For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Her husband, editor of a newspaper in Sri Lanka, was fatally attacked. Now in exile in New York City, Sonali Samarasinghe presses forward with their fight for press freedom and justice in their native country.
May 20 2011
By Gena Chung
Tsunami aid misappropriation. Abuse of government power. Corporate fraud. These are the types of stories to which award-winning investigative journalist and newspaper editor Sonali Samarasinghe gravitated. When she won the Global Shining Light Award at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in 2008, it cited “her work to reveal misuse of power and corruption in Sri Lanka.” But there was one story for which she was completely unprepared.
On January 8, 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of the Sri Lankan paper the Sunday Leader, was murdered in what witnesses described as a “commando-style assassination.” Witnesses said that eight men clad in black helmets and fatigues, riding four identical black motorcycles, surrounded Wickrematunge’s car. They shattered the windows and the windshield with a steel pole, pulled Wickrematunge from the car and beat him with the pole. He was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after the attack.
Samarasinghe didn’t receive news of the attack in her capacity as a newspaper editor. It was as Wickrematunge’s wife.
“No, you’re not leaving,” Samarasinghe had told her husband a little more than an hour before he was attacked.
They had just safely made it inside their home after being followed by four men on motorcycles. Driving home together from the pharmacy, her husband received a phone call from the office informing him that he was being followed. Samarasinghe says she looked around in an attempt to spot the pursuers, to no avail. Then, as she and her husband pulled alongside their home, she saw them― four men clad in black, riding large black motorcycles in pairs.
Their house was situated on a private lane in a high security zone right next to Parliament, Samarasinghe says. She demonstrates her belief that the government had a hand in her husband’s death by implying that somehow these men possessed authorization to pass through the checkpoints that she says were “everywhere.” “Anyone cannot just get through,” she says.
When they parked the car, Samarasinghe convinced her husband to abandon his instinctively bold impulse to confront the men. Once inside the house, Wickrematunge assessed the threat by making a few phone calls to trusted colleagues and political friends he had made over the years as both private secretary to former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and as a newspaper editor.
After consulting with his friends and colleagues, Wickrematunge concluded that these were just scare tactics. It was Thursday, and he had to write his influential political column, Suranimala, described by Samarasinghe as the last word on the Sri Lankan political scene.
“He went,” Samarasinghe says. “When he said, ‘it’s under control,’ I believed him.”
As was customary when her husband was out of the country, Samarasinghe took over the Sunday Leader as editor-in-chief. But this time, he wasn’t coming back. Wickrematunge’s remains rested in the home that he and Samarasinghe had created together. Hundreds of people came in mourning to pay their last respects, says Samarasinghe, when just thirteen days earlier some of the very same people had gathered in celebration at their wedding reception.
Samarasinghe, the wife, was devastated. But Samarasinghe, the journalist, was undeterred. Three days after her husband’s murder, Samarasinghe published the Sunday Leader. In it she printed an editorial written by her husband intended for posthumous publication, in which he anticipated his own death. It was titled, “And then they came for me.”
Wickrematunge wrote: “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last…When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”
In the days after Wickrematunge’s death, it became apparent that Samarasinghe intended on running the Sunday Leader just as her husband had when he publicly declared his motto, “unbowed and unafraid.” Threats and intimidation were nothing new to her. In 2005 and in 2007, the presses of the Sunday Leader and her own paper, the mid-week national newspaper, the Morning Leader, were burned down. Also in 2007, she was held for several hours of interrogation by the Criminal Investigative Department of the police, in connection with a series of investigative reports she wrote regarding possible collusion between the country’s Central Bank and a fraudulent corporate pyramid scheme.
In the days immediately following her husband’s death, Samarasinghe was told that she was unsafe, that the motorcyclists were back, skulking outsider her home. Two men burst into her home despite the protestations of her elderly mother and took pictures of the family and the layout of the home. She began varying her routes to and from the office. But things weren’t getting any better, and the people she knew and trusted told her that she was in grave danger, that she must leave the South Asian island nation.
