Sri Lanka: The Sunday Leader- ''Unbowed & Unafraid'' But for How Much Longer?
Lasantha Wickrematunge remains a name of no significance to many. He was, in fact, one of the most renowned Sri Lankan journalists to have ever lived. Wickrematunge founded Sri Lankan newspaper 'The Sunday Leader' and was the editor for 15 years.
The Sunday Leader exposed what no other Sri Lankan paper dared to: corruption, nepotism, demise of press freedom and freedom of speech, the dismantling of a so-called democracy and the implementation of a totalitarian state. It remained "unbowed and unafraid".
In a society where there is next to no media freedom, Lasantha Wickrematunge and his band of journalists at The Sunday Leader bravely defied the culture of the 'White Van' (journalists who spoke out against the government and their motives would be abducted by these white vans). On 8th January 2009, Lasantha himself paid for his bravery with his life. He was gunned down in broad daylight in a Suburban district in the capital, Colombo. To this day no one has been held accountable for his murder.
Wickrematunge's last article came from beyond the grave and it was this article that solidified my passion for journalism. He spoke about the political situation in Sri Lanka just before the end of the Civil War and also predicted his own murder after being subjected to verbal and physical abuse from government thugs previously:
"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."
Lasantha's widow was the first to be offered the dangerous role of Editor at The Sunday Leader following his murder but, sensibly, she left Sri Lanka to seek a safer life for her family in the States. The role was then passed on to Frederica Jansz, whom of which I have had the utmost pleasure to work with.
Frederica continued to run The Sunday Leader with courage and diligence. However, recently in her fight to expose the corruption and nepotism that is rife within the Sri Lankan government she too has been ejected from the Editor position at The Sunday Leader.
On July 5th, 2012, Jansz called Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary, to ask him whether he was aware that a Sri Lankan Airlines plane was to be down-sized to enable a junior pilot, who was dating Rajapaksa’s niece, to fly a puppy from Zurich to Colombo for his wife. Approximately 56 passengers would have had to be off loaded with a consequent loss of revenue to the taxpayer. This issue was therefore a matter of public concern.
However, rather than answering the questions, Mr Rajapaksa subjected Frederica Jansz to horrific abuse over the telephone:
"I will sue your f**ing newspaper” (if any of this was published). You type of journalists are pigs who eat shit. Shit! Sht! Sh*t journalists"
Jansz rightly published the entire interview, entitled “Gota Goes Berserk”.
It was the international press around Frederica's "Gota Goes Berserk" article that sparked the take over The Sunday Leader, once the first line of defence for Sri Lankans who were persecuted by the government.
The Sunday Leader was bought out by a Government-sympathiser just over a month ago, a move that has probably made Lasathana Wickrematunge turn in his grave. In a recent interview with 'Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka', Frederica Jansz stated that the Sunday Leader's new owner, Asanga Seneviratne, told her that she should stop criticising the government:
"He asked (her) to stop being critical of the Rajapaksas and even stop carrying cartoons depicting the President in lighter vein.(Frederica) maintained to Seneviratne that The Sunday Leader has no personal or political agenda against the President nor any other politician or individual but that the type of journalism (they) practice is independent and devoid of any bias. That (they) as journalists are merely performing (their) duty in acting as messengers, holding those in political and public office accountable. But Seneviratne refused to understand or accept this position. (Jansz) then had conveyed to him that (she) had no intention of resigning given that (she) had done no wrong, that he could terminate (her) services if he so wished."
And he did. Frederica emailed me this:
I am no longer Editor. I was sacked by the new management on Sep 21. A government stooge purchased a majority share in the newspaper. The government "loaned" him the monies on the condition that I be removed. This he did one week after taking over. He sacked me on the basis that I continued to slander and publish articles that are malicious of the first family."
It is Frederica's dismissal that has led myself, and many others within the Sri Lankan diaspora, to wonder if The Sunday Leader would remain "unbowed and unafraid" for much longer. The appointment of a government-sympathiser as owner has torn away any shred of democratic hope for the media industry of Sri Lanka.
Dr Callamard, the executive director of London-based human rights organisation ARTICLE 19 who campaigns to protect free speech, had this to say about Frederica's sacking and the instant demise of The Sunday Leader:
"The new owner of the Sunday Leader has sacked editor Frederica Jansz just five months after ARTICLE 19 warned the UN human rights body that the President’s affiliates were buying up the private media in order to take editorial control over all critical voices in the country. The sacking of Frederica Jansz – one of the few remaining independent journalists critical of the government still in the country – is terrible news for the Sri Lankan media. We warned the UN in April that affiliates of the president appeared to be buying up the private media in order to control their editorial lines, resulting in a severely reduced debate in a country that has only just emerged from conflict. Worse still is that Frederica Jansz received death threats from the president’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, just two months ago. Rather than investigating and taking a stance against threats of violence, they've instead focused their energy on further undermining her, and freedom of expression in general. "
Lasantha Wickrematunge and Frederica Jansz were rare breeds of Sri Lankan newspaper editors. With the callous removal of both and the implementation of a government-sympathiser as owner, it's difficult for anyone to envision the revival of freedom of press or a democratic Sri Lankan state any time soon.
*NB: This entire situation reminded me of the dismemberment of Emirates Airlines from Sri Lankan Airlines back in 2008, where the President demanded paying first class passengers to be offloaded so the Middle Eastern carrier could take himself and his 30+ strong entourage abroad. When Emirates declined, out of respect for the paying passengers and due to the short-notice of the demand, the President revoked the visa of the Chief Executive and had him deported out of the country. This then had bearing when Emirates decided to exit any relationship with the Sri Lankan Airline. The latter is now known throughout the Airline industry as a 'sinking ship'.