Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

Fake News and Ultra-Nationalistic Journalism

Izzadeen Ameen

In theory, journalists are expected to be neutral when reporting a conflict. But in practice, journalists rarely adhere to this hallowed journalistic principle of neutrality. They take sides, often driven by patriotism or nationalistic fervour. Such nationalistic bias is not the exclusive trait of journalists in Third World defective democracies or dictatorships. It is also seen in journalism practised in highly advanced democracies, as was seen in the United States and Britain during the build-up to the Iraq war in 1991 and 2003. Unsubstantiated claims by those who pushed for war became front-page headlines and made the top slots in prime time news bulletins, with editors making little or no effort to establish their veracity. In the buildup to the First Gulf War in 1991, a young girl identified as nurse Nayirah appeared in news programmes on HBO and CNN to claim that invading Iraqi forces entered her hospital and robbed incubators from the neonatal unit after throwing the babies away. Later, it was proved the young girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in the US and she was coached by a public relations company hired to win public support for the US intervention to liberate Kuwait. ( and also

That journalism should be fact-based and agenda-free was largely ignored by several mainstream media outlets in the US and UK during the second Gulf War too. Journalism was contaminated by patriotic and embedded journalism. The London Evening Standard carried as its lead story the then British government’s claim that Saddam Hussein could assemble his missiles in 45 minutes and unleash them against Britain. The newspaper did not double-check the accuracy of the claim which the government said was based on an intelligence dossier. It was later proved that the origin of the claim was found in a paper presented by a university student. With embedded journalists joining the war party, fake news regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction found easy passage in the mainstream media. Embedded journalism may be and should be defined as prostituting journalism and producing bastardized news. 

Award-winning journalist and documentary maker John Pilger once asked Charles Lewis, the distinguished American investigative journalist: “What if the freest media in the world {referring to the United States media} had seriously challenged {President} George Bush and {the then Defence Secretary} Donald Rumsfeld and investigated their claims, instead of channeling what turned out to be crude propaganda?“. Lewis replied that if we journalists had done our job “there is a very, very good chance we would have not gone to war in Iraq.” 

In Sri Lanka, too, the media either willingly followed or were forced to follow the official version of the war story, especially during the last stages of the war in 2009. As Sri Lanka’s patriotic journalism took roots in the context of the war, it often took the shape of narrowly defined ultra-nationalistic journalism which only alienated the ethnic other instead of promoting national unity and reconciliation. 

More than eleven years after the end of the civil war, it is disheartening to note that ultra-nationalistic journalism with racist undertones has a strong presence in sections of the Sri Lankan media. This is not journalism. Media activism should focus on moves aimed at weeding out those who promote fake news and racism from Sri Lanka’s journalism.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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