For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
[TamilNet, Thursday, 04 November 2010, 22:13 GMT]
Living incognito since May 2009, the TamilNet chief correspondent who reported from Vanni during the war, reached a free country this week. He was just 24 when he joined TamilNet. He didn’t know much English. He was neither a member nor an associate of the LTTE. The free working space he had in Vanni was based only on an understanding about the political outlook of TamilNet towards the national cause of Eezham Tamils. But what he achieved goes into history of war journalism. He did a marvellous job on the ‘war without witnesses’, which major international media establishments couldn’t do or didn’t want to do. His safe passage to a free country was achieved by international civil society infrastructure. Many organisations, individuals and progressive Sinhalese helped him in his passage.
The chief correspondent was already a journalist in Tamil when he joined TamilNet in 2005. He was a prolific writer with a good lucid style of writing in Tamil and had already authored a book in 2004.
With the outbreak of war in July 2006, his duties became that of a war correspondent. He was in the battlefront till 20 April 2009. He was everywhere in Vanni, covering battlefront, hospitals and shell-affected locations, sending reliable news and images. He moved with people throughout.
He had cordial relationship with the rank and file of the LTTE but at the same time maintained his independence. He was respected for his journalistic prowess that made many wonder how information was reaching TamilNet even before it was released to LTTE’s own media.
He was equipped in his work with a Thuraya satellite phone, Internet connection through a BGAN unit, a professional digital camera, an audio recorder and a laptop, provided by TamilNet.
He was an unconventional correspondent in an unconventional war. He was an insider of the affected civilians, living with them, moving with them, starving with them and witnessing the death of thousands of them.
He lost his assistant and a brother in the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) shelling.
Trapped at Pokka’nai in Mu’l’lvaaykkal along with his family on 20 April, the last news he conveyed was about seeing SLA at very close quarters. If there was no further communication that should mean he was either killed or captured, he said over the satellite phone.
He was among the captured, managed to reach an internment camp carrying his aged father, survived incognito despite targeted search on him by the SLA in the camp and escaped.
While in the internment camp he feared whether he would be identified by the Sri Lanka Army and whether his work would be discredited just as it happened to many others who did humanitarian service to people during the war.
Towards the end of the war TamilNet informed relevant international organisations on the precarious situation its war correspondent was facing. Some, which showed much interest only in getting particulars, didn’t help him later. But there were others who valued his contribution and worked quietly with perseverance to get him to the free world safely.
“ I now want to study, learn foreign languages and write my experience for the benefit of my nation and humanity,” he told TamilNet after getting his free space.
Another correspondent arranged by him, who continued the work from 20 April to 18 May 2009, is yet to get his free space.
On what the TamilNet correspondents achieved, a tribute in the spirit of media comradeship came from The Hindu’s B. Muralidhar Reddy, writing in Frontline in June 2009.
“Most important was the fact that we had interference-free access to the Internet, including TamilNet, the website perceived to be pro-LTTE and based somewhere in Europe. Within the constrains of Internet time available, and not-unexpected problems of connectivity and speed in a war zone, there was just enough time to read and absorb the reports on the website before sending news dispatches to our headquarters. No questions were asked. It must be said that the ‘journalistic team’ associated with TamilNet did a marvellous job of relaying the scenes of the last hours of Eelam War IV as they unfolded.”
Muralidhar Reddy was on the opposite side of the battlefront, moving with the 58 division of the Sri Lanka Army during the last days of the war.