For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
It is unthinkable to me that Lasantha has now become part of Sri Lanka’s gruesome statistics of dead journalists. But that is the cold reality.
This innovative and dynamic man who co-founded the Sunday Leader 15 years ago and maintained a larger than life presence in the local media circuit has now been silenced.
A buoyant and mischievous editor with the largest heart and a brilliant mind, the heartbreaking fact is that while his many colleagues were becoming statistics, it was Lasantha who would not let the targets of media violence die without cause by creating a fiery media debate around their murders. To most, that is why he was the elixir of hope and an antidote to their woes.
He displayed this combative spirit even in his final editorial published posthumously.
Typically, our editor had lots of energy. In the midst of writing his famous political column under the nom de plume “Suranimala”, he would breeze out of the room to check the latest cricket scores, while chewing on a pen or, even worse, on whatever finger food lay around someone’s desk.
Unabashed, he practiced combative journalism and wrote explosive stories earning scores of enemies who were nothing but the corrupt and the abusive in this land. Even his worst detractors would acknowledge that Lasantha had extraordinary sources that others could only dream of cultivating.
If he put two fingers into his mouth and whistled, we instantly knew that he was happy and that we could get away with almost anything on such a day – except delayed write-ups.
Every Friday Lasantha and I had a ritual: Lasantha would do the final planning of the pages and I, the only journalist to do this, would bargain for less space. Each Friday he would relent, admitting that I wrote long pieces and therefore deserved to write one piece less.
If we happened not to be in the editorial room, Lasantha would never demand to know where we were, he would only call us to gently ask whether we were coming in that day. It is he who waited for us. Neither did he force discipline nor schedules on us. As long as articles arrived on schedule, he remained content.
Among my richest memories of him are those of the editorial independence he fostered. He nurtured a small, yet strong team, and was happiest when we began to spread our wings. He watched us grow like a doting father.
Likewise, he never put a comma on an article without discussing it with a journalist, a courtesy he extended even to the most junior of reporters among us.
The editorial culture he fostered was so unique that he and I often ended up writing on the same topic on opposite pages but expressing diametrically opposite views. He accepted dissenting opinions within the editorial itself, and if I ever turned apologetic, he would say with a mischievous grin: “That’s the way to go girl!”
When a young Sunday Leader reporter Arthur Wamanan was taken into CID custody over frivolous and uncorroborated charges in October 2007, Lasantha said that he would have preferred for me to have been the one to go to jail. “You have no idea what a story it would be if a woman were to go to jail. I would have gone to town,” he said with his infectious laugh, solemnly pledging to fight on behalf of Arthur and expose the insanity of a piqued politician.
Ironically, his last interview was also given to me, to be included in a regional media review report in which he said that the state made people feel as if “we all lived at their pleasure” and critiqued the international community for showing little interest in the abuse of human rights and freedom of expression, except to issue the occasional statement.
Lasantha introduced a brand of journalism others dared not practice. He dedicated an entire newspaper to investigative journalism. And he often said, “The word fear is not in my vocabulary. Strike it off early.”
Lasantha abhorred the practice of self-censorship. He never pruned articles, only polished them to enhance quality.
A Jefferson Fellow and the 2000 Integrity Award winner from Transparency International, he worried over the international ranking of Sri Lanka as the second most dangerous place in the world for journalists, coming a close second to Iraq. So he took stances of great courage and wrote stories nobody dared to publish or make space for.
He openly advocated parity, peace and a negotiated settlement for the country’s conflict when other media houses happily towed the government line. He condemned the government, as perhaps the world’s only administration to aerial bomb her own people. In the eyes of many, Lasantha was the true democratic opposition in Sri Lanka.
Naturally, many hated Lasantha’s guts. Just a few weeks ago a letter arrived by post for him. Enclosed was a recent story published in the Leader titled “Kilinochchi capture made into a media circus.” Throughout the article were the Sinhala words in blood red: “If you continue to write, you will be killed.” Lasantha simply laughed and threw the article in the dustbin.
The killers undoubtedly waited for an ideal time of least resistance. The war hype post capture of Kilinochchi, which is the LTTE’s administrative capital and Elephant Pass, is such that even a brutal slaying tends to get overlooked.
Lasantha was an epoch making investigative journalist, the fiercest government critic and the most courageous man I ever knew. The man who single-handedly revolutionized Sri Lankan journalism and made a conscious decision to lose much advertising revenue in the name of the Sunday Leader’s motto: to write “Unbowed and Unafraid.”
It was a personal honor to have been part of his team, all that I may aspire for but never became.
For all his strengths, he was also the joy in our lives. He told stories that others refused to write, and eventually paid the ultimate price for taking that risk in the form of a bullet in his scull.
Lasantha was a celebration of dissent. The very voice of diversity. A man without fear.
This editorial room is silent today, ominously so. We do not hear his infectious laughter. But the journalists resolutely go about doing their daily work with a body language that strangely appears to signify that his spirit still lingers: “Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.”