Suranimala: the birth, the death and the truth

An ex-editor recalls Lasantha the investigative journalist
By Vijitha Yapa, Founder Editor of The Island and The Sunday Times

Many words have been written about Lasantha Wickrematunge over the last days, but words have failed me. Overcome with grief, I wonder whether Lasantha would still be alive today if we had not trained him to be an investigative journalist. That pang of conscience will haunt me forever. Memories flood back…sometimes in images, sometimes in incidents… his infectious laughter echoes and re-echoes in my head, as his shoulders shake coinciding with the bursts of laughter. Is he really dead? I stare at the posthumous editorial printed in the Sunday Leader. He must have had a premonition that he was going to die, but even in his wildest imagination he would not have believed that the four horsemen of apocalypse, four armed motorcyclists on their black horse powered machines, would be needed to carry out the death sentence. Who gave the order and why the order was given will perhaps remain an unsolved riddle like the Sphinx.

Even with Rs 7.5 million offered as a reward for the perpetrators of that arson attack on MTV, there are no takers. Who will have the conscience to tell us the truth? In the X Files series, the catch phrase was "The truth is out there". Perhaps, like an Agatha Christie crime novel, one day truth will be out.

Questions also remain for which we will never know the answers. If so many warned him about motorcyclists following him, why did he not take simple precautions or have at least another person go with him and at least make a complaint to the Police?

When they shot him, did they not realize that it is not red blood which would pour out of his body but blue ink. He was armed with a mere quill. They were armed with guns. What flowed from that pen was more powerful than all the guns combined. As long as there are investigative journalists, those quills will continue to be used. If the story is wrong, there are civilized ways of correcting them, without resorting to bullets against which there can be no retort, no correction, no errata, no editor's note.

When I was editor of The Island, Lasantha had been recognized as a potential journalist for our paper. But feelers sent out to him at the Sun newspaper where he worked evoked little response. Thus when a call came out of the blue asking if we could meet, there was an immediate response. Within a few hours, it was sealed. Lasantha accepted our offer.

Those days of on-the-job training paid dividends and soon Lasantha became an indispensable part of our team, which included Gamini Weerakoon, the deputy editor, Ajith Samaranayake, the features editor and D.B.S. Jeyaraj who came to us from Veerakesari, the Tamil language newspaper. Jeyaraj cut off his moustache before coming for the interview because Ajith had told him that I do not like people with moustaches!

Because of his close connections to the Bandaranaike family, the splits, the fights and the turmoil within the party was spilt out to the public. His innuendo type writing was first developed as a contributor to the gossip column, Anuradhapura Diaries, though he was not U No Hoo. It is in this column that Premadasa was referred to as Alaya, Mrs. Bandaranaike as Queen Bee, Anura was clown prince, Lalith Athulathmudali was Aluth mudalali while cabinet meetings were referred to as meetings in the almirah. When Vijaya and Chandrika, Actor boy and Satellite, had their first child, the name Vimukthi was first announced in that column, much to the surprise of even the couple and their relatives!

One story of Lasantha I remember well involved a former Sri Lanka diplomat, whose son was believed to have connections with the LTTE. Even the country he had served in was named. I wanted the story rechecked and a senior Cabinet minister confirmed he had heard the President's Secretary telling JR about it. But even with that, I reworded the story and said he was once an ambassador in an Asian country. But alas, the former diplomat sued and we ended up in courts where Romesh de Silva defended us and asked very pertinently why the letter of demand was sent on a government letterhead when it was a private plaint.

My next encounter with Lasantha was when I was Editor of The Sunday Times. He said there was a talented journalist named Raine who had just returned after a stint with the Hong Kong Standard. I employed her and it was months later I discovered that Raine was his girl friend.

