For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
February 24, 2009
Sunanda Deshapriya, a journalist, peace activist and the person behind the free media movement in Sri Lanka, has been in India from January 18. The killing of senior journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge has forced many journalists and activists from Sri Lanka to take refuge in Europe and India.
Influenced by the French and the Cuban revolutions, the Vietnam war, the Naxalite movement, Deshapriya started his life as a militant and was jailed for seven years from 1971. In fact, he says he and his group started the armed struggle in Sri Lanka. “I would say we gave birth to Tamil militancy.”
Disillusionment with armed struggle made him change and he became a peace activist. He understood that revolution was not possible in the 20th century with powerful and sophisticated States everywhere. He calls himself a social democrat now.
In this exclusive interview, he talks to rediff.com’s Shobha Warrier about the current situation in Sri Lanka.
It was reported that you have taken refuge in India. Is it true?
Well, I would like to put it this way. I have taken time out because of the situation in my country. It has become very volatile after the killing of Wickrematunge and the attack on the MTV MBC network.
How difficult was it to take the decision to move from one’s own country to another?
It was not easy at all because this is the first time I have done this in my 30 years of life as a peace activist and editor.
Has the accusation of money swindling against you anything to do with the decision?
No. Not only me but 11 other journalists also have left the country after Wickrematunge’s killing. It was a collective decision to use the money for some other purpose, and no money was used for any personal interest.
Given the situation, it became a political accusation for the whole movement which is very unfortunate. They tried to mingle the personal and movement together. We all felt later that we should have done it in a proper way. But the fact is not a penny was used for personal purpose by anyone. None of the accusations has been proved. There was no investigation actually; all this was done by the State media.
Is it to suppress the freedom of the movement that such accusations were hurled?
Well, the end result was that. Media freedom has suffered in the last three years. All of us in the media, Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese, trade union leaders — all stood united and we became a kind of opposition. The campaign for press freedom became a focal point for everyone to rally around in the country. Other unfounded accusations also came in when we provided safe houses and safe travel for journalists.
The end result of all this was the weakening of the campaign for media freedom. Today, there is virtually no campaign within the country for press freedom.
Did you start the free media movement because there was suppression?
In 1991, the United National Party government tried to take control over the media. Then, we — a lot of editors and senior activists — came together and started the free media movement. Now, some of them have joined various political parties; some have joined the government. You know this happens to every movement. Only a few of us remain in civil society, not joining any political party — that was our main strength.
‘We oppose the war because it is not the solution’
In the last 25 years of war, were the last three years the toughest for the media?
Definitely. In the mid-1980s, there was a period when legal censorship was imposed by the government. Though they tried to suppress the media by bringing in laws and closing down newspapers, not many journalists were killed — only one or two. They were not killed for their writing.
This is the toughest period if you consider the killings of journalists. In the last three years, at least 18 journalists and media workers have been killed though the government puts the number at only at nine.
A number of newspapers have also closed down. A lot of editors have come under tremendous pressure. The reason for all this is that the government openly declared that their main aim is to defeat the Tigers without any negotiations. So, they see only two categories of people: one that fights terrorists and the other, supporting terrorists.
This government does not accept that the media has an independent role to play to create a discussion on this issue in the country, and make people more informed so that they can take a stand. This is the only government, I would say, that has taken this position so strongly.
Do you people look at the war against the Tigers as genocide of the Tamils? Is that the reason why President Mahinda Rajapakse is against the media?
This accusation about genocide is very recent and related to Mullaitheevu. The reason is the campaign for Tamil rights. In Jaffna, you have a strong provincial media. They came under attack in the first two years (2006-2007). One newspaper had to close down, 80 percent of the staff left. From 30,000 copies, the circulation came down to just 5,000.
The staff of Udayan, a popular Jaffna newspaper lived in the office for two years. Seven of their people were killed. They came under attack mainly because they were giving voice to the aspirations of the Tamils. I would say, sometimes the aspirations of the militants and rebel groups also.
What stand did you take?
Personally, my writing for the last 25 years has been pro-peace, pro-Tamil, pro-devolution and pro-human rights. I am for equal rights for the minorities. The majority has been taking all the decisions and holding power in the country. There is a strong group of journalists in all newspapers supporting Tamil and Muslim rights.
Did you support the Tigers?
We never supported the Tigers. That is because we never support militant movements. We only supported the Tamil people’s right to autonomy or self-rule, and not separation. We always said that we could start somewhere with small concessions and once the trust is built, things would move smoothly.
Now, there is no trust between the Sinhalese and the Tamil. They look at each other with suspicion.
