For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
By Frederica Jansz
As I sit penning this copy in Lasantha’s room at The Sunday Leader, I can’t help but reflect, sadly, how two years and three days ago on December 27, 2008 Lasantha and Sonali were married. They got registered on November 2008 but celebrated their nuptials with close family and friends on December 27, 2008. He was dead 13 days later.
It is indeed a time for reflection and I sit at my desk reflecting on another eventful year gone by – And as I do so, Lasantha and Sonali figure greatly in my thoughts. Even as they both danced that final 31st night at Bentota Beach, newly-wed, Sonali has recounted how she never dreamt they were mere days away (eight days to be exact) from her worst nightmare bearing fruition.
As I write this on the eve of the New Year for 2011 my thoughts go back to December 2008 when exactly to the date that I sit writing this copy, two years ago, I recall telephoning Lasantha to tell him I could not continue writing for the newspaper as my commitments to my own magazine publication Montage and other were too heavy. In typical vein he joked before telling me to take a two week break and come back. How prophetic his words proved to be. At least, where I was concerned.
As we all heralded in the New Year for 2009, I had no inkling how drastically that decision I made was to change, as were the lives of all those associated with The Sunday Leader. The clock was ticking for us all – a deadly passing of time – a time bomb waiting to explode, for Lasantha’s brutal assassination had already been planned. His dastardly killing was mere days away from being executed. His murderers to date continue to walk free.
We have had more than one pledge from President Mahinda Rajapaksa promising us his killers will soon be found and tried. But 24 months have passed since his murder and there are yet no signs of Lasantha’s murderers being named.
It will soon be two years since I have sat in Lasantha’s chair often looking at his smiling photograph which hangs on my office room wall contemplating a cruel chain of events that not only changed my life but brought to the fore the many complexities of human nature.
Despite my 22 year career in journalism it is only in these last two years, as Editor, that I was pushed into dealing with a bevy of people from different walks of life. Previously, Lasantha was my barrier – this time I was thrown into a venomous pit and had to literally fend for myself. And events in the last year certainly proved to be a wake-up call for me.
One significant factor emerged. Or rather I learnt a very telling lesson. I have learnt that when one chooses to push against the odds; to be independent – unbiased and unafraid – to stand up in a pursuit for truth, for justice and fair play, the most virulent, vicious brick bats are thrown by fellow journalistic colleagues.
In this country, the media will adopt two stances when a major story is broken by one media house. They will either remain silent, adopting a policy of self-censorship which only further stokes the fires of authoritarian rule in this country OR, they will choose to vilify and discredit the newspaper and reporter that broke the story in the first instance. It is indeed a strange quirk, that I for one have encountered first-hand.
I know for a fact that Victor Ivan of the Ravaya newspaper is another Editor who has encountered and written about this strange phenomenon that afflicts our media colleagues. A must read in this context is Ivan’s book The Innocence Of The Pen.
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who memorably said that our lives begin to end on the day we become silent about things that matter.
I can still recall the words of Jurgen Weerth, the previous German Ambassador, who summed up this frustration in a eulogy at Lasantha’s funeral for which he was reprimanded by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry. “Maybe we should have spoken before this,” he said. “Today it is too late.”
And today, while many of this country’s best journalists have either been killed (as many as 14 since 2006) while as much as 55 (including media activists) have fled this country in the last three years in fear for their lives, we are stuck with mediocrity. Hiring experienced professional journalists is a thing of the past.
That being said, currently Sri Lanka’s media has been effectively cowed into submission by a regime that has proved as never before its success in instilling an abysmal fear into members of the fourth estate.
The Sunday Leader in this context amongst a diminishing few has remained a lone dissenting voice. We knew the risks: yet we have survived other attacks, being shot at and sealed, including the burning of this newspaper’s printing press in 2005 and 2007, and are used to regular death threats.
We have been locked in court battles over our stories with politicians and officials including Gotabaya Rajapaksa – the Defence Secretary.
We have refused to be silenced by the powers that be – we have all at The Sunday Leader, fought valiantly against overwhelming odds to expose corruption, nepotism, mis-governance, racism and militaristic triumphalism. As I reminisce over the last year I recall the many attacks on other journalists, fellow colleagues and media houses in 2010. In this last year there was certainly less anti media violence but more obstruction and self-censorship.
Reporters Without Borders in their report on Sri Lanka released last Thursday, December 30, said, “The fall in the number of physical attacks, threats and cases of imprisonment is to be welcomed, but it is worrying that the authorities are blocking the return of real editorial freedom.”
We can all only hope that in 2011 the authorities will create the conditions for a lasting improvement in press freedom. This must include solving the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, and the disappearance of political cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda nearly a year ago.
The latest incident was on Thursday, December 30, 2010 when the government imposed a ban on a visit by 10 Sri Lankan and foreign journalists, including the BBC’s correspondent, to a detention camp in Boosa to attend a meeting between prisoners and the government-created Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The reporters had previously received permission from the LLRC and the Media Centre for National Security.
Human rights groups say there have been cases of torture and extra judicial disappearances in the camp, which houses more than 700 suspected former members of the Tamil Tiger rebels.
BBC journalists were also prevented from attending several LLRC interview sessions with the Tamil population in September in Killinochchi, Mullaitivu and elsewhere.
As a general rule, the authorities are providing the media with no precise information about the problem of Tamil Tiger prisoners of war. The figures vary from ministry to ministry. And the press has had no access to some detainee camps.
Journalists are afraid to cover the issue of war crimes or their editors do not let them. A Colombo-based media freedom activist said: “Several journalists from English and Sinhalese-language media have been allowed to follow the LLRC’s work, but their reports do not include the most disturbing accounts of the end of the war. They have to censor themselves on the issue of war crimes.”
In 2010, the main telephone operator, Dialog, refused to transmit critical content of the government by SMS. This decision forced several news websites to censor themselves in order to continue having their reports relayed by Dialog. The situation was denounced by JNW News, which provides mobile phone operators with news content.
Cases of violence have not ended altogether. Reporters for the MTV / Sirasa television station and the ‘Lanka-e-News’ website were recently attacked by ruling party supporters while at Colombo airport to cover the return of the leader of the far-left NSSP party. And four journalists, including a Daily Mirror photographer, were assaulted by police while covering a student demonstration in Colombo in mid-October.
It is in this backdrop we all continue to do what we do. Six days from today we will commemorate two years since Lasantha was killed on January 8, 2009. I remember the words of another journalist I hold in very high esteem. The words of D. B. S. Jeyaraj that he wrote in the wake of Lasantha’s murder, “Lasantha was a controversial — larger than life – character whose journalism evoked various reactions in various people. Some loved him, some hated him; Some admired him while others condemned him. But the real Lasantha Wickrematunge was totally different to the ‘image’ many had of him due to negative perceptions. He was friendly and easy to get along with.”
Needless to say, I can only conclude by adding it was indeed my privilege and good fortune to have been associated with Lasantha for many years and his death is a huge loss to me and to everyone at The Sunday Leader.