“I was prevailed upon to leave by friends, by diplomats, and by Lasantha’s own brother,” Samarasinghe says. “You realize that the culture of impunity is too widespread and democratic mechanisms have broken down and are constantly being undermined, and you realize this is the tipping point. Do you stay? Do you compromise your ideals and your principles to survive? Because that’s the only way you’re going to stay alive? Or do you leave and do your best from outside.”
On January 24, 2009, Samarasinghe fled to Europe with one suitcase, leaving behind all that she had known for 40 years. This included the Morning Leader, which shut down a week after she left, and the Sunday Leader, which she characterizes now as “a flaccid shell of its former self.. not anything like how Lasantha and I envisaged it would be.”
“Everything stops,” she says. “You’ve built up a career. You’ve built up a name. You’ve built up a life. And suddenly it’s destroyed. There comes a time when you are no longer able to have such destruction in your life.”
Samarasinghe says the plight of exiled journalists is often mollified by the notion that they are “going to a better place,” akin to the spiritual salve of the terminally ill.
“It’s not true. It’s just so not true… It’s not true for me,” Samarasinghe says. “We had a great life. We had a great life.”
“I think Sonali is one of the most courageous, and smartest and most determined people I have ever met,” says Lonnie Isabel, director of the International Reporting Program at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. The program is a joint initiative between CUNY and the Committee to Protect Journalists, designed to “find a way to incorporate exiled journalists into the fiber of American journalists,” Isabel says.
Samarasinghe is its fourth International Journalist in Residence. Isabel says that Samarasinghe was the ideal candidate: she cannot practice journalism in her country, she had to flee “and she’s a remarkable leader and amazing journalist who needs to practice and needs to contribute to the world of journalism.”
At CUNY, Samarasinghe is enrolled in the entrepreneurial journalism certificate program, though she already has a master’s in international affairs from the Australian National University and a law degree from the University of London.
Jeremy Caplan, director of education for CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, teaches Samarasinghe in the certificate program. He also has advised her on the Web site she is set to launch soon, http://www.lankaindependent.com, which she says will be an exiled journalist-run news site where “unadulterated, uncensored” voices can speak up about what’s happening in Sri Lanka, “where media freedom is nonexistent and impunity is rampant.”
She says that when her husband was killed, “the backbone of independent media was broken” in Sri Lanka. With her Web site, she hopes to rebuild it from afar, so that change can occur from within the country.
“It’s so important that not only Sri Lankans but those people from outside pressurize Sri Lanka to get back to itself, and to get back to what it was, which was a legitimate democracy,” Samarasinghe says.
Caplan praises Samarasinghe not only for her journalism skills and passion, but for her enterprising spirit that allows her to embrace new storytelling methods in the digital age which, he hopes, “will enable her to hopefully reach a lot of people who are interested in the subject and need to know about what she’s covering.”
“For someone like Sonali, she’s reporting and writing about subjects that are very close to her heart that the she cares a great deal about,” Caplan says, “and I think that gives her spark, an extra catalyst, extra motivation to do a very thorough job of reporting, to do a very careful job of gathering information, and to do a very passionate job of communicating the important stories that are often otherwise going untold.”
Samarasinghe says that the past two-and-a-half years of her life have simply increased the intensity of the drive that she has possessed since her childhood, to fight for justice and human rights.
She singles out her father, a high-ranking police official, for teaching her about human rights and community building. Civil war broke out in 1983 between the majority Sinhalese Sri Lankan government and the separatist Tamil movement. Samarasinghe says that indiscriminate killing resulted, in any number of forms: terrorist bombings, random fires and shootings, planned massacres. According to Samarasinghe, after one particularly bloody killing spree, where Sinhalese set fire to any known Tamil home, her father, a Sinhalese, closed the district, imposed a curfew and went to each and every destroyed home in an attempt to assess the situation and offer help to the Tamil people. He took his young daughter with him.
“I suppose when you see that, you tend to realize that there’s nothing more important than to bring the communities together,” Samarasinghe says. “I know that giving a voice to the voiceless is kind of cliché, but in the end, that’s what it became.”