In the late eighties, Lasantha asked if he can write a weekly column for the paper. After much discussion and his submission of a sample article, Lasantha was hired. Being Secretary to Sirima Bandaranaike helped him to cultivate friendships with many -- and the controversial Suranimala column was born.
He did not want anyone to know he was writing the column. We met during the week at a pre-arranged place to discuss the week's column. He brought the article to my home personally every Saturday and my wife Lalana decoded his hand writing and patiently typed it out. I then edited it, checked with him for any amplifications, clarifications and deletions when necessary and took it to the editorial office. Soon it became the most widely read political column in any newspaper in Sri Lanka, with its insight and surgical type rapier thrusts. He feared no one. The frequent visits led to a female boarder in my neighbour's house developing a crush on him, which ended when she was told politely that he had other interests.

The Premadasa era brought many things to a head. The President wanted Sirisena Cooray to help him form the Cabinet which Mr. Cooray declined by saying he did not want to be blamed for cutting other people’s necks and took off in a helicopter to Devinuwara to be with Mahinda Wijesekera at a function in the Devale. Mr. Cooray knew that President Premadasa wanted to cut the powers of Lalith and Gamini.
The publishing of this item infuriated Premadasa who felt we were trying to convey to the world that there was a rift between him and Mr. Cooray. The publisher and I were attacked from public platforms.

Lasantha as Suranimala wrote on current issues and gave inside details, including what was served for supper! In one instance, he wrote of President Premadasa's proposals on devolution which had been sent confidentially. But Lasantha had discovered that Premadasa used four different colours of ink to trace for leaks. He deliberately mentioned the colour of the ink used in the file copy which led to a major crisis in the Presidential Secretariat. K.H. J. Wijedasa, Secretary to the President, phoned me at home and wanted to know who the source of information was. I refused to divulge any information and he said it was a request from the President. I said I am unable to help.

Suranimala's column continued and featured inside details of the government hunt of the JVP cadres, and by then the powers had discovered who Suranimala was. Threats to his life made Lasantha leave the country after the Australian High Commissioner helped him to obtain visas for his family. But the powers were surprised that though Lasantha had left, the column Suranimala continued. Lalith Alahakoon (who was then my news editor at The Sunday Times and is now the editor of the Nation) and I put our heads together and the column appeared regularly. Lasantha's father, Harris, met President Premadasa which led to the return of Lasantha.

Changes in colours of governments did not mean press freedom was guaranteed. Three of the journalists who worked with The Sunday Times have had problems with the authorities. Richard de Zoysa, who wrote a column for us, was abducted from his home and later killed. Keith Noyhar, who was working at the YMCA library in Fort and persisted in joining The Sunday Times as a trainee had his problems at the Nation last year and was assaulted and left the country with his family. The third is J.S. Tissanayagam, who joined us fresh from university and is today in custody.

Lasantha's column was embarrassing to the Premadasa government. They applied pressure.
The independence of an editor was more vital than stopping columns and I bid goodbye to mainstream journalism in Sri Lanka.

These events may have played a part in Lasantha's decision to start his own newspaper.
He was fearless, took risks, irked many and paid with his life for his beliefs. He was threatened, beaten up, shot at, sued and his press set on fire and even sealed. But he was a one-man army. He was meticulous with his research on investigative stories and every thing was backed up with documentation, whether writing about ice cream parlours, misuse of credit cards or arms purchases.
Conversations were tape-recorded and reproduced on the front page of his newspapers, to the embarrassment of many. But in the process he had no friends and created plenty of enemies.

In my view, the danger of writing news stories or columns where one is the publisher and editor is that there is no one to read and check your story and raise any points or objections. Thus anything was fair go, which has its own implications. Sadly, in more recent times, he made the mistake of allowing his political views to colour some aspects of his writing. Yesterday's targets became today's allies, as happened with Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mangala Samaraweera. Some could do no wrong.
He sacrificed family life to return to Sri Lanka but never forgot to phone his three children.

Raine flew from Australia with the children and said amidst sobs, " We heard that once, the goons who had come to attack us turned away saying there was a lady in the car. Even the goons had their code, but the next time another group set on us with clubs and they hit me too. Why did they have to kill him? What were they frightened of?"

Last month, he married Sonali Samarasinghe, who had been by his side in the last years. A few days later, the assassins snuffed out his life forever. He wrote under many names but the phrase "Be that as it may" revealed who the author of the article was.

