On October 17, a front-page report, “Sri Lankan President Sirisena alleges that RAW is plotting his assassination”, in this newspaper became the subject of wild speculation on social media. Some commenters wondered how such a story could find a place in a respected newspaper. There was a striking element that linked all the critical comments against the story: suspicion of the journalist’s account but belief in the half-hearted official denials. Did the report indicate a fall in journalistic standards, as some alleged, or was this the actual story which the media was forced to acknowledge and report?
It has never been easy for reporters covering neighbourhood politics to report on the roles of agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. As a reporter who has covered most of India’s neighbouring countries for nearly three decades, I can safely say that these agencies are named in most of the covert and overt operations — sometimes based on facts, sometimes based on pure hypothesis, and sometimes to suit domestic political realities. It is one area where the journalistic covenant of not relying on anonymous sources never works. The senior officials in these agencies rarely go on record, and they have an extensive network through which critical information reaches the public domain. This forces reporters to slacken their insistence on on-the-record attribution.
The act of verification
Let’s examine the report in question and see whether it fulfils journalistic requirements. First, the correspondent of this newspaper in Colombo received a tip-off. Then, she was pointed to references made on a Sinhala website, Lankaenews, that did carry the report. She directly cross-verified the information with two Ministers who were present at the Cabinet meeting in which the President made this incredible statement. She got indirect confirmations from two others. It is important to note that the sources were from different political parties in Sri Lanka’s coalition government, as was mentioned in the report. She then contacted the President’s Media Division and sought a clarification and response. She informed them that the newspaper has got multiple confirmations of the statement and would be running the story that night. She asked if they wished to comment on it so that the newspaper could include their version of what happened. They said they would verify and revert, but did not do so till the copy went to print. It is also important to record some related developments to understand the reasons behind the report. The President’s advisers had scheduled a press conference on the “assassination plot”, but had called it off a couple of hours before noon. The newspaper’s reporter spoke to one adviser and quoted him in the report. In addition to The Hindu, Colombo-based portal economynext.com too reported the development.
The social media interrogation is oblivious to the fact that the reporter confirmed the information with multiple sources that included the political leadership and senior officials.
Since the publication of the report, there have been three official denials from Sri Lanka: from the President’s Media Division, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Cabinet Secretary. In India, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement and the Ministry of External Affairs commented on the development.
However, a report in the Colombo daily, The Daily Mirror, invites more questions rather than providing answers. It carried a statement by Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who is supposed to be close to the President and opposed to the party led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickermesinghe. Mr. Samarasinghe agreed that four Cabinet Ministers had provided the information to The Hindu and he wanted them to admit the blunder: “We have no intention to press journalists to reveal their source. But it is quite obvious that certain Cabinet Ministers have given this false information to the media. The government must go to the bottom of the false propaganda and expose the four Ministers who misled the media, the public and the government.”
For a responsible media organisation that considers the act of verification as its core objective, truth-telling becomes imperative even if it means reporting tactless and thoughtless utterances.