Letter From - Spring 2011

Sri Lanka: Living Dangerously

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By Michael Hardy

March 2, 2011


On the morning of January 8, 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was driving to work in a suburb of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo when his Toyota Corolla was blocked by four motorcycles. The masked riders smashed the car’s windows and dragged Lasantha into the street, where one of the assailants punched a hole in his skull with a captive bolt pistol, the kind used to slaughter livestock. According to eyewitnesses, the motorcyclists then sped off in the direction of a nearby military checkpoint, leaving Lasantha dead in the middle of a crowded intersection.

Lasantha was the editor of The Sunday Leader, an English-language weekly newspaper that he founded with his older brother Lal in 1994. Known for their muckraking investigations of corrupt politicians, the Wickrematunges were accustomed to harassment and violence: Lasantha had been shot at, beaten up, and had his home shelled by antitank ammunition; the government briefly shut the Leader down in 2000 for flouting censorship laws; in 2005, and again in 2007, arsonists burned down its printing press; and before his assassination, Lasantha received death threats for criticizing the government’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist group that had been in revolt against the predominantly Sinhalese government since 1983.

Not wanting to endanger anyone else, Lasantha refused to hire a bodyguard. But he took the threats seriously enough to compose a letter, to be published in case he was killed, accusing the powerful Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa of ordering his murder. Rajapaksa had held a grudge against Lasantha since 2007, when the Leader accused the de­fense secretary of getting swindled on a series of arms deals. In 2008, he filed a one-billion-rupee ($9 million) defamation lawsuit against the Leader and won a court order prohibiting it from mentioning his name in print. Ironically, Lasantha was a one-time friend of the defense secretary’s brother, President Mahinda Raja­­paksa. In his final words, which were published in the Leader three days after his death and reprinted in newspapers around the world, Lasantha addressed the Sri Lankan president directly:

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life but yours too depends on it.

I went to work for The Sunday Leader in August 2009, seven months after Lasantha was assassinated and three months after the Sri Lankan government declared victory in its final offensive against the LTTE. Indiscriminate bombing of LTTE territory had killed tens of thousands of civilians and virtually the entire LTTE leadership. For the first time in a quarter century, the Sri Lankan government controlled the entire island. When I first arrived, the country still looked like it was at war, with checkpoints at every major intersection and blast walls erected in front of government buildings. Officials traveled in armed convoys that sometimes included an ambulance to transport the wounded to a hospital in case of attack. (The LTTE, once considered the world’s most dangerous terrorist group, used suicide bombers to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.)

I came to Sri Lanka with my girlfriend, who grew up in Colombo and was returning for a year to research her Ph.D. dissertation. I was hoping to find work as a reporter. My only experience was in entertainment journalism, but my girlfriend’s mother didn’t consider this a problem. She immediately introduced me to Lal, a childhood friend, who had taken over as the Leader’s publisher after his brother’s murder.

The newspaper’s offices occupied the top two floors of an anonymous office building in a mixed industrial and residential area of Ratmalana, about a 20-minute drive south of Colombo. Faded posters commemorating Lasantha still hung above the building’s entrance, and the lobby displayed a framed copy of the Leader’s front page announcing Lasantha’s death. When I walked into Lal’s office on the fifth floor, I found the publisher behind his desk, phone cradled against his ear, taking drags from a Benson and Hedges cigarette. He motioned me to sit down while he finished his conversation.

“So,” Lal said in accented English, hanging up the phone and swiveling in his chair to look me over, “you want to do some writing.” He skimmed through my stack of clips—an interview with Will Ferrell, a review of Disaster Movie, a story about a western Massachusetts yoga center. “Would you be supporting yourself with this job?” he asked casually. Without thinking, I admitted that my girlfriend was on a scholarship. Lal sat up in his chair and took an appreciative drag on his cigarette. Ten minutes later I was Sri Lanka’s newest cub reporter, at the standard salary of 20,000 rupees a month (about $150).

From the desk I was assigned, I looked out over the roof of the press warehouse, which still bore a ragged hole from the 2007 arson attack. On Fridays and Saturdays, when the Leader was being printed, the warehouse filled with dozens of workers, a few operating the press but most painstakingly folding the pages together by hand. This could take all night, so some of the workers brought their wives and children along.

I soon learned that using child labor was only one of the creative ways that Lal kept the Leader afloat in hard times. One morning Lal called an editorial meeting to make an important announcement. The entire staff of about 15 writers and editors gathered around a conference table, with Lal at the head, chain-smoking.

