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The Forthright Journalist Who Changed Sri Lankan Journalism

Jan 10, 2011 9:09:00 PM- transcurrents.com

Tribute to Lasantha Wickrematunge on Second Death Anniversary

By Sunalie Ratnayake

A recollection of facts

Two elongated years have come into conclusion, precisely as of today (January 8, 2011), since the incongruously horrendous cold-blooded murder of one of the most outspoken, clear-cut, intrepid and young Journalists that may have ever set foot on planet earth, in aspects of a noteworthy epoch of time in history, to date. Indeed, a Sri Lankan Journalist Par Excellence, who requires no introduction by any means, not only on the segment of his motherland Sri Lanka, but also, on the phase of the earth. He is none other than the beyond compare soul of brilliance and brains, Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge, the best and only boss in life, thus far, in my 7 year succinct tenure in Journalism.


The late Lasantha Wickrematunge with Sunalie Ratnayake on New Year's Day - 2007

As I recall, it was in the morning hours of January 8, 2009, that I had received the most heartrending phone call, ever in my life, thus far, on my fourth day in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during a vacation in my motherland. A phone call which reached my mobile, in all probability, in less than ten minutes following the vile incident that had taken place down Main Attidiya Road in Dehiwela, that fateful Thursday morning, just a few minutes away from where I lived in Colombo. A phone call, that had managed to profoundly damage my fortitude and conviction, not only in terms of my rest back home two years ago, but also in the facet of life itself, as a whole.

Specifics hard to acknowledge

To date, the incident itself, and the series of moments that followed the atrocious, blatant act of murder of my editor, from the murder scene, to the Kalubowila hospital Intensive-Care Unit, to the mortuary, to the undertakers, to the Sunday Leader office and to the respective abodes and finally to the Borella Kanatte from January 8 to12, 2009 seem to have deeply carved a constant reel of images in my memory, that still seem to haunt me with strife. The assassination and it’s unashamed manner itself, seem to be way beyond mind’s eye, when compared to the nightmarish episodes I seem to experience even in my slumber, from time to time, and time and again, ever since. At times, the thought does whack my mind, “ why did I really opt to be in my motherland on vacation, just to experience the worst ever episode that life had to offer me, thus far ? ” But then again, I console my mind, believing that there is a reason behind all, in this riddle called life.

Vacuum left behind

Following Lasantha’s forced and planned exodus from the Sri Lankan media industry two years ago, there is no doubt of the fact, that the momentous vacuum he left behind, is far from being filled. It is also a matter of reasonable doubt, whether that same vacuum would or could ever be filled again, in the local unbiased, undaunted media scene. Especially, at a time in present day Sri Lanka, where certain journalists too, just like the unashamed slice of individuals representing various other fields in the country, could be bought over in exchange of cash and benefits of all nature, distancing them from holding a clear conscience and from conducting a genuine livelihood of their choice, by those holding power. Sadly, yet truly, Sri Lanka is no longer a situate, where Journalism or any other profession could be practiced decently or ethically, with a conscience that could be unambiguous.

The Rajapaksa totalitarianism

Consequently, the prime fear cum query remains that whether unbiased, undaunted and unbowed journalism could ever be practiced in Sri Lanka, a country, following a near three decade crucial and brutal war by a cluster categorized as the worst terrorist group on the phase of the planet, the LTTE, has now become a land that brazenly practices totalitarianism under the so called Rajapaksa government, in no time, whatsoever. Indeed, it is the worst administration thus far, that saw daylight in the island, of which it’s election for the first and second terms alone, remains a pragmatic, yet never to be solved mystery.

Moreover, it is a regime represented by a leader, who depicts no ethical or core values whatsoever, even in the slightest possible manner. President Rajapaksa, his brothers and relatives that depict shrewdness and lack of remorse to the bone, are only perfectly familiar with, and truly capable of robbing the country, it’s assets, it’s prospects, and above all, it’s freedoms from it’s citizens, by and large, with the fanatical, yet hysterical mindset of establishing perpetual wealth, and an everlasting dynasty for himself and the entire Rajapaksa family element, a pessimistic ordeal extending beyond imagination and lenience.

