Who has Lassie’s blood on their hands?

z_p22-Lasantha-tagIn some ways, Keith Noyahr’s abduction and assault in May 2008 was the harbinger of the more brutal crime that was to follow. At the time of his abduction, Keith Noyahr was the most senior journalist to be attacked during that dark era for press freedom in Sri Lanka. That dubious honour was claimed by his friend ‘Lassie’ eight months later. Lasantha Wickrematunge and Noyahr were once colleagues at the Sunday Times. Both were acclaimed journalists. Both were hunted for their defiant writing in an oppressive climate for professional journalists. A decade later, investigators have found a thread running through both these attacks, connecting assailants in both cases to a shadowy military intelligence unit operating out of the Tripoli army camp, part of a sinister operation to silence dissenting voices during the height of the war. As Sri Lanka’s media fraternity marks the 10th Anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge’s assassination on January 8, Keith Noyahr, picks up his journalistic pen after 11 long years living in exile to write this tribute to his colleague Lasantha, fallen in the line of duty

After a decade of hibernation, I wish to break my journalistic silence with a salute to the media giant of our time, Lasantha Wickrematunge– on his 10th death anniversary.

Months before his death, Lasantha sent word to me through a mutual friend Krishantha Cooray, “to open up now that I am safe in Australia”. I did not heed his call as I felt the time was not right and my inner wounds from torture were still fresh.

My friend, colleague and later competitor, Lassie, as he was fondly known, was butchered in broad daylight on January 8, 2009, in a manner that could be likened to the Hobbesian take on state of nature– “nasty, brutish and short”.

Lasantha was alive to his impending death.The timing, he reckoned, would be once a rebel stronghold fell and a military victory was in the offing. News of Elephant Pass falling was held back until the dastardly act of his assassins was carried out with impunity. The murder most foul was drowned in the euphoria of military success.

You can’t keep a good man down. Lassie, even in death, your words resonated far and wide as your famed editorial immortalised you. A swag of international awards was conferred upon you posthumously.

To restrict Lasantha’s courageous journalism to the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency would not do justice to the man who was a thorn in the flesh of Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranasinghe Premadasa. A sneak peek into these eras though would suffice.

Rajapaksa defeated on death anniversary

Six years to the date of his untimely death on January 8, 2015, the invincible President Mahinda Rajapaksa was soundly defeated before the court of the people by a lesser-known and not so charismatic candidate, Maithripala Sirisena.

Call it Karma, retribution, or by any other name, even Rajapaksa was dumbfounded by the outcome after successfully tweaking the Constitution to force a third term.

The presidential rout was a classic case of David defeating Goliath, given that previously the strongman defeated the wartime General Sarath Fonseka, with both candidates basking in military glory.

After being convincingly defeated by the people, Rajapaksa recently wreaked havoc in the country by inveigling the President to appoint him Prime Minister, dissolve Parliament and call elections. Of course, the first move was made by Sirisena who needed Rajapaksa’s support for the next presidential elections as the Government’s popularity waned.

General Elections were called for January 9, 2019, with the campaign set to end on the 10th death anniversary of the journalist. But that was not to be. Rather than rolling in his grave, Lassie would have looked down with a smirk only to see one blunder after another in the pursuit of power by the power-hungry.

Lassie would be all smiles as the judiciary returned a unanimous decision and the courts refused to bow to the veiled threats and cacophony of voices. Retributive justice precluded undemocratic efforts to capitalise on recent local electoral wins, with the gains reversed.

How true is the age-old adage, “What you sow, you reap”.

In hindsight, shooting the messenger or attempting to do so is the biggest mistake in a democracy.

Lasantha Wickrematunga and a few other journalists starting from Richard De Soysa paid with their lives, and the bereaved bore the brunt; others like myself who were abducted and tortured were scarred for life.

Children emotionally scarred

In her own words, Lasantha’s daughter Ahimsa says her father’s brutal slaying has scarred her emotionally. I know Ahimsa, Avinash and Aadesh what you’ve been through as my son and daughter have suffered similar inner wounds that are often re-opened, with justice still far off.

I just don’t get it. Why were we hounded in the first place? Is it for doing our jobs conscientiously – in a democratic state???

“What did Lasantha do that deserved such a punishment?

In the words of veteran journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj, Lasantha was,“The fearless editor of The Sunday Leader (who) fought valiantly against overwhelming odds to expose corruption, nepotism, misgovernance, racism and militaristic triumphalism.”

For others, Lasantha was foolhardy; he lacked restraint and was trammelled by political ties.

Yes, he dabbled in politics. Lasantha contested on the SLFP ticket and was Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Private Secretary; he backed SLFP presidential candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa; he supported Anura over Chandrika, Gamini over Ranil and the list goes on. In the US, newspapers endorsed candidates, and Lassie openly displayed who he backed.

For Lasantha, it was nothing but his conscience that prodded him on to do what he did. His pen was far mightier than the collective swords brandished at him from time to time by presidents and governments of all hues.

His philosophy: publish and be damned, and even destroyed.

Lassie you cared not for your safety, but discharged your duties diligently for a higher cause, and for this I salute you, mate.

And even if he cared less for himself, his three children meant a world to him. He doted on them, and even after separation, he would fly all the way to Australia to spend time with them. My memory goes back to the time he would carry two of his children in his arms as he dropped by at the Sunday Times to pick wife Raine and deliver his column Suranimala that shot him to fame. More on that later.

Undeterred Lassie soldiered on

Fast forward to the glory days of The Sunday Leader, where he made bombshell revelations, week after week, spanning several governments, including that of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who openly attacked him. Undeterred by the acts of violence unleashed on him, his family and newspaper, not to mention being arraigned before court, he soldiered on.

