It was shortly before mid night last Monday when Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, Director Operations, Sri Lanka Air Force, phoned their Zonal Headquarters in Anuradhapura from the Joint Operations Headquarters in Vavuniya.
He ordered a helicopter to be airborne immediately to Palewadiya, east of Puliyankulalm to airlift two soldiers badly injured from an LTTE mortar attack. A third soldier had died in the incident.
At ten minutes to midnight, Flight Lieutenant Dhushan Edirisinghe and Flying Officer Upul Tennekoon took off in Charlie Hotel 561 an American built Bell 212 helicopter. Fl. Lt. Edirisinghe answered the call sign Whisky Echo and Fl. Officer Upul Tennekoon Whisky Quebec.
Air Traffic Controllers at Anuradhapura cleared Charlie Hotel 561 for take off. As is customary, there was radio silence thereafter since the flight was in an operational area. Air Traffic Controllers knew there was no other air traffic in the area at that hour, northwards from Kurunegala upto Point Pedro. Charlie Hotel was airborne and was maintaining an altitude of 1000 feet.
At 20 minutes past midnight, Tuesday, the radio at the SLAF Air Control Tower in Anuradhapura crackled. "Descending to 500 feet due to bad weather". That was Whisky Echo.
As minutes became hours, Air Traffic Controllers were getting worried. There was no answer to their radio calls from Charlie Hotel 561. They had reported bad weather and what would have gone wrong now? They alerted the Air Force Headquarters in Colombo.
Soon the SLAF Operations Room in Vavuniya were in radio contact with ground troops east of Puliyankulam. News reached that something had happened to the helicopter.
Initial reports spoke of the Bell 212 being engulfed in a ball of fire before falling to the ground. By 4 a.m. troops trekked their way to an open area where they saw the helicopter ablaze and the fire raging skywards. Troops radioed the SLAF in Vavuniya the sad news that the crew the pilot, co-pilot and side gunners, Sergeant Premaratne and Corporal Samaraweera had been trapped and their bodies burnt. Dawn had broken when the fire receded. Did a missile hit Charlie Hotel 561? If so, why did not the Electronic Counter Measures automatically activate? Was the fire ball effect in the night sky created by the sympathetic detonation of the 7.62 chain link ammunition meant for the GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) used by the side gunners? If it was not a missile attack, was it a case of disorientation by the pilot? The Bell 212 had dropped to the ground bottom upwards and it was charred with its tail boom torn off the main body.
A three member Court of Inquiry is now investigating the reasons for the crash and how it could have occurred. It is headed by Wing Commander Ranil Gurusinghe, a veteran helicopter pilot and comprises Squadron Leader Royce Gunaratne and Flight Lieutenant Malinda Perera.
Needless to say the incident came as an embarrassment to Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe. It was only in May, this year, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, appointed a Committee to probe 16 SLAF air crashes in two years.
In their report handed over in August, Air Marshal Ranasinghe came under severe strictures from the Presidential Committee. Now one more aircraft, a Bell 212 helicopter, with a replacement value of over U.S. Dollars five and a half million (or over Rs. 330 million) has been lost. That is not all. The country lost four brave Air Force men including two trained pilots.
Flight Lieutenant Edirisinghe won the acclaim of many an Army top brass for his daredevilry during 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' (or Victory Assured) which is now on its seventh month. The many risks he took to land troops or evacuate casualties won him respect and admiration. And that Tuesday, he paid the supreme sacrifice together with his colleagues, whilst trying to save the lives of two wounded soldiers.
Stories of such bravery and heroism are abundant in the ongoing separatist war. But the Sri Lankan public, not to mention the world outside, are denied the stories of the true sacrifice these men make. The media remains banned from the operational areas for over three years.
I revealed the findings of the Presidential Committee, headed by Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva, in these columns on October 26. Before these revelations and after, this column had continued to highlight alleged irregularities and malpractice.
The recent weeks have seen Air Marshal Ranasinghe appear on television, particularly after successes against the LTTE. The first occasion was when two SLAF Kfirs bombed an LTTE ship closer to the shores of Mullaitivu on November 2. Thereafter, on November 23, Kfirs bombed a reported LTTE base. A welcome move indeed. After all the men involved in these attacks deserve to be praised and such acts boost the morale of his men.