But, what is most evil is the fact that, all this happens to be at the cost and freedom of the lives of others. Lasantha paid the ultimate price of death, two years ago, just prior to reaching the age of 50, merely for being a journalist who fought valiantly for the freedom of the press, as well as the rights of the citizens of his country, thus uncompromisingly pursuing what he believed was right. The Rajapaksa government’s shameless acts in eliminating even fractions of entities, that seem to be intimidating, in terms of carrying on with their sordid acts of deception, could be viewed as nothing, but outright disgust beyond exoneration, and it is nothing but disgrace on the President, the so called Mahinda Rajapaksa, in actuality, Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa and his bunch of hooligans. The Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa too are just to name a few, who are part and parcel, in terms of making Sri Lanka an object of mockery, in the facade of the world.

Void of progress in investigations & brutal attacks

Two years passing by, void of any progress whatsoever, as per the so-called investigations pertaining to the brutal broad day light murder of Lasantha is obviously to be expected, as the responsible parties are evidently entrenched in supremacy. Lasantha may be no more, for the reason that he was one of the very few in the country, who intrepidly spoke the truth, throughout his life, especially in the shoes of a Journalist. He was unafraid of “power,” never intimidated by same, ever. That was the same “power” that passed it’s own cool time, and got him killed, at the finest opportunity to do so.

The Sunday Leader is a newspaper establishment that underwent repeated destruction by all respective governments to date, from it’s inception back in 1994. A well known fact remains, in two instances, Lasantha was brutally assaulted, while in another, his house was machine-gun fire sprayed.

We recall with pity, as if to the repellent manner in which the press was attacked several times, and also sealed by the government of Chandrika Kumaratunge. On November 21, 2007, a commando style operation took place, within the high security zone, in which the Sunday Leader new office was located in close proximity to the Ratmalana military and domestic airport. Ten to twelve armed men had forced their way into the printing press, and this was an arson attack, the second such assail within a two-year period on the publishers of the newspaper.

The masked arsonists that entered the press room of the Sunday Leader, Morning Leader and it’s sister paper Irudina had set fire on it, damaging a number of printing machines and copies of freshly printed newspapers, ready for distribution. In December 2008, along with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), The Sunday Leader was censored by the Rajapaksa regime, ordering to refrain from publishing reports relating to the Defence Secretary brother of the President.

The only accurate reason for all such consequences was the publication’s instinctive nature of being unbowed and unafraid, thus exposing corruption after corruption and misconducts in numbers, relating to all echelons of all governments that came into power through the years. However, under the watch of the present Rajapaksa regime, it’s editor’s life on earth was snatched, thus, eradicating his right to live, as well as his freedom of expression.

Despite frequent threats and the aforesaid physical attacks prior to his death, Lasantha continued his work undeterred. It was evident that he never hid behind euphemism.

Unashamed statements of tyrants in power

I recall, when I was part and parcel of Lasantha’s editorial at the then, much celebrated National English weekly, The Sunday Leader publication, probably the only publication in Sri Lanka that stood out “unbowed and unafraid”, depicting its slogan to the fullest, despite the aforesaid endless malicious consequences having to be faced, the revolting phone call Lasantha received on January 11, 2006, from non other than the President himself. It was barely two months from him being elected to power on November 18, 2005. The phone call was in obscene language in the president’s mother tongue, aggressively threatening Lasantha with no “shame”, nonetheless a characteristic that has no meaning in his being whatsoever, making strong statements, that in no time, he will hush the editor.

Mahinda, after screaming his belly, rather than his lungs out, at that time, not as stout as it is at this point, in the most despicable manner, also brazenly calling out the name of Lasantha’s aged and innocent mother, the undeviating devil living inside Mahinda’s phony persona, effortlessly did come out that day. The utterance in his phone conversation with Lasantha came out similar to the following ; "I will finish you! I treated you well all this while. Now I will destroy you. You don't know who Mahinda Rajapaksa is. You watch what I will do to you! I will show you what it is like to be scared. I will rest only, once I have destroyed you."

As these sadistic words of our so called president repeatedly loop in my memory, all I can think of is, Mahinda sure did keep to his word, yet, in a shockingly succinct period than we all expected. Once again may I say, “Shame on you Percy a.k.a Mahinda”

More proclamations of repugnance

While writing this piece on Lasantha’s second death anniversary that falls today, I also recall, similarly, with a sincere objective in stressing on “human rights“, as per the present day media freedom in Sri Lanka, the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was interviewed by Christopher Morris of the BBC.