We oppose the war because it is not the solution. What we need is a negotiated solution. But it is not going to be there.
‘What do we get after a war? Distrust’
Do you feel President Rajapakse should have followed the India-Sri Lanka accord instead of the war?
No. If the peace accord between (then Sri Lankan prime minister) Ranil Wickramasinghe and the LTTE had been continued for another 10 more years, the LTTE would have been forced to change itself. It is true the LTTE killed some army people during the ceasefire period.
If the government had continued with the ceasefire, we would have built more trust among the Sinhalese and the Tamils. We could have changed the LTTE into a mainstream political party. The other political parties also would have had more space.
Now, the government has won the war militarily but there is no political space for northerners, there is no trust between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The country will find it difficult to devolve power in a meaningful way. The LTTE will find it difficult to come back to mainstream politics.
Is there any way you can build trust between the two communities?
It is difficult to say. At present, there is no trust at all. A lot of Tamil civilians have been killed in the last 25 years by military action. Probably more Sinhalese and Tamils were killed by militant attacks. So, the Sinhalese have a justified fear. Everybody is living in constant fear. Both sides thrive on this fear.
I do not see trust coming very easily even after the war because the government is going to put all Tamil people in camps for three years. That’s what the newspaper reports say. If that happens, there won’t be any trust.
Trust was slowly coming during the ceasefire agreement. But the LTTE do not take ceasefire agreements seriously. More than 60 percent of the Sinhalese people supported the ceasefire agreement and peaceful negotiation. Now, 60 percent support the military option. It is a complete about-turn.
The president said the army was only attacking a terrorist organisation and not civilians. Do you approve of military action against a terrorist organisation?
It is not about supporting action against the LTTE. We have to go back a little. I think all the previous presidents have accepted that there is a political issue here.
In 1959, when Sinhala leaders threw the agreement away, there were no Tigers, there was no LTTE and the Tamils had not killed any Sinhalese. In 1966, the Chiranayakam agreement was again rejected by the Sinhala leaders.
We are in this situation not because of the Tigers or the military action but because the Sinhala leaders did not listen to the grievances of the Tamil people after independence. Every time there was an agreement, the majority forced them not to adhere to it.
The best option now is the peace option and not the military option. It may take 10 years, 20 years… Still it is worth trying. What do we get after a war? Distrust.
What is your opinion on the demand for Tamil Eelam?
We have never supported Tamil Eelam. It is not practical in a small country given its geo-political situation. Economically and politically also, Eelam is not viable. You have Tamils living everywhere. You have more than one million Tamil people living upcountry.
The best option is devolution and autonomy. You can start with the 13th Amendment, build trust but it has not happened. What has happened from 1987 onwards is, the central government has taken more power from the provinces, and now you have everything national there; national schools, national hospitals.
‘When you kill one journalist, you silence a hundred’
Is this government very sensitive to criticism?
Yes, in the case of military and ethnic issues. On other issues like corruption other governments also reacted the same way. They sent the tax department to newspapers when the papers criticised and exposed political corruption. But this government said, dissent in times of war is treason. That is the political line. That is why this government has been very harsh to dissenting voices.
How do the majority of Sri Lankans look at your voices?
Personally, we never have had any problem. People looked at ours as the lonely voices in the country. We never took the military action as the main issue. We left that for the politicians. We were fighting for press freedom, and we were always on the street. People listened to us and knew our faces.
Even some of the ruling party politicians asked me to leave the country for my safety. That was because all of us worked together once. We worked with the president for a very long time as a street agitator. He was a street fighter.
Mr Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote in his last editorial that he was one of the few who could call the president by his first name…
Yes, all of us were together. He used to come to our office to get photocopies when he had to go to Geneva in the 1990s. We worked together on people’s issues, trade union and human rights. There are many other ministers with whom we had worked with for a long time.
Did you ever ask them about this turnaround from activism to politics?
Today, they are convinced that war is the only option. A peaceful option takes time. But there are many in the ruling party who think that this is not the best option. They think that once the war is over, the government will be able to come up with a devolution package.
There are many politicians who really feel that devolution of power is the only answer.
Will there be devolution of power?
That is the problem. To win the war, they need the support of the people. So, the government has created a kind of political environment that makes people think that to defeat the Tigers, war is the only option, and more youth have to be there in the army. It’s a kind of liberation of the country. Nationalists are good orators and they speak very well. They have aroused nationalist feelings among the people.
Devolution will not happen now. They will wait and see how the situation changes.
