanka when she was about 10 and whose father was a well-known Tamil revolutionary, was invited on the Tavis Smiley program because, as Smiley said, she is a "talented singer-songwriter and hip-hop artist who has the rare honor of being nominated — get this — for an Oscar and a Grammy in the same year." That's fine, but wandering into genocide on a no-questions-asked basis is not an award-winning interview performance.

We asked the Smiley program if they were going to respond to viewers and Executive Producer Neal Kendall said, "We are not responding to e-mails regarding M.I.A. other than to say thanks for the input, which is usually our policy on all guest statements." But Kendall added: "We are looking into doing a follow-up show on Sri Lanka in which we would replay M.I.A.'s comments and then have a guest, most likely from the Sri Lankan government, respond to her remarks."

Here Are the Letters

My comments are regarding the M.I.A. — Tavis Smiley discussion. I am proud of M.I.A. being nominated for Oscars & Academy awards as a Sri Lankan. At the same time it is regrettable to see M.I.A. accusing Sri Lanka of carrying out a "systematic genocide". This program should not have been the "platform" to discuss this issue as Tavis points out, simply because Tavis was clearly unaware of the situation in Sri Lanka. M.I.A.'s poor understanding of the situation is evident by the false facts that she presented during this interview.

For example, she mentions that Tamil Tiger "soldiers", mind you there isn't such a thing as a Tamil Tiger "army" but a separatist rebel group, do not have sophisticated weaponry and could be wiped out by "sneezing" on them by a million-strong (which is also not correct) Sri Lankan Army. Tamil Tiger "Soldiers" are considered the most dangerous terrorists in the world (FBI report 2008) and are the only terrorist group in the world to maintain an infantry, an air wing and a naval wing that have carried out barbaric attacks on innocent Sinhala/Tamil civilians and of course suicide attacks for more than 2 decades making them the first terrorist group to do so. Further, there is NO systematic genocide happening in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers have been using human shields to launch their attacks on the Sri Lankan military and that is what M.I.A. sees as genocide. The number 350,000 (which is again not correct) that M.I.A. refers to is the number of civilians that the Tamil Tigers have trapped in a government declared safety zone from which they launch 152mm artillery.

It is unfortunate that Tavis allowed M.I.A. to disrespect Sri Lanka in such a manner. If Tavis did not know about the current situation in Sri Lanka he should not have gone there asking questions. As a national TV, PBS should have been more careful about telecasting sensitive political issues.

Januka Attanayake, Storrs, CT



Dear Mr. Smiley, I am sorry that you were not informed enough about your guest to be able to question her more closely about her connections with the Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka. She is, first of all, the niece of Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), the separatists. The LTTE is a minority rebel group within the larger Tamil minority which comprises less than 9% of the total population of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Tamils live, work, study, intermarry and procreate together with the other ethnic populations in the country (Sinhala, Moslem and Burgher), in every part of the island except in the former LTTE stronghold of the North. In that part of the island, every other ethnic and religious group (including Buddhists, Christians and Moslems), have been slaughtered or driven out!

The post of foreign minister — i.e. spokesperson for Sri Lanka — was held for many years by a Tamil until he was killed by the LTTE. Elections in the north have been stymied repeatedly by the LTTE which has murdered every moderate Tamil who wished to participate in the elections. It is absolutely appalling that you would, with the connivance of PBS, allow these kinds of ludicrous statements to go unquestioned on national TV.

I am copying this message to Michael Getler to ask that the station issue a full clarification and retractment of your support for your unquestioned agreement with Mathangi Arulpragasam's bald-faced lies. In a country where the citizens are generally ignorant of anything that is happening on the world stage, it is intolerable that PBS would engage in this kind of unexamined journalism!