On both occasions, Air Marshal Ranasinghe, however, went out of the way to counter, of course without direct reference, some of the issues raised in the Report of the Presidential Committee. In other instances elsewhere, an Air Force spokesman continued with his own media campaign, also in the same direction. So much so, a conscious effort was afoot to not only give a media boost to the SLAF but also to counter the findings of the Presidential Committee. There was mention about even non events like a press release issued by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence on November 26, 1997. It said: 25 November 1997 troops continued to carry out offensive patrolling and small group operations in forward areas. Artillery fire support is provided to ground troops. Aircrafts (sic) of the Sri Lanka Air Force continue to provide close air support and engaged targets when positively identified."
Whilst berating military pundits, state run Sunday Observer admitted last week that "the campaign by the Sri Lanka armed forces against the LTTE in which so many officers and soldiers from the South are involved is no doubt of the greatest moment to their families, and both the Government and the media have a responsibility to keep the people informed about the successes and setbacks of the campaign."
That is precisely the point, that of accountability to the public. It is for that very reason the public should have a reasonable knowledge, within the parametres of security, of the outcome of issues of public concern. The findings of the Presidential Committee come within that category. So indeed many other inquiries and investigations into debacles. This is, of course, not to say that the public are unmindful of the courage and dedication of the Air Force as a whole, but as the Committee revealed negligence, omission and commission that need to be corrected. Surely that is to better the performance of the Air Force. To procastinate is to raise public suspicion over a cover up.
One glaring example would suffice - the inquiry into the Mullaitivu debacle. This is not an ordinary reversal but a disaster of magnitude resulting in the loss of over a thousand lives of our youth and the maiming of thousands more. Apart from the human toll, the loss of equipment to the enemy is of worrying concern to the forces as well as the public. The monetery loss to the country has been colossal.
Losses are inevitable in war. But should that be the result of factors within the control of the defence establishment, be by negligence, lack of responsibility, omission or commission, then it becomes a matter of public issue irrespective of who is involved.
To blanket all matters military as being sensitive is an insult to the public who are funding the war effort. Undoubtedly there are security sensitive matters. Only the insane will expect these to be made public. But too many issues which should perhaps have been made public after security restrictions should have logically lapsed have gone into the limbo of forgotten things. There is much hush over the Mullaitivu debacle including the failure to reinforce the beleaguered camp. It is hard to accept that this is still security sensitive when the LTTE are screening videos of that battle to audiences world-wide.
The fall out of last Tuesday's Bell 212 helicopter crash would have been heavier if not for some conscientious Air Force officials.
Flight Lieutenant Sudhan Kaluaratchi was on a routine mission in a Bell 212 helicopter when it developed what was technically described as "governor failure." The defect is said to increase the rotation per minute (RPM) of the rotors thus making the flight hazardous. The pilot made a safe landing at Elephant Pass. The fault was rectified on Thursday and the aircraft returned to base.
On the same day, (November 25), at the Aeronautical Engineering Wing of the SLAF Base at Katunayake, a Russian built MI 17 Hind helicopter was undergoing electrical checks when a technician accidentally operated an emergency switch. It inflated the flotation gear (used during emergency landing in water) nearly toppling the helicopter. Timely intervention of other staff members prevented any damage.
All this in a week in which the LTTE marked its so called "heroes week" that culminated with a message its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, delivered on November 27. His voice came on the clandestine Voice of Tigers and was heard in the Wanni. The English translation was faxed to foreign and local media by the "LTTE Secretariat" in London on Thursday.
In the four-page statement in English, Prabhakaran has said that the government's political package "fails to address the basic national aspirations of the Tamils." He has said the package is "severely watered down in its scope and content, these proposals have not yet evolved into a full-fledged comprehensive framework even after two and a half years of deliberations."
Prabhakaran added "From the time of the Thimpu talks we have been emphasising that the recognition of the Tamil homeland, Tamil nationhood and the Tamil right to self-determination should be the basis for any negotiated political settlement. This is our position even today."
LTTE's 'heroes week' saw the security forces and police in a full state of alert. Measures were on hand to counter any threats, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula where there was a reported build-up. The alert continues.
Whilst this was on, the full thrust of the State media - television, radio and newspapers - was on me and the Situation Report in The Sunday Times. For the LTTE, if it was a week to remember its dead during the so called 'heroes week,' the thrust from the state media was to make me the villain and ridicule The Sunday Times in the same week.