“For the last few weeks, somebody has been stealing soap from the bathrooms,” he said, looking slowly around the table as if trying to discover the culprit. “This is simply unacceptable. Until you demonstrate that you are responsible enough not to steal from me, there will be no more soap.”

Although he drove to work in a shiny new Mercedes Benz, Lal seemed obsessed with cutting expenses. By the time I arrived, he had already eliminated milk from the tea we were served by the office’s chai wallah. The newsroom was equipped with a single telephone, which reporters waited patiently in line to use. Only Lal and the top editors enjoyed air conditioning; the rest of us made do with ancient electric fans caked black with dust. The computers were always breaking down, and power outages were common. When the city cut off the Leader’s water one day because of an unpaid bill, Lal arranged for an enormous tank of water to be delivered to the office each morning. This supplied the building’s needs admirably until about four in the afternoon, when the taps would suddenly run dry and the toilets refused to flush.

The staff included a handful of veteran journalists, but most of the writing was done by 20-somethings like me, straight out of college, or, in some cases, high school. I expected to be the least experienced journalist on staff; instead, I was one of the most experienced. All of us were judged by our ability to rake muck. The head muckraker was Frederica Jansz, who became the paper’s editor-in-chief after Lasantha’s murder. Jansz was one of the few female editors in Sri Lanka’s small, clubby newspaper industry. A burgher of mixed Dutch and Sri Lankan descent, Frederica had the fair skin and high cheekbones of a model. Every morning she breezed into the office in high heels and a designer dress, offering a sharp contrast to her slovenly staff. She was popular with foreign journalists, appearing frequently on Al Jazeera or the BBC to dish dirt on Sri Lankan politics.

Frederica’s elegance concealed how much danger she was in. In October 2009, two months after I began work, the Leader ran a report about a cell phone video, leaked to Channel 4 News in England, which showed Sri Lankan soldiers executing unarmed LTTE guerrillas. The following week, Frederica received a clipping of the story in the mail, scrawled over with a message in red ink: “Bitch if you write you will be cut into pieces.” A handwriting expert later confirmed that the note was written by the same person who had mailed a similar threat to Lasantha three weeks before his murder. Although Frederica was clearly disturbed by the letter, like Lasantha, she refused to leave the country or hire any security. “What can you do?” she asked me in frustration. “These people are crazy.”

Soon after I arrived at the paper, Frederica asked me to cover the conviction of J. S. Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist who was sentenced in August 2009 to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. Tissainayagam’s case, I discovered, had been a travesty of justice from beginning to end. After irritating local officials with his writing, Tissainayagam was arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) in 2008, and then kept in prison for months while the TID debated what to charge him with. Under threat of torture, Tissainayagam was forced to sign a “confession” saying that he had lied in two articles he wrote in 2006 about the government’s bombing campaign against the LTTE. To bolster their case, the TID then doctored the confession to make it look like Tissainayagam was on the LTTE’s payroll. None of these irregularities prevented a Sri Lankan judge from accepting the confession and convicting Tissainayagam for inciting “communal disharmony.”

I finished the article and went to Frederica’s office to request a pseudonym. A government that could sentence somebody to 20 years of hard labor for a pair of three-year-old articles could certainly deport a journalist who dared to criticize that verdict. Frederica turned me down flat. “There’s no danger at all,” she assured me. “Don’t worry about it.”

It was hard to share her confidence, but I went ahead and published the story under my name, as I did with everything else I wrote for the Leader. Of course, I was American. Any attack on me would have received international publicity. At worst the government might revoke my tourist visa, which already prohibited me from working in the country. (The newspaper was paying me under the table.) The rest of the staff did not enjoy the same protection. During my time at the paper, a Tamil reporter was imprisoned for two days on the spurious charge of trying to blackmail a government minister, and a Leader photographer was assaulted by a pro-government mob while covering a protest rally.

Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 18 journalists have been murdered in the country since 1999, with most of the cases, including Lasantha’s, still unsolved. At least 25 Sri Lankan journalists are known to have fled the country for fear of their lives. In its annual “Impunity Index,” the CPJ recently ranked Sri Lanka the fourth worst country in the world for press freedom, behind only the Philippines, Somalia, and Iraq.