The entire media is supporting the war option. There is no real discussion within the country about what would be there after the war and how we are going to solve the problem. Only in cyberspace some very good discussions are going on in English.
Stifling press freedom is one thing and killing journalists is another. How do you describe the killing of people like Mr Wickrematunge?
When you kill one journalist, you silence a hundred. After the killing of Lasantha, I am told 11 journalists have left. In fact, 35 journalists left the country after December. We started feeling the heat from December.
When the army reached Killinochi and Mullaitheevu, everyone who was supporting peace was branded as Sinhala Tigers or supporters of the LTTE. For saying this, I can be branded pro-Tiger!
Though I am against the Tigers, I am pro-devolution and pro-solution. They would say, he is trying to revive Tamil nationalism and the Tigers.
‘It is a silent war’
Mr Wickrematunge wrote that he would be killed. Were you people really expecting something of this sort happening to him?
The second half of 2008 was rather peaceful. Two journalists were killed in 2008, but by the militants and not by the government. So, the second half of 2008 gave us the feeling that things were getting better. But with the war reaching the final stage, the situation suddenly changed. There is no real opposition in our country.
Then, we started feeling that something was going to happen. But none of us thought Lasantha would be a target because he was talking to the president and was close to him. When we spoke of media suppression, they said, see Lasantha is driving a car and moving around in the country and he is the strongest critic of the government.
They wanted to say that Lasantha being there showed they were giving space to dissent. They wanted Lasantha to be there and criticise the government. He was a kind of showcase for the government to say that there was press freedom.
So, we never expected Lasantha to be killed.
We had discussed with him about the safety measures he had to take but he preferred to drive himself. He felt safe that way but I don’t do that. We ask everyone to take precautionary measures.
Do you feel the international community should have reacted more to the killings of journalists?
I feel only Lasantha’s killing has got more reaction from the international community. Jaffna is the only place in the world where a war is going on and there is not a single foreign journalist there. We don’t know what is happening there. No independent reporting has come from Jaffna.
There has been no international pressure on what is happening there. But you know what is happening in Nigeria, Gaza, etc. More civilians might have died in the north than in Gaza, but how many people know about that? The human tragedy there has been much more severe than in Gaza. It is a silent war.
Was it painful moving around in your own country with so much caution?
It was, but what is more painful is leaving the country and sitting here with the feeling that you can’t do anything. There is no place like your own home. You leave your family and work back and sit here.
But once you are dead, you are not a hero any more. You will be forgotten after a while. Only your family is affected. So, you have to be alive to create change. Till now, no one has been killed while they were in their houses; they were killed when they were travelling.
‘After the war, the president has to come up with a peaceful solution’
Why did you choose to come to Chennai while many other journalists went to Europe?
I did not want to go to Europe. There, you are a foreigner. Here, I am not someone else; I am part of the crowd. In the south of India, I feel quite at home. I don’t feel that I am a foreigner here. It is the same time zone also. Seven of us are in India but I am the only one who is vocal.
Also, here in Chennai there are people who are interested in Sri Lanka and I can talk to people on the streets. Being here, you get the feeling that you are part of what is happening in the country.
What about your family? How do they feel about you living here?
They (my wife and two daughters) are at home. I don’t think they will do anything to my family. One of my daughters is in the university, and the other is dong pre-university. My wife is a teacher. They were happy in a way that I am safe here because they were under tremendous tension. One of the reasons why left was, it was too much tension for them when I was there.
How long will you be here?
I came here on January 18. I plan to be here at least until the end of February or early March.
You are for peace. Do you see any peaceful solution coming after war?
It has to. The president also understands that once the war is over, he has to come up with a peaceful solution. There is so much pressure internationally. India wants devolution of power; the Tamil people want devolution of power.
As a politician, he has to be realistic. It is very difficult for Sinhala nationalists to fight Rajapakse as he has won the war. He is probably the best person to bring about a peaceful solution as he can bring with him the Sinhala nationalists.
You said you started your life as a militant and understood the futility of armed struggle. When did the realisation come?
This is not the 19th century. States are more powerful and sophisticated. You can’t easily have a revolution. I became a Social Democrat after seeing the failure of socialist republics and new thinking.
Do you regret having been a militant once?
No, it is part of growing up. Everyone in Sri Lanka knows my background. That is my political investment today. People know that we tried our best to do certain things. I make use of my history in every platform.
Even Maoists understood the futility of war and that’s why they chose the political path in Nepal. But the problem with the Tigers is that they don’t understand that political means are better than militant means. They don’t have a political wing, only a military wing. That is the major problem with them.