The charge - a man named Selvathurai Senthinathan, a self confessed LTTE translator came on national television and radio on Friday, Saturday and even Sunday to reveal that the Situation Report I write provided 'sensitive military information' to the LTTE. He did not say which parts of Situation Report or any other report in The Sunday Times contained 'such sensitive' information. If he has done so to the authorities who interrogated him, NO law enforcement agency has still questioned me on the purported claims made by Senthinathan.
It is not clear why those involved in bringing Senthinathan's 'confessions' to national attention had indubitable faith in him. More relevant is the questionable ethics of those who in fact used an enemy, surrendered though he be, to discredit a national newspaper for what would appear to be a parochial advantage.
We revealed in these pages last week how the Senthinathan farce came to be staged. The Midweek Mirror and the Lankadeepa of November 19 - three days before the State run media blitz began - of how 'Insidious attempts are afoot by interested sections of the security establishment to discredit The Sunday Times" , informed sources told The Midweek Mirror yesterday.
The Midweek Mirror said "It is to come in the form of alleged confessions by an LTTE surrendee who claims he passed on translations of reports in The Sunday Times, particularly the weekly Situation Report column to his leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran".
Even if the full thrust of the state media was pitted against me, the truth behind the events have become very apparent now. Last Thursday, The Island's own Defence Correspondent laid bare the sinister conspiracy.
Using the Senthinathan confessions, I understand, more things are being planned. Revelations of those may endanger sources. But one move can still be revealed. Using the Senthinathan 'confessions'as an excuse, moves are afoot to clamp down a tight censorship.
As I said, what Senthinathan calls 'sensitive military information' has not been identified. Nor have the authorities who have given national prominence to what he 'confessed' told the nation what they were. Was Senthinathan a known personality ? Were his credentials vouched for ?
Since July, I have focussed considerable attention in these columns on alleged corruption, malpractice and irregularities in procurements. It is now public knowledge that I was harassed and surveillance was mounted outside my house both to 'catch red handed those who give me information' and to intimidate me into not reporting such matters.
Thanks to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She promptly directed Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, to look into my complaint. Genuinely concerned about the matter, Mr. Samaraweera asked me to complain to the local Police. I did and the local Police established that a State agency was involved. Now comes the Senthinathan confessions !!
The London based Article 19, one of the world bodies in the forefront of media freedom, was one of the organisations I alerted when I learnt that a surrendee was being coached to make confessions against me and The Sunday Times.
They wrote to President Kumaratunga and Mr. Samaraweera. The text of the two letters, which are similar, appear on this page.
Interestingly, in backing up the Senthinathan confessions, Sunday Observer last week brings in a matter concerning the Sri Lanka Air Force to support its arguments. That in question is a set of graphic images of SLAF aircraft lost. These images had been reproduced in Viduthalai Pulikal or "Liberation Tigers," an LTTE publication. The argument, as absurd as it is, seems to be that no graphic images, leave alone photographs of aircraft, should be published. It seems that the LTTE guerrillas on the battle ground do not know the kind of aircraft that attack them. They would not even know there were magazines and web sites on the internet through which they could have accessed all pictures and data.
Paradoxically, in its inaugural commentary on the security situation, The Sunday Observer reproduces two colour photographs of SLAF Kfir and F7 bombers. Do only graphics and not colour photographs that the LTTE would reproduce in its publications ? Or is it that they only read The Sunday Times ? What about the technical data on the SLAF aircraft capability which the commentary contains ?
On the one hand, the Situation Report is faulted for publishing graphic images of SLAF aircraft for they are reproduced in the Viduthalai Pulikal. On the other hand, the commentary is all about the SLAF again, some of them, veiled answers to findings of the Presidential Committee. Strange co-incidence indeed.
Obviously retaliating insidiously against The Sunday Times for its exposures, apologists have extended their patronage by expressing profundities on the standards of propriety in the reportage of Defence Correspondents in the independent media. Epithetic references to them as 'arm chair' reporters is perhaps not altogether out of context. The media is banned from visiting the theatre of active operations except for conducted tours.