As a witness to war, she says, she was emboldened. And one particular incident was instrumental in steeling her resolve to demand freedom of the press.
In 1999, about a year after Samarasinghe pared down her practice of law to become a full-time reporter, Richard de Zoysa, the regional director of a nonprofit news agency, an actor and a human rights activist, was found washed up on the shores of the beach at Moratuwa, twelve miles from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city. His jaw was fractured, and he had been shot in the head and throat. Despite his mother’s identification of the abductors, one of whom was a prominent police officer, no one was ever prosecuted for his murder. The man who helped identify him, journalist Taraki Sivaram, was beaten and shot to death in 2005. Samarasinghe says that when she joined her husband’s newspaper as an investigative journalist, these were the types of injustices against the press that they were both fully committed to fighting. Samarasinghe stands determined to continue the fight on his behalf.
“I mean when you think of it, what she faced, after a month of marriage and massive repression,” CUNY’s Isabel says, “still to this day a cover-up of the murder of her husband, and the inability to continue her career, where she was a very prominent journalist, is a shattering kind of thing to happen to someone, such terrible loss.”
The “cover-up” Isabel refers to is prominent in Samarasinghe’s mind.
“It is still very much a part of what I will do to continue to fight for justice for Lasantha,” Samarasinghe says, “because it is his case that has now become emblematic of the culture of impunity that prevails.”
The case against Sri Lanka for abusing freedom of the press and human rights is considerable. In its 2010 report on the country, Reporters Without Borders concluded that “of the world’s democratically-elected governments, Sri Lanka’s is the one that respects press freedom least.” It continued: “the most senior government officials, including the defense secretary, are directly implicated in serious press freedom violations.”
The United Nations commissioned a report that concluded that both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil opposition might be responsible for war crimes committed near the end of the civil war in 2008. Tens of thousands of civilians died, most as a result of government shelling, according to the U.N. report.
Near the end of April, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Gamini Peiris told reporters that releasing the report would be a detriment to postwar reconciliation, adding that the document was “preposterous.”
“It’s wrong to publish the report,” Peiris said. “It’s equally wrong and unacceptable to take any steps at all on the basis of any findings or recommendations contained in the report.”
Despite the Sri Lankan government’s vociferous objections, the U.N. released the report on April 25. In a statement to the press, U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said, “The decision to release the report was made as a matter of transparency and in the broader public interest.” He also wrote that he “regrets the inflammatory tone of some of the recent public statements emanating from Sri Lanka.”
Sri Lanka was ranked No. 4 on the Committee to Protect Journalist’s 2010 Impunity Index, which ranks countries where journalists are killed regularly and the government makes no effort to prosecute those responsible. According to the report, 10 journalists have been killed in the last decade in Sri Lanka, without a single conviction.
Wickrematunge was one of them.
Maria Salazar-Ferro, who is coordinator of both the impunity campaign and the journalist assistance program at CPJ, calls Wickrematunge’s murder an “iconic case of the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka.”
Salazar-Ferro has been working with Samarasinghe on seeking justice for his assassination. “She’s incredibly strong. Incredibly strong,” Salazar-Ferro says. “I’ve worked with many other journalists in her type of situation, and it’s very rare to meet someone who is so persevering.”
Samarasinge’s resolve shows no signs of wearing down. She continues to write updates about the fight for justice in her husband’s case. In one such article for CPJ, Samarasinghe mentioned that on January 13, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sri Lankan media that there was “no evidence to continue an investigation.” Samarasinghe says that this is a continuation of the stonewalling that the government has engaged in from the very beginning.
Several news items and the coroner’s report stated that Wickrematunge died of a gunshot wound to the head. However, Wickrematunge’s brother, a physician, was allowed into the post-mortem exam room, where he discovered that there was neither gunshot wound nor bullet track. According to Samarasinghe, later on coroner admitted that her husband did not die of gunshot wound.