In summing up, he will remain an outstanding journalist, a dedicated professional in investigative reporting, a martyr who stood up for the freedom of the media. He sought the truth. And what is the truth? A Fleet Street journalist, Peter Howard wrote, a powerful play in the sixties called "Mr. Brown comes down the hill". In it he asks, what will happen to Christ if he came back to earth today? He will be surrounded by people who have initiated a new morality where things are no longer black and white.

Church leaders believe he is dangerous and decide to eliminate him. Before he dies, they ask him the question Pontius Pilate asked from Jesus Christ over 2000 years ago. "What is truth?" Pontius Pilate asked and Christ remained silent. But Peter Howard answers that question through Mr. Brown. "Truth is the right you deny and the wrong you justify".

It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves honestly to save hundreds of Lasanthas in the future. That type of introspection may be the greatest gift we could give to Lasantha, so that corruption and misuse of power can be eliminated with a decisive lead by all, without merely crying for justice in a society which seems too deaf to hear.

Why they fear journalists

As we speak of tears that are shed for joy and in sadness, victories won and rejoiced, loved ones dead or murdered, come fleeting thoughts and expressions which are simultaneously expressed in various forms of emotions. Could one overtake the other? Could a day of victory for the nation be ironically a day of mourning too?

Why is it from ancient times, as history has portrayed, the reigning power has always dreaded the popularity of the philosophers and the scribe?

Today, the fire of insatiable journalists who do not succumb to greed of bribes or the fear of threat is finally doused by the bullets. He may be in Afghanistan or Iraq on a fact-finding mission or in his motherland sorting out the garbage. He is faced wth the same imminent danger.

If we live to think that terror at present is just LTTE terrorist bombs that keep blowing up or terror in the past was the unpredictable death sentences carried out by JVP insurgents, then we are sadly shortsighted. Terror reigns in the form of corruption, power and the stifling of the free media. History begins in our books of this sad occasion when the Sirima Bandaranaike government nationalized Lake House nearly four decades ago to establish her own media mouthpiece. The governments that followed thereafter toed the same line, printing one-sided news to hoodwink the masses.

A few years later other small independent newspapers emerged. This was the beginning when an independent voice mingled in reporting different views and became vociferous when political issues sprang up and an election was being fought.

Thereafter journalism took on a much more brazen front, reporting news and incidents that the governments did not wish the masses to know. Media institutions suffered much hardship from successive governments and faced censorship, court cases and restrictions on newsprint supplies. Journalists were threatened and their sources questioned. But they stood steadfast in their commitment to safeguard the truth and kept their vow to protect their sources – even if it meant a jail term for them. They bravely fought on, battles unseen – victories unsung.

The “Ravaya" under Victor Ivan became popular among the masses. He is a journalist who has never ceased to expose the full story.

Then 15 years ago emerged an English newspaper that was an immediate hit in Colombo. Lasantha Wickrematunge made many friends but also many enemies because of his blatant reporting. Many a public figure was ridiculed -- or investigated or as we say in colloquial manner “torn to pieces”. However he was not only a journalist but also a lawyer and took care to get his facts and figures correct to avoid prosecution.

We are living in an era where underworld gangs are much sought after. Most of our politicians have the protection of underworld gangs to "launder their unwashed linen”. A new element of ruthless killer gangs has emerged. The motorcycle killer squads are new to the city – but they have been roaming the streets of Jaffna for years killing mercilessly not only LTTE informants but anyone who stood in their way. Where there is no law there are outlaws.

Lasantha was the Leader, but there are many other journalists who will keep the flame of free media alive in Sri Lanka -- and one voice stifled will not be the first or the last. Our concern does not end with the silencing of the free media but also with the judiciary, on which the masses pin their ultimate faith to build a righteous society where justice would prevail above corruption and power and steer our country away from anarchy.

It would be wise for us to remember Lasantha's last words: "There is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is called the call of conscience".

Such words are apt for the famous or infamous.

Ayoma Wijesundera

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