But I for one do not profess to be an expert on any military matters, pretend to be a General or even a Corporal. I do not pretend to have the military skills to lead a platoon, much less the knowledge of a General to lead a Division or conduct a war. I do not pretend to be a military philosopher nor an expert on war to question the mechanics of tactics and strategy. Nor has the Situation Report done so.
As a journalist, my duty is to report on matters which are of public concern and interest. It is in this spirit that The Sunday Times has exposed corruption, negligence, omissions or commissions. These are matters of public concern, for they affect the conduct of the war, which is perhaps the foremost public issue today.
In doing this duty, I assure the readers of The Sunday Times that I will not be silenced by the intimidation and harassment I am being subjected to.
Article 19, the London based International Centre Against Censorship, has told President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga that a clear distinction must be drawn and upheld between investigative journalism which fulfills its "public watchdog" function and reporting which clearly and directly poses threats to national security.
"In our view, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Mr. Athas's reporting falls clearly into the former category," Mr. Malcom Smart, Deputy Director of Article 19 has said commenting on what it said appears to be a "Concerted official campaign to denigrate" lqbal Athas of The Sunday Times.
Here is the full text of Mr. Smart's letter which has also been sent to Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera:
ARTICLE 19, the International Centre Against Censorship, is greatly concerned about what appears to be a concerted official campaign to denigrate one of Sri Lanka's most respected journalists, lqbal Athas, the Defence Correspondent of The Sunday Times, apparently with the intention of intimidating him from continuing to pursue his profession as an investigative reporter.
We very much regret that we should have to write to you again about the situation of Mr. Athas, who is also the Sri Lanka correspondent for several international media organizations, following our previous intervention this year when he was being subjected to threatening surveillance and harassment.
We have noted with concern the allegations which have recently and repeatedly been made against Mr. Athas on Sri Lankan television, radio and in the press. These take form of a purported confession by Selvadurai Senthinathan, who is said to have worked as a translator for the LTTE and to have surrendered to the security forces. The intention behind this barrage of reporting appears to be to brand Mr. Athas as a "collaborator" with the LTTE, on the grounds that the LTTE monitored his weekly column, along with other newspaper publications. Indeed, we understand that both the Deputy Minister of Defence and the Commander of the Air Force has also accused Mr. Athas of being a traitor" and "a LTTE acolyte".
These accusations follow a period during which Iqbal Athas was recently subjected to intensive harassment and surveillance involving CID vehicles: this was supposed to be under investigation by the relevant authorities but, to our knowledge, such investigations have so far produced no results.
We fear that such harassment and, now denigration of Iqbal Athas is motivated by a desire on the part of certain authorities to prevent his legitimate and proper endeavours as a journalist to uncover and expose allegations of corruption in public life. In this connection, we note that he has recently been reporting in The Sunday Times on the findings of the Presidential Committee appointed to investigate the crashes of 16 aircraft belonging to the Sri Lanka Air Force. The Committee found evidence of corruption and irregularities in the Air Force establishment but no action appears to have been taken by the government in response to these findings. Rather, every effort appears to be made to discredit the journalist who dared report on this matter, and to defend the Air Force authorities. At the same time, the budget for the coming year is being debated in Parliament, in which the Ministry of Defence has a clear interest.
Even before the "confession" was publicised, Mr. Athas had contacted ARTICLE 19 and other organisations expressing his apprehension that events would take the turn described above. He had been warned by sources in the Air Force two weeks earlier that a LTTE "surrendee" was being coached to say that his defence column was of particular interest and assistance to the LTTE. This has now happened, and we are most concerned that these attacks on Mr. Athas and on The Sunday Times in particular, and on the press more generally, should not be allowed to escalate any further. A clear distinction must be drawn and upheld between investigative journalism which fulfills its crucial "public watchdog" function by exposing matters of public concern, such as alleged corruption or other irregularities - whether in the defence establishment or in any other branch of government - and reporting which clearly and directly poses a threat to national security. In our view, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Mr. Athas' reporting falls clearly into the former category. Attempts to suppress reporting of this kind constitute an abuse of power and need to be immediately halted.
We urge you to take all appropriate action to curb this renewed campaign against Mr. Athas, in the same prompt manner as when he first informed you that his house had been placed under direct surveillance by the security forces, and to ensure that he is able freely to pursue his legitimate activities as a journalist.
We look forward to hearing your response on this matter
Go to the Fifth Column
Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page
Go to the Situation Report Archive