For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
Following a statement made at a breakfast meeting with media heads by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in regard to setting up a separate investigative unit to monitor websites publishing news items against the government and the security forces, The Sunday Leader contacted the Lanka News Web Editor, Chandima Withanaarachchi via e-mail for his response.
In an e-mail interview, Withanaarachchi said the website is aware of the statement made by the President. He said the website was being operated from the UK due to the prevailing situation where the media is under continuous threat.
Withanaarachchi noted “we regret that a person who pretends to be a ‘friend of media’ and used Sri Lankan media in his rise to the presidency is now threatening to close down websites but not doing anything to investigate the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge and the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda and many other incidents of threats and intimidation against the media.”
Referring to the controversial story about the resignation of the Chief Justice, he said, “We still stand by our story about the Chief Justice Asoka de Silva trying to resign. The Chief Justice is yet to make any comment about the story.”
Following are excerpts of the e-mail interview:
Q: Are you aware of the statement made by the President against the website?
A: Yes we are aware of the statement by President Mahinda Rajapaksa — whom we whole-heartedly supported when he was a champion of human rights and the Colombo representative of Amnesty International — that he would take action against our website. Though we are not worried about his statement, we regret that a person who pretends to be a ‘friend of media’ and used Sri Lankan media in his rise to the presidency is now threatening to close down websites but not doing anything to investigate the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge and the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda and many other incidents of threats and intimidation against the media.
Q: From where is your website being operated and by whom?
A: Though I am based in England, our website is a collective effort of a group of activists based in many countries worldwide. There is a misconception that it is a UK based operation. In the current climate of threats and political victimisation — as you are pretty well aware — I am not in a position to reveal the identities of my team. But I should stress that the main reason we are operating from abroad is the prevailing situation of continuous threats to the media.
Q: Does the website have any political affiliations?
A: We are not affiliated to any political party. Our aim is to enlighten Sri Lankans of what is really happening on the ground without putting our lives in danger merely for revealing the truth. Of course we understand that many opposition politicians are happy with our coverage and indeed many of them are in constant touch with us. But If Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes an opposition politician tomorrow, we have no doubt he — Mahinda aiya — will also become not only one of our strong supporters but also an informant (“the reporter”) as he did in the past.
Q: What action do you think the President or the government could take against your website and its employees and supporters?
A: I do not think the President can take any action against our website. But of course he can try to increase the pressure on activists and create a situation that no dissent at all will be allowed in Sri Lanka. But as the President is well aware of his own experience of protesting against President R. Premadasa’s “era of terror” (becoming the first Sri Lankan “traitor” to complain to Geneva) no matter how hard he tries, I am sure our supporters and activists will always stay with us.
Q: How do you plan to address this situation?
A: We haven’t pre-planned anything as yet, but we never underestimate our opponents. Hence have to adopt safety measures as it occurs. We are mostly relying on the support extended to us by international media organisations and human right organisations.
Q: How do you respond to the allegation that the website published biased and sometimes baseless stories?
A: We do not publish biased or baseless stories. As any media institution we may also make mistakes sometimes, but we are the only Sri Lanka-focused website that allows right of reply. If we do make a mistake unwittingly, we are always ready to admit and correct, when we find out that the story was wrong. We still stand by our story about the Chief Justice Asoka de Silva trying to resign. The Chief Justice is yet to make any comment about the story.
If we are publishing biased and baseless stories, how could the US State Department quote our website three times since we launched it? For example, it was our website that first reported Sarath Fonseka’s “White Flag” comment. And as you are fully aware, there is an ongoing judicial inquiry over the alleged remarks in which The Sunday Leader is also involved.
President Rajapaksa meantime has vowed to take “action” against these websites once he receives required information from the “investigating unit.” Rajapaksa was particularly irked over a news report which he claimed was false but had nevertheless been published by Lanka News web alleging Chief Justice Asoka de Silva had tendered his resignation over a dispute with the President involving a pending Supreme Court decision on two court martial decisions which convicted former army Commander Sarath Fonseka to 30 months imprisonment.