In the face of this danger, I found the staff surprisingly buoyant. The newsroom had the camaraderie of a small college newspaper. Between the weekly editorial meeting on Tuesday morning, when Frederica assigned stories, and Friday afternoon, when the entire office would go into a mad scramble to meet deadline, little work appeared to get done. The major events of the day were the 11 o’clock tea and the 3 o’clock tea. There were midday trips to the local bar and late-afternoon trips to the beach. I arrived at work one morning to find my colleagues folding copies of the Leader into paper boats to race in the gutters outside the office. Another time, I glanced out the window from my desk and saw a deputy editor standing on the roof of the warehouse, shirtless, picking mangoes from an overhanging tree.

Friday afternoons were a frenzy of phone calls and typing. One reporter regularly produced three or four long stories in as many hours without leaving his desk. To sustain this intensity, it was newsroom custom to order and consume several cakes each Friday. At least as much energy was devoted to arguing over what kind of cake to order as to deciding which stories would make the front page. When international reporters showed up to interview Frederica or Lal, they must have been surprised to find the newspaper’s embattled journalists engaged in a fierce contretemps between the partisans of meringue pie and those for chocolate biscuit pudding.

Despite disappearances, the Leader was an influential paper in Sri Lanka and would play a pivotal role in the January 2010 presidential election, the first national election since the government’s victory over the LTTE. Everyone assumed the election would be a cakewalk for incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Billboards throughout the country compared Raja­paksa to Dutugemunu, the second-century b.c. king who, according to the Mahavamsa, Sri Lanka’s national epic, defeated the northern Tamils and unified the island. The opposition parties seemed to be on the verge of sitting out the election when a challenger emerged from an unlikely quarter.

In 2006, General Sarath Fonseka, a career army officer who had risen through the ranks to become the country’s top commander, was nearly killed by an LTTE suicide bomb strapped to a pregnant woman. Fonseka recovered from his injuries and went on to lead the Sri Lankan military to victory against the Tamil insurgents, succeeding where his nine predecessors had failed. The war had no sooner ended than President Rajapaksa, fearful of a military coup, promoted Fonseka to the prestigious but powerless position of Chief of Defense Staff. Stung by Rajapaksa’s distrust, Fonseka resigned and entered the presidential election under the aegis of a motley coalition of political parties, which rallied to him as the only candidate who could mount a credible challenge to Rajapaksa. Almost overnight the presidential campaign became a battle over who deserved credit for winning the war.

Fonseka was a cipher. Nobody, including his supporters, knew what he stood for. Nevertheless, Lal decided that the Sunday Leader had no choice but to support him, even though many at the paper, including Frederica, pro­tested that Fonseka was as authoritarian as Rajapaksa. As a general, Fonseka was known for threatening journalists who criticized the war. At a critical staff meeting in Frederica’s office, one reporter brought up the rumor that Fonseka had been involved in Lasantha’s assassination. At the mention of his brother, Lal shook his head and tapped his cigarette ash into an empty teacup.

“If Fonseka was involved, the defense secretary would have arrested him to draw suspicion away from himself,” Lal said. “Anyway, we know for sure that the current administration is against us. If the president is re-elected, perhaps we will survive for a week. If Fonseka wins, we may survive for several more months. We must get behind Fonseka.”

“Couldn’t we stay neutral and criticize both candidates?” I asked naïvely.

“No matter what we do, the government will see us as the enemy,” Lal replied. “If we support Fonseka, then if he is elected, he will owe us a debt.”

A year later, after I returned to the United States, I learned of another reason why Lal threw his support behind Fonseka: Fonseka’s political coalition was secretly funneling one million rupees ($9,000) a week to the Leader. (In a recent email to me, Lal said that the money was intended to help the Leader increase its circulation and did not affect his decision to support Fonseka.)

True to Lal’s directive, the Leader began running flattering portraits of Fonseka’s military exploits and editorials commending his political vision. In December 2009, just over a month away from the election, Frederica was interviewing Fonseka at his office when the candidate made a stunning accusation that would change the course of the election. According to Fonseka, in the final bloody days of the war in May 2009, with the Sri Lankan army closing in, three senior LTTE leaders had relayed a message to the government saying they wanted to surrender. They were told to make a white flag, put their hands up, and walk slowly toward the front line. But something went wrong, and the three men and their families were shot dead. Fonseka said the order to kill them had come from Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother.