Days before his death, he posed the rhetorical question editorially: “Is it worth the risk?” “Many people tell me it is not.”

“But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”

He went to his death to save the country that was plundered left, right and centre, with nepotism the order of the day and despotism the name of the game.

I salute you Lassie for taking on the powers that be in such a brazen way in your inimical style and true to your newspaper’s motto, “Unbowed and Unafraid”.

Lasantha was a person who could not be won over, coaxed, stifled, terrorised or bought over.

At the Leader, proprietor pressure was minimum as his brother Lal Wickrematunge was at the helm. Advertising interests were not so sacrosanct as in most other media companies. Drying up of sources was his least worry as he had a steady flow of information. In sum, it was the perfect recipe for the brand of journalism he practised and the racy style that endeared many readers.

He was the epitome of courageous journalism, and served as a check and balance on the unfettered powers of the Presidency. All but one Executive President – D.B.Wijetunga – have acted like fascists or constitutional dictators to varying degrees during the hybrid Executive Presidency that has been around for 40 years, after a parliamentary form of government lasted 30 years since independence.

In the seven decades of post-independence history, the country’s press freedom and human rights record hit a nadir at the time Lasantha was assassinated. (Sri Lanka was ranked 165th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders) 2015 Press Freedom Index). Even his detractors would grant that Lasantha was martyred for, among other things, upholding human rights.

San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against poverty, social justice, assassinations, and torture in El Salvador and was martyred on March 24 1980. Three decades later, in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 24 as the “International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims”.

Red-letter day in journalism

Henda_Gotha_Lasantha-EIt would be appropriate to mark January 8 as a red-letter day in the history of journalism in the country, for this courageous soul paid with his life to curb corruption, end nepotism and prevent human rights abuses. January 8 also marked a victory for the people of Sri Lanka that ended a dictatorship and opened the doors to clip unfettered presidential powers, after a debate was ignited in the early 90s.

The constitutional crisis created on a bid to impeach President Ranasinghe Premadasa brought on this debate. During the Premadasa regime, information was hard to come, and Lasantha’s Suranimala column grew in popularity as it had ball-by-ball commentaries of government action with juicy details that added credibility.The column was controversial and not to the liking of the President. The bombshell column on Cabinet appointments in the light of astrology paved the way for the founding editor Vijitha Yapa to resign. Undeterred, Lassie continued his juicy and fiery columns for the Sunday Times in the interim and during Sinha Ratnatunga’s stewardship as editor during an era fraught with danger. Right through the crisis, and the resultant UNP split and DUNF formation, several journalists lived dangerously.

Premadasa was assassinated on May 1, 1993. It took a long time for the news to sink in even after the President’s Media Secretary Evans Cooray called me to break the earth-shattering news and I wrote the lead story for the Times titled, “The President is dead”. I had the same feeling when Rajapaksa was defeated electorally. Both Presidents were larger than life and too overbearing to come to grips with their absence. Kumaratunga missed death by a hair’s breadth.

Richard was assassinated during the Premadasa presidency, D. Sivaram (Taraki) was killed during the Kumaratunga presidency, but Lasantha lived to fight another day, and fight he did as he moved on to launch the Sunday Leader.

By that time, I had left the Sunday Times and was working for the Associated Press (AP). Sinha asked me whether I would like to handle the investigations desk or do a defence column at the Times. When some quarters doubted that Lasantha could run a newspaper and do a political column, I begged to differ. Lasantha’s energy and efficiency, commitment and capabilities, and his single-minded pursuit of his goals convinced me that he is up to the task, and Lassie delivered in spades.

Nation, Leader fold up

The Leader made ripples in no time and became a household name. It is sad that the paper Lasantha nurtured so painstakingly for 15 long years had to fold up. His newly wed wife Sonali Samarasinghe served as editor in exile for a brief period, and Frederica Jansz, who lived dangerously while trying to keep the flag flying as editor, was forced to flee in the face of death threats – long after the war ended and national security was not at stake.

The Nation, which also made ripples in two years, pre-empted the Leader in its demise under similar conditions. After my abduction and torture over a controversial defence column I wrote, the founding editor Lalith Allahakkoon and Company CEO Krishantha Cooray were unceremoniously removed. The sister paper, the Bottom Line, edited by Nisthar Cassim, was expected to be the precursor for the Nation’s daily. That too died a natural death. Just before these tumultuous events, power-hungry politicians had a hand in purchasing controlling shares of the newspaper. I suspect a similar modus operandi was adopted for the Leader, which was on a sticky financial wicket, minus its backbone.There would have been few takers for fear of reprisals.

Lasantha went to his eternal home after doing a full circle in the print media, cutting his teeth at the now defunct Independent Newspapers, then joining the Island and moving on to the Sunday Times before he founded The Sunday Leader. After a brief but successful legal career, Lasantha took to journalism, and took it to a whole new level, raising the bar to dizzy heights.

On a lighter note, especially, during the Sunday Times days, I enjoyed Lassie’s company, playing chess and engaging in animated political discussions. I also played cricket alongside him on the Sunday Times’ team against the Island and other sides. He had a good sense of humour and would love a joke, even at my expense. He was my senior, but was never condescending, and forged a friendship in respect.

On burning issues, Lasantha would argue his case in print and TV in the most persuasive way, but in private would admit his shortcomings. He always confused “been” with “being” and admitted to not understanding the usage. Never mind Lassie, the important thing is you were a unique being, a divinely planted messenger whose life was cut short in cold-blooded fashion. May you rest in peace!

At a critical point in history, you were the fearless actor on the media stage who performed your role admirably and bowed out with a face smeared in blood. But, the million-dollar question is: Who has Lassie’s blood on their hands?