Frontline under fire

The Frontline Club has been coming in for a fair bit of criticism for its decision to "uninvite" two members of the upcoming Sri Lanka discussion at the club on February 24. These complaints have been received from both sides of the debate online and in private emails. The discussion will focus on the future for the island nation what with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) potentially in sight after 25 years of war and stalemate. The discussion is not about claims of genocide but on the future. As a journalism club, we focus on the lack of foreign reporting from the war. For that reason the journalist Pearl Thevanayagam will now be joining us on the panel. The events team continue to receive a steady flow of angry emails, so it is worthwhile clarifying the Club’s position on this,

The idea of this debate was to discuss the future of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after their military victory by the Sri Lankan government, as well as the future of Sri Lanka and press freedoms and human rights issues within the country. The idea was to get returning journalists – this is difficult as journalists are not allowed into the war zone – and commentators to discuss the situation.

We decided to invite a Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) representative as well but thought that we should also invite a government spokesperson to provide balance. By the time the High Commission got back to us, the panel was full but also unbalanced, so we decided to withdraw the invite to the TAG person and instead invite them, as well as the High Commissioin representative, to be guest audience members. We don’t want the debate to focus on the alleged genocide but instead we want to inform an interested audience of the main issues without getting too partisan or polarised about them.

We acknowledge that the situation in Sri Lanka is highly controversial and don’t want to provide a platform for an angry shouting match between two sides – rather, an informed, intelligent and interesting discussion on the subject. The decision to withdraw the TAG representative was purely editorial and is in no way a response to pressure. We are a club for journalists and our panels reflect this.

It’s worth pointing out that the club is independent, apolitical and one of the only influential media outlets that provide a forum for forgotten and under-reported issues. We regularly highlight news from Sri Lanka on the main Frontline blog. The reason we find it tricky to put together panels that everyone from the Sri Lankan community is happy with is because there is so much bitterness and infighting between the communities in the first place. As John Owen, Chairman of the Frontline Club, pointed out in an email, 

"We’re a club that features journalists and media talking about conflicts with special attention paid to how they’re covered and reported. Sometimes, but not always, we include government representatives and opposition or resistance spokesmen/women. We’re not Chatham House. We’re not Wilton Park. And we certainly are not a bear pit where antagonistic groups do battle beyond spirited debate. Nor do we allow questioners in the audience to engage in belligerent talk or uncivil behaviour."

We ran a panel on Sri Lanka in 2007 which had the embassy saying the most remarkable achievement was that we got all those fighting factions into one room physically sitting next to each other in a more or less peaceful get-together. The event seemed to go down well in Sri Lanka too. If you can’t make what looks like a fascinating debate, remember you can watch the discussion on the Frontline Club live channel and we’ll be embedding it live here on this blog and on the events pages.