Worried that government thugs would once again burn down the Leader’s press to stop the story’s publication, Lal hired extra security and invited volunteers from the Brussels-based Nonviolent Peaceforce to camp out in the office as human shields. On Friday, as the volunteers were settling in for the weekend, I asked Frederica about the danger the story could put her in. How would Defense Secretary Rajapaksa react to an accusation of war crimes? Frederica scoffed at the idea of withholding her bombshell. Fonseka’s allegation was the biggest scoop of the election, and she knew it.

The bombshell exploded in the December 13, 2009, issue of the paper. Curiously, the government made no attempt to stop publication. I learned why during my bus ride to work the following Tuesday morning. Plastered on buildings along Galle Road, one of Colombo’s major thoroughfares, were enormous campaign posters accusing Fonseka of betraying the armed forces. The posters featured a blown-up reproduction of the Leader’s front page headline: “‘Gota Ordered Them to Be Shot’—General Sarath Fonseka.” Instead of suppressing Fonseka’s allegation, the president’s campaign used it to paint the general as a traitor who called his own troops war criminals.

Realizing his blunder, Fonseka backtracked, claiming Frederica had misquoted him. But the damage was done. On January 26, 2010, President Rajapaksa was re-elected to another six-year term, running up huge margins among the patriotic rural Sinhalese, whom Fonseka had counted on for support. On election day afternoon, government troops surrounded the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel where Fonseka and his supporters were staying. While the hotel pianist played in the lobby and wedding guests took photos, camouflaged soldiers armed with T-56 assault rifles began searching every vehicle that came in or out. A government spokesman announced that Fonseka and a band of army deserters were planning a coup.

Fonseka and his entourage were eventually allowed to leave (there was never any evidence of a coup), but two weeks later Fonseka was arrested by military police and charged with a battery of offenses, including revealing state secrets to the Leader—an implicit admission that Fonseka’s allegation was true. But even in jail, Fonseka continued to be a thorn in the government’s side, repeatedly offering to testify before an international war crimes tribunal. Then, in the April 2010 general elections, Fonseka won a seat in parliament, forcing the government to transport him to and from jail to attend legislative sessions. In September 2010 he was sentenced by a military court to three years in prison for profiting from an arms deal. He is now on trial in civilian court for revealing the “white flag” story.

Like Fonseka, the Leader lived to fight another day. Some people speculated that the white flag story, which scuttled Fonseka’s presidential bid, had won the paper a reprieve from a grateful president. Others guessed that the government had decided to kill the paper in court. In 2010, Defense Secretary Rajapaksa filed another billion-rupee lawsuit against the Leader after Frederica violated the court order not to mention his name in print. The two lawsuits continue to work their way through Sri Lanka’s sclerotic justice system. A decision in favor of the defense secretary would almost certainly shut the Leader down for good.

I stayed at the paper until May 2010, covering Fonseka’s arrest, imprisonment, and unlikely election to parliament. Some of my colleagues seemed envious that I was leaving. The presidential election had provided a burst of excitement. Now, working for the Leader was starting to feel like just another job—a particularly unremunerative job. On several occasions Lal put off paying salaries for weeks. Only when Frederica threatened to resign did he relent.

On Friday nights after the paper was put to bed, the staff would sometimes gather in Frederica’s office to snack on Sri Lankan staples like fried vadai and coconut sambol. Cigarette in hand, Lal would regale everyone with the exploits of his charismatic brother, who had seemed to know everyone and everything worth knowing in the country. People who had worked with Lasantha told me that the Leader simply wasn’t the same since his death; the newspaper was a perfect illustration of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aphorism that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. Sometimes it seemed like Lal and Frederica were only keeping the paper going out of obligation to Lasantha’s memory. In a published response to the death threat she received in October 2009, Frederica even reproduced a passage from Lasantha’s self-penned obituary:

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident, or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted.

Lasantha’s posthumous prediction that President Rajapaksa would thwart a full investigation into his murder proved all too accurate. Four police teams were assigned to the case, quickly focusing on Lasantha’s mobile phone, which had gone missing after his death. Three weeks after the assassination, the police announced the only two arrests they have made: a man named Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, who was found in possession of the phone, and B. Sugath Perera, an auto-rickshaw driver who Pushpakumara told the police had sold it to him. The police determined that neither man had anything to do with the assassination, and both were released.

Officially, the investigation is ongoing.

Michael Hardy is studying for a Ph.D. in English literature at Rutgers University. His writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, and The Houston Chronicle.


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