In that particular interview broadcast by the BBC in the most recent history, in responding to the questions forwarded to the Defence Secretary by Morris, with regards to the January 2009 assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Gotabaya went into a state of extreme mockery, amalgamated with wrath, further filled with absolute disrepute, in aspects of the cold blooded murder of Lasantha, that had seen daylight under the watch of his brother’s rule. Gotabjaya was unable to even sit straight on his chair, throughout the interview, tossing his arms all over the air, his face depicting expressions as disgusting as ever.

As usual, it was the common effect instilled in Gotabhaya, while facing interviews, especially those conducted by diverse media institutions other the state media (in which questions and answers are obviously pre-planned & pre-arranged and conducted in a relaxed environment of the interviewee’s choice, thus the interviewer always being reduced to a mere puppet), this too was yet another interview of his, handled in the most unprofessional possible mode.

As per the aforementioned BBC interview, to the Defence Secretary, it all seemed to be nothing beyond a matter of mirth, whereas, in reality, to the rest of the world, it was nothing but a matter of grave apprehension. A matter that clutched authorities worldwide, needless to point out the downright tension that escalated in Sri Lanka alone, concerning media freedom, and the articulation of facts as is, as means of enlightening the general public and their right to know.

It is justly a dignified, customary and ethical human right, for which, once president Rajapaksa himself stood up for, not so long ago, when power was not significantly within the reach of the Rajapaksas,’ let alone having modes of abusing same, as at present.

In the Defense Secretary’s words at sarcasm at it‘s best, he made the following statements, with irrepressible mirth, completely out of place, as far as a serious interview was concerned. Moreover, it was based on a cold blooded murder that saw daylight, of a prominent editor who held international recognition, a murder that took place in a high security zone in Colombo, under the bristly watch of his brother’s government, and him as Defence Secretary of the same constituent.

Gotabhaya would hysterically go to the extent of making statements as follows, as answers at the interview ; “Who is Lasantha Wickerematunge ? He is just a…..there are so many murders in everywhere, in the whole world there are murders. Why are you asking about Lasantha ? Who is Lasantha ? He was somebody who was writing for tabloids. I’m not concerned about that. People are panicking. Why people are so worried about one man….?”

As per the above mentioned disgusting interview given by the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary to the BBC, on the slain editor of The Sunday Leader, as far as the Defence Secretary and his behaviours are concerned, the following contemplations scuttle through my mind ; “Does he actually know what the word “tabloid” stands for, and didn’t he truly not know who Lasantha was, before he was killed at the convenience of those in power ? Wasn’t Lasantha the thickest thorn on the flesh of this government and its muggers ? And, also I wish that he would bare in mind, that the person that he refuses to know, shall stand tall, as a person who bowed to no one at all, and shall march into history as one of the bravest men that ever lived, representing the field of solid journalism in our times, especially under a creepy, dishonest regime such as that of the Rajapaksas’.”

Another murder swept under the rug

Just like any other entity of high concern in Sri Lanka’s history up-to-date, Lasantha’s brutal murder too has been contentedly swept under the carpet with much ease, only with so called appointed committees to hold ostensible investigations, moreover those consisting of desired personal of parties holding power, the personal who would only avidly fulfill the agendas of the same supremacy. Hearings, numbering over fifty have thus far being held before a magistrate’s court, yet a “blank” seem to be depicted by the police.

Over 15 military intelligence officers were held in custody for succinct periods, as of late, yet discharged void of any means of clarification, as far as the courts were concerned. As certain political analysts, as well as politicians themselves happen to deem, (the latter of course, artfully in their benefit whatsoever), if General Sarath Fonseka was responsible for the vicious murder of Lasantha Wickerematunge, why on earth was he tried via military tribunals for relatively and naively minor offences, in comparison with that of murder ? Why couldn’t this co called receptive government with it’s so called sensitive leader work it through, to charge Fonseka with murder, at the first place, if crooked fingers could continue to point at the General, with regards to Lasantha’s murder ?

More pleasurable memories

There were recurrent times, that everyone around Lasantha, who truly loved and cared for him used to repeatedly advise him to be safe, and to believe in the fact, that his life was of utmost importance, especially when the common death threats kept rolling in via mail and the telephone. Hitherto, it happened to be a life of utmost importance to all that truly knew him close enough, for the man he was, except for himself.