Ru Freeman, Bala Cynwyd, PA



This in reference to the show hosted by renowned media personality Tavis Smiley that featured the artist M.I.A. While I admire her achievements by being nominated for awards at the Oscar's and Grammy's I feel terribly hurt and angry that such a reputed artist has successfully distorted the truth about my country which she has no knowledge about. She falsely claims that there is a "genocide" in Sri Lanka. If that is true why is the US consulate in Sri Lanka not taking a stand to this alleged "genocide"? The whole world has understood the scourge and poison of terrorism. There is no such thing as a good terrorist or a bad terrorist. There is no difference between the terror advocated by Al-Qaeda and the LTTE in Sri Lanka. I am truly disappointed by Tavis Smiley for giving the opportunity to M.I.A. to use your global reach to discredit my country, its people and the democratically elected government. I hope you do more impartial and non bias research in understanding the ground realities and tactics of such terrorists.

Shaad Hamid, Colombo, Sri Lanka



This is regarding the interview done by Tavis Smiley on PBS with the singer M.I.A. It's clear that the Tamil woman M.I.A. is stirring up a non-existent political view saying there's a genocide going on in Sri Lanka against the Tamils. There's a war, true, but no genocide. The presenter openly encourages the woman to talk about it. That's not responsible journalism. Do not let this happen again.

Kim W., Los Angeles, CA



When I watched the interview Tavis Smiley did with M.I.A on PBS I was shocked for two reasons: PBS allowing someone to come and talk like that without any facts to back her story and for her to say that a Genocide is happening in Sri Lanka. That was distorting facts to an extreme level. Fact is, there is a civil war taking place in the north part of Sri Lanka and it is not with Tamils and Sinhalese. It is between Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers (terrorist group banned by all over the world, including USA) . . . Also, the Tamil population in Sri Lanka is not 20% as she said, it is only about 12% . . . Please do not allow representatives from tiger movement terrorist group, come and talk rubbish on a world renowned TV station like PBS and make the people who do not know the truth about Sri Lanka get a bad impression on it. If you want to do a show about this get the facts and do a unbiased story like the very good programs you usually do.

Tharalika Abeyratne, Powell, OH


Sneeze and Wipe?

The show acted as a stage for M.IA. to belittle the terrorist activities of the Tamil Tigers — one of the world's most feared terrorist groups. On your show she said that you could "just sneeze and wipe them out" and that "they are not sophisticated with their weaponry." These statements are absolutely false. The Tigers are the only terror group to have assassinated two world leaders (a former Indian Prime Minister and a Sri Lankan President), have killed scores of parliamentarians (both Tamil and other). The conflict has killed over 70,000 people and is one of Asia's longest running militant conflicts.

With regards to the statement that they do not have sophisticated weapons, according to the US, UK and EU authorities the Tigers collect millions of funds from Tamils who live in developed countries which are then used to purchase arms. The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of the suicide vest and have been the most prolific organization in their use of suicide bombers and using child soldiers. The interviewer did not challenge any of her propaganda that the Tamil Tigers are a minor force and I can only assume that this was totally due to ignorance.

Isuru De Thabrew, London, England



M.I.A seems to be talented singer, having the western attitudes and the sense of music. She is drawing the attention towards her by representing "people of extinction," at least from the world who does not know about the true picture.

At one point she accepts while 17 million people hate her (only the Sinhalese) 500 million people like her. This is one the facts she stated. But truly, many Sri Lankan without ethnic barriers appreciate the talent of this girl. But Sinhalese are confined only to Sri Lanka which comprises 82% of the population of the tiny island, while Sri Lankan Tamils make almost 10%. There are also Muslims, Burgher and few Indian Tamils working in the central island plantations. These facts are universal and retrievable at fingertips. MIA showed how ignorant [she is], or she deliberately lied by saying Tamils make 20% of Sri Lankan population which is categorically a false statement.

By making a statement for the Tamil Tigers, which is the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world banned by USA, UK and many EU countries she exposed herself to the world . . . Simply, M.I.A. wants to label her products under 'Genocide' which is not existing . . . PBS should investigate why Tavis Smiley is so ignorant in the current issues in order to allow her to make false statements and draw the sympathy from the spectators in her cause to get selected to awards.

Sanath Dharmasena, New York, NY


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