It’s a breezy afternoon and the wind blows a pleasant sense of freedom over the paddy fields where we sit down to have a chat with Poddala Jayantha. From under his cap we see a wrinkled face that can afford to smile again, but his eyes do not burn with the same passion of a [...]

Sunday Times 2

A white-vanned journalist’s story behind the headlines


It’s a breezy afternoon and the wind blows a pleasant sense of freedom over the paddy fields where we sit down to have a chat with Poddala Jayantha. From under his cap we see a wrinkled face that can afford to smile again, but his eyes do not burn with the same passion of a once vocal journalist. Just six years ago, Jayantha was hurled into a white van and tortured mercilessly. His lower leg was left badly fractured and apart from the mental scars that torment him daily, he has a metal plate fixed in his leg to permanently remind him of that gruesome day.

Poddala Jayantha: There is freedom now in Sri Lanka after the Jan. 8 presidential election. Pic by Indika Handuwala

For Jayantha — who sought asylum in the United States after his abduction — returning to the motherland and having a roadside chat a few metres away from where he was abducted would have been a near impossibility. But with the winds of change that swept across the land this January, Jayantha thought it best to pay a short visit back to the country, for the first time in six years.

“Abduction is the worst experience one can encounter and it leaves you devastated,” he tells us. “The physical suffering can be dealt with, but it’s the nightmares that come back to haunt you that are unbearable.”

There is an unmistakable sense of sombreness in the way he speaks, sometimes gazing out into open road, possibly thinking of the days where — poster in hand — his voice boomed out at protests and demonstrations before he was silenced.
Jayantha comes from a poverty-stricken family in Poddala, a little town in the Galle District, where his mother worked as a tea-plucker while his father was a rubber-tapper. The extremely difficult living conditions forced Jayantha to come to Colombo in search of work and his first stint was at Wijeya Newspapers, not as a scribe, but rather a security guard.

“Being in a situation like mine gets you thinking about a lot of things,” he tells us. “Duppath paulakata ipadenne karume hinda nemei,” Jayantha believes that it is the fault of the corrupt systems and the unequal distribution of wealth that make one poor and not fate.

He later worked his way to the type-setting department where he got a real feel for journalism. “Articles had to come to us to be type-set and I spent my time absorbing what was written in it rather than just pressing the words.” This was when he realised that he too could engage in active journalism.

Life wasn’t rosy for him as a journalist when he first started at Ravaya in 1989, with many of his copies being shredded before he caught the eye of the then editor, Victor Ivan. “It was under Victor Ivan that I blossomed as a journalist,” he recalls.

“My poverty-stricken life always kept me focused on using the power of journalism to expose scams that bogged us down as a nation.” Jayantha’s interest was to reveal misappropriation within the sectors of health, education and the economy.
Exposures in the state media.

Fuelled with passion, Jayantha moved onto Silumina where he rose to fame with the exposé of what was known as South Asia’s biggest scam: The VAT repayment fraud. “VAT badhu wanchaawa pol gedi akuren rajaye puwath pathema pala kara”, Jayantha tells us that he first exposed the scam when the misappropriation was at Rs. 500 million in bold letters on the state-run newspaper. In a perfect world, this would have caught the attention of the authorities, but to his horror Jayantha found out that the scam only kept expanding. “It went up to Rs. 1.2 billion when I approached the Bribery Commission, only to be told by the commission chief that due to inefficiencies within the commission itself there was no way that it could be looked into.” Naturally, this very statement became the next day’s pol gedi akuru headline.

“The situation was such that a journalist had to expose these scams and then find out ways to bring the culprits to justice himself. This shouldn’t be the case. If the systems were in place the authorities would take action after seeing our writing,” he tells us. Jayantha says that from 1994 to 2005, he was actively wielding the pen against government misdoings and although he received many letters of demand, there was no serious threat to his life.