Whenever the editorial members would remind him of the importance of living, and being safe, and the gravity of the repeated threats being received through the years, his words with that unprecedented grin of his, would only be, “ There are two places that you cannot avoid when you have to go, you have to go. One is the toilet and the other is the grave.” Therefore, once we repeatedly hear this kind of lingo from our editor with a merry nature, at least for that moment we used to give up on further elucidation of the dangers that awaited his life, and laugh it all off, together with this ever so witty soul, as if nothing really mattered. Lasantha managed to lift the gravity, at least for a moment, as per the danger that ultimately snatched away his life, way ahead of time. A smile on his face was never an absent entity, even on Thursdays, the most demanding day of the week.

Don’t cry for me Argentina

Every now and then, a best known song of all time “Don’t cry for me Argentina” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s 1978 musical Evita could be heard in Lasantha’s most unmusical voice ever, assuring it to be one of his favourites. At this moment, I also recall D.B.S Jeyaraj, a seasoned Journalist, whom I hold in elevated esteem, though I have never met him through my tenure in journalism thus far, too had once stated his reminiscences on Lasantha’s version of Don’t cry for me Argentina.

Though the tune of the song hardly was in place, coming from Lasantha on a frequent basis, it seemed to be delightful, as it made us crack with laughter. I recall once stating at the typesetting room of The Sunday Leader that “Evita would have run hundred miles away if she heard you sing her song,” and the usual chortle could be heard from Lasantha.

The best days of my life

Though responsibilities were foremost, life was carefree in Lasantha’s editorial. Every moment of pleasure and pressure (the two P‘s), the latter of course, not in keeping with the deadlines, but in managing the constant menaces of infuriated politicians happened to be a way of life for us young reporters, back in most recent history. Those were the best days of my life, in my carrier in Journalism that began with Lasantha, the days we had joy, we had fun, and we had seasons in the sun.

If one knew Lasantha the way I and my colleagues knew him, no one would ever believe the fact that the country’s most controversial weekly editorials were produced by a pen held with the left hand of this supreme human that I have met, thus far in life. His simplicity as well as his humorous, yet sharp nature made him a soul that could be loved and respected beyond words could ever express. His remarkably down-to-earth qualities were unsurpassed with that of anyone else, in the field he mainly depicted all his life, journalism, apart from being a qualified Attorney-At-Law.

A man who changed Sri Lanka’s Journalism

Lasantha’s life was taken away just before him turning 50, yet he remains a man who single-handedly changed the facet of Journalism in Sri Lanka. Fifty seem to relatively be a brief period, in terms of life, yet, in that half a century, Lasantha had achieved many an entity, in aspects of Journalism and admiration, which others could only have dreamt of. Above all, what’s more important is the fact that he was an authentic, sincere human by all means. Rest assured, not even an ant would have been harmed by him, through the course of his fifty years.

Today, as I write this piece, 24 months following the untimely, undesirable, unpardonable departure of Lasantha, I sit at my desk, in a land far away from home, with an assortment of emotions such as sorrow, disgust, suffering and calamity running through my mind. Yet, the cheery picture of the preeminent and only boss in my life in journalism, depicting that ever so familiar, unmatched, effortless smile on his face, seem to add some soothe to my thoughts at this convoluted hour.

Last but not least, may I enunciate the fact that my sincere thoughts on this day, which happen to be the second death anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge, shall always be with his endearing children Aadesh, Ahimsa and Avinash, as well as with his one and only genuine companion and comrade throughout life Raine Wickrematunge a gem of a woman personally known to me, as well as with his doting parents, siblings, nephews and nieces, and fellow genuine journalists and all those who loved him irrefutably, the assemblage that shall truthfully suffer, having paid a price, way beyond acceptance, in terms of losing their dearly beloved, unlike the numbers out there that happen to shed crocodile tears, those once benefited, and continue to be benefited by the perquisites associated, once with the life, and now, with the name and legacy of this incomparable editor of our times.

Lasantha, a forthright journalist with unparalleled audacity, will be remembered with acute fondness, and desolately missed, at the wake of his second death anniversary (Jan 8, 2011).

Dearest editor, mentor, comrade and confidante, who was also a second father by all means - May your soul rest in peace.

The Journalist Sunalie Ratnayake could be contacted at sunalie.secretandbeyond@yahoo.com