By Angie Singam –
When Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Editor of the Sri Lankan newspaper, The Sunday Leader was shot dead on a Colombo street in 2009, the posthumous editorial resonated not just with the local media, but with the world in general. He wrote from beyond the grave, ‘I hope my murder will not be seen as a defeat of freedom, but an inspiration.’
That inspiration lives on in the struggle to expose the truth by a few brave journalists in Sri Lanka; in the fight of the few remaining independent newspapers in the country and in the book by Raine Wickrematunge celebrating the life of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a remarkable man and a brave journalist.
I read the book ‘And Then They Came For Me’ expecting sentimentality and pathos, but instead was surprised by the tightly reined content. Here is an author in the uncomfortable position of being emotionally involved both with the subject and the journalistic world that he inhabited, but it never deteriorates into the maudlin. Raine, a journalist in her own right, pioneered The Sunday Leader in 1994 with her then husband Lasantha, his brother Lal and Haris Hulugalle, Chairman of Multi-Packs. She puts the newspaper in its political context with incisive skill and Lasantha’s story after the first few chapters becomes part of the newspaper’s development, as it should. The two are inextricably linked in the journalistic history of Sri Lanka.
Was Lasantha brave or foolhardy? Did he want fame and fortune and was he reckless in the pursuit of it? The questions are put to rest in the book. It is apparent that brought up in a mainstream Sinhala Buddhist family with political affiliations, he inherited a social position which he divested for the sake of his idealism. He turned down political posts, overseas assignments and attempts by successive governments to buy him out of the powerful role he played uncovering nepotism, corruption and political skullduggery under the nom de plume Suranimala.
A qualified lawyer, he used not just his understanding of the law and legislature but his sphere of influence to gain access to the inner circles and write ‘politically dynamite stories’. Raine writes, ‘Lasantha’s authoritative journalism wasn’t the kind that simply ruffled feathers; it ignited public debate. It was his exposures on the government that prodded a lethargic opposition to sit up, take note and move into action’.
Raine describes in vivid detail the attacks on their lives, their workplace, orchestrated arrests and near arrests, arson attacks and death threats they received through the years. Their phones were tapped, they were stalked by government goons, the State Censor played Russian roulette with their newspaper. None of this quelled Lasantha’s ardour to expose the truth and shame the government when it erred. When interviewed by Asiaweek after the attack on his house, Lasantha said, “I consider these incidents an occupational hazard. They only strengthen my resolve to continue with my work”.
‘…Lasantha Wickrematunge has earned great respect abroad for his contribution to the anti-corruption movement. International recognition may counterpoise the ill-treatment he has experienced at home in Sri Lanka, a country which he is trying to serve through his determined investigation of the truth,’ said Transparency International, the global coalition against worldwide corruption that presented him with an award for investigative journalism in 1999.
The war in the North and the Government’s appalling human rights record were a frequent theme of Suranimala’s writing. In May 2000, he daringly wrote an article on the attack on the Palaly Army camp by the LTTE, circumventing a media ban imposed by the then PA Government. Every statement in the article was prefaced with the word ‘not’ with the headline reading, ‘War in fantasy land – Palaly not under attack’.
Raine has a prodigious memory and probably a store-house of both press clippings and knowledge. She has brought vast resources to bear in charting the course of history while telling this story, distilling political intrigues, illuminating stories that were published in the newspaper and revealing the powerhouse of a man in the process.
The book is a powerful indictment of the harassment and risks that journalists face in the country for having a point of view. Many have been killed, abducted, imprisoned or forced to flee, including (recently) Frederica Jansz, the Editor of The Sunday Leader. Tharmaratnam Sivaram (Taraki), Mylvaganam Nirmalarajan, Richard de Zoysa, Iqbal Athas, J S Tissanayagam, Keith Noyahr, are all mentioned and placed in the political context of the time.
Raine has dedicated the book to, ‘those gutsy men and women all over the world who have been harassed/abducted/tortured/murdered for daring to report the truth…’ The book makes compelling reading. I read it marvelling at the taut political and social commentary as much as I marvelled at the beautifully melded story of one man’s fight for the truth.
Journalism shouldn’t have to be a heroic profession, but reading the book, the underlying rationale is that to be an independent journalist in Sri Lanka, you have to be a hero first.
In his final editorial, Lasantha writes, ‘No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism…As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man’.
This is a man ‘whose story needed to be told’: A man whose story will be remembered in our time! A book well worth reading!