Most recently, police took custody of five mobile phones that showed the same location patterns as Wickrematunge’s phone, according to Samarasinghe. What is even more peculiar about these phones is that they were not used before or after January 8, 2009, the day of Wickrematunge’s murder. According to police, tracking of the phones reveals that they all communicated regularly with each other that day, and that one of the five numbers shows having made a call from the spot where Wickrematunge was killed. A spot, Samarasinghe points out, was also in a high security zone, just 15 yards from one of the largest Sri Lankan Air Force bases.
“I hold President Rajapaksa personally responsible for my husband’s murder,” Samarasinghe says, “because even if it was not he who gave the order, he, as minister of defense, overall commander of the army, has seen to it from day one that no effective investigation has taken place.”
The Sri Lanka embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment about the case.
Salazar-Ferro says that there is a pattern to the challenges that usually emerge for journalists in exile, beginning with language and professional training issues that prevent them from practicing journalism in the countries where they receive asylum.
“It is a very competitive industry and they are just not able to penetrate,” Salazar-Ferro said.
She estimates that 90 percent of the exiled journalists CPJ is currently tracking are no longer working in the field. Instead, they are janitors, guards or convenience store clerks.
Isabel of CUNY laments the dissolution of exiled journalists’ careers as they enter the United States, which is why he hopes that CUNY’s program can serve as a model for other journalism schools and institutions across the country. Isabel admits that helping only one persecuted journalist a year is “an amazingly paltry reaction,” but adds that, with limited funding and resources, it is doing the best it can “for the overwhelming tide of people who have to leave hostile situations.” He adds, it’s “one of the things that I’m most proud of.”
According to Salazar-Ferro, Samarasinghe is a rarity, an exiled journalists who has stayed in the field. Salazar-Ferro attributes this both to Samarasinghe’s proficiency with English and the breadth of her professional skills. But, she says, the emotional challenges can be just as debilitating to a career, and that Samarsinghe wasn’t able to escape these as easily.
“It’s one of the few professions where you are constantly on your toes,” Salazar-Ferro says. She mentions that when she first met Samarasinghe, “I could still feel that she was deeply scarred not only by her husband’s murder, but also by the years of threat and intimidation.”
Salazar-Ferro continues. “I’ve met very few people who are as strong and determined as Sonali is. She’s had to give up her country, her family, her friends… But she won’t give up her career. I’ve never seen anybody move so fast to be able to get a grip on things the way that she has.”
Samarasinghe says that she felt abandoned and betrayed by her country after her husband’s murder. This became the impetus for the work she is doing now in the U.S. “It’s a force that propels you because you just know you have to do it; there’s no choice,” Samarasinghe says. “Once it happens to you, you have no choice.”
Isabel believes that Samarasinghe―and exiled journalists like her―are indispensable are an inspiration for others in the field. “I think the most remarkable thing about them all is that they are determined to continue to practice journalism, even though they have faced prison and exile and murder and all kinds of things,” Isabel says. “It’s so wonderful to sit next to someone like Sonali and think of what a privilege it is to be a reporter, and it inspires our students.”
Samarasinghe feels a measure of gratitude and inspiration from the opportunities she has had in the United States. She says that receiving help from the U.S. at a time when she felt completely abandoned has earned the country a permanent place in her heart.
But what Salazar-Ferro says about most exiled journalists is also true of Samarasinghe.
“I would say that most of them have, if not one foot, one toe back at home, especially when it comes to journalism,” Salazar-Ferro says. “They still feel very attached to reporting the news of their home, and they still feel very attached to making sure it gets reported.”
Samarasinghe agrees. “Yes, my heart is still in Sri Lanka,” she says, despite the assassination of her husband, the lack of an effective investigation and the continued repression of journalists. “I think that we have great hope as much as we’ve had great devastation, and I really hope and pray that the country will return to itself, because I know how beautiful that country can be.”
The sentiment sounds much like another Sri Lankan journalist who wrote before his death: “I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland.”
It seems inarguable that the author of these words, Lasantha Wickrematunge, would be proud that it is his wife, Sonali Samarasinghe, who continues to hope and fight during his prolonged wake .