“This changed after the 2005 presidential election and thus began the era of media censorship and the state’s choke-hold on free media,” he tells us. Jayantha, being appointed as the secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) along with its president, Sanath Balasuriya, began unearthing a web of misappropriation done by the government.
When the voice of the print media was not heard, he had to take the fight to the streets by staging protests and demonstrations.

“The aim of our protests was to curb media censorship and bring to justice the assaulters of victims such as journalist Keith Noyahr.” Spearheaded by the SLWJA, five media organisations got together in the hope of reinforcing their fight against censorship and corruption. These were: SLWJA, Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU), Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF), Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Alliance (SLTJA) and the Free Media Movement (FMM).

Protests and demonstrations, especially during the latter part of the war, were not well received by the Government and state electronic media took it upon themselves to belittle journalists such as Jayantha, branding them as traitors. Poddala Jayantha was as well known for his beard as he was for his fearless writing, and this became a symbol used by state-media to vilify him in front of the public.

The very beard was shaved off by his abductors and forced down his throat. Choking on his own beard, with a badly fractured leg, Jayantha and media freedom were left for dead.”The state media cannot be used as a vehicle to win elections for the Government. They too have a responsibility of being unbiased and revealing news as it is,” Jayantha tells us. In fact, Jayantha worked for state media throughout a large part of his career and still managed to create an uproar. “Being in the state media is not an excuse to stay silent in the face of adversity.”

Define national security
Being tainted as a traitor, and alleged to have made deals with the LTTE, Jayantha was seen as an enemy in the public eye. When questioned on the possible overlap of media freedom and national security, Jayantha tells us that “the best interests of national security” is a vague term that allows politicians to get away with anything. “Jaathika arakshawa dhadameemak karagaththa”, he tells us that national security became a mere scapegoat and an easy excuse.

“Although I’m openly against the war, it is true that there are instances where you cannot reveal military information. But, the boundaries that we as journalists have to steer clear of have to be clearly defined,” Jayantha says adding that the need of the hour is to define these boundaries. “I am happy that the Right to Information Bill is in discussion, but the draft in my opinion is vague when it comes to questions that can be asked from the armed forces.”

Back on that ill-fated day in 2009, Jayantha’s journalistic career plunged into a nadir that he never really came out of. “These experiences completely change people,” he tells us. Fleeing to the United States, his life there too was not as easy as many claimed it to be. “I had to work long hours doing odd jobs even with my disability, but one thing I’m happy of is that nobody discriminated against me. It’s disappointing when the systems of your own country that you fought to protect let you down.”

Today, he lives with his daughter and returning to the motherland for good will have to wait until she finishes her higher education and until the culprits of his abduction are convicted; he only hopes that the latter becomes as definite as the first.
In his views, the country today is at the threshold of positive change, but there are many forces that try to disrupt the intricate binding of society by igniting racism. “This is where journalists should play a key role in not just being reporters, but being responsible stakeholders of national peace.”

Jayantha recalls of an incident where an altar of a church in Homagama was set on fire on a Sunday morning. “Imagine the horror of the people who would come to church early on a Sunday morning and seeing their holy place of worship on fire. I got the news and could have easily passed it on to the media, where it would have made an uproar. Instead, I phoned prominent monks in the vicinity and asked them to tell the Christian devotees that these acts of cowardice do not reflect the opinion of an entire nation.” Fearless but responsible journalism is what is needed to hold together the fabric of a multi-cultural nation, he says.

He believes that the August 17 general election is a good opportunity for people to elect a clean Parliament and he urges people to vote wisely. “There used to be a time where people voted for an actress out of pity for the hardship her character had to face in a teledrama. The power to think and vote had been completely stripped from the public by the previous regime,” he says.

For many, Jayantha may still be seen a traitor, while others may hold different opinions. But what he feels is important is that there is now freedom to express anybody’s views at will. “I’m not saying that the springtime of democracy has come to Sri Lanka, but I can certainly see little blossoms of hope rising from beneath the mud.”

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