By Iqbal Athas –
One night in February 1998, a group of well-built men, all clutching Browning automatic pistols, forced their way into my house at Wijerama in Nugegoda.
One of them stormed into my bedroom in the second floor, cocked his pistol and placed it on my left temple. My wife Anoma and daughter Jasmin, then seven years old, watching television together with me froze in shock and horror. A second intruder walked in to thrust a loaded pistol at my back. They forced me out of my bedroom.
Outside the door, I saw others with their weapons in hand busy with the household staff. They were poring over their National Identity Cards or interrogating them. When they tried to force me down the stairway, my daughter, fearing she was going to lose her father, raised loud cries. One of them ordered a female help to move with her into a bedroom nearby and shut the door. Instead, she thrust her hands around my neck in a hard bind and screamed “my thathi, my thathi.” The cries could be heard from the road outside.
For some inexplicable reason, three more armed men rushed upstairs shouting “api yamu, api yamu” or let us leave. They withdrew. I rang the Police Emergency at Mirihana. A mobile patrol arrived to ask a few questions but left hurriedly. Word of the incident spread and we could not lie on our beds that night. The telephones rang incessantly. One of the callers was Mahinda Rajapaksa, then Minister of Fisheries. He was championing human rights issues and was kind enough to assure support. Others included highly placed sources in the military establishment and the Police. Some offered to come over. I forbade them for fear of exposure. Yet, there were a few who defied.
The wheels of justice did not move. Not until Bill Richardson, then United States Ambassador to the United Nations visited Colombo. He came for six hours as Special Envoy of President Bill Clinton.
The US Embassy got in touch to say he wished to meet me. When I did, Mr. Richardson said that during talks he raised issue with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga about the ordeal I had to face. “She has assured a full investigation,” he told me. He later announced this at a news conference. Within days, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) launched investigations. My wife and I were invited one afternoon to an identification parade at the Magistrate’s Court in Gangodawila. I identified the man who placed the pistol on my left temple. He was the chief bodyguard of a former Air Force Commander. My wife identified another officer, who headed a special unit. After a legal trial lasting four years, the two were convicted to nine years rigorous imprisonment. One died whilst in jail. The other won bail. The case was later dismissed on legal technicalities.
An year before, in November 1997, my sources within the military establishment tipped me off about a bizarre encounter I would face. One of them said that a service intelligence arm was coaching a Tamil civilian in a military camp in Vavuniya. He was to come on television and identify himself as the English translator of Tiger guerrilla leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. He was to “confess” that his task every week was to translate the Situation Report column in the Sunday Times. The news reached me on a Monday morning. The next issue of the newspaper was six days away. The TV appearance was to take place in-between. There was an urgent need to have this information in the public domain.
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was good enough to raise issue in Parliament on a Tuesday. A detailed report appeared in the next day’s Lankadeepa, our sister Sinhala daily. That notwithstanding, Senthinathan appeared on Rupavahini, the national television network. In footage repeatedly broadcast, Senthinathan declared he translated the Situation Report every week for the late Mr.Prabhakaran. It seemed that was how a deadly terror outfit like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conducted a separatist war — only after reading the Sunday Times every week. The column was read by the two protagonists to the war, the LTTE and the military, with equal interest. One or the other was displeased at different times over the content. Yet, if Senthinathan was correct, none of the investigative arms of the State questioned me and pursued the logical course — charge me in Court. That was not the idea. It was to silence me. I became an irritant to politicians of successive governments who painted rosy pictures of victories and poured billions in public money, some to the war effort and some to help themselves. Millionaires, both in and out of uniform, were born. It later transpired that Senthinathan was a man of unsound mind.
The final chapter to this encounter came from my friend and then Military Spokesperson, the late Major General Sarath Munasinghe. He knew I was readying to write a book on the Third Eelam War. Whilst documenting the sequence of events, I had often consulted him to double check on various matters. One night, at dinner together with another senior General, the subject of discussion was Senthinathan. At news conferences, as spokesperson, he had to defend what the so-called LTTE translator said. He looked distraught. “I am ashamed to do things like this,” he said. He confirmed to me details I had already learnt about the men who trained Senthinathan. He also told me something I did not know. The so-called translator had told his handler in the intelligence arm “Sir, I have done what you have told me. Now, please look after me.” Another was the fact that the “handler” flew every now and then from Ratmalana to Vavuniya for meetings with Senthinathan during the coaching sessions. “You can write this after I die. The public should know,” Maj. Gen. Munasinghe said.
Earlier, in 1993, the Army launched an operation in the Wanni leading to disastrous consequences. I had written about what would follow including a possible counterattack. What I forecast came right leading to an unusually high number of casualties. A floral wreath was delivered to my residence with a card purportedly from the military unit that faced the debacle. This drew angry protests from media organisations.
In 1994, I won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). I will remember the ceremony in New York’s Grand Hyatt for many reasons. As I walked down the steps after making my speech, the first to congratulate me was renowned US diplomat the late Richard Holbrooke. He was later to be President Barrack Obama’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan when he died of illness. Others included Ted Turner, the man who launched CNN, his wife, actress Jane Fonda, millionaire businessman George Soros, TV anchors Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. There were some humorous moments too.
After the ceremony I returned to my hotel in Seventh Avenue to take the lift to the penthouse, allotted to me because the hotel was full. It was the first time I had to wear a tuxedo. The CPJ had paid $ 150 to hire one for me. Covering the late President J.R. Jayewardene’s visit to the US in June 1984, I had instead opted for a silk national dress, again for the first time, to cover the White House dinner hosted by the late President Ronald Reagan. In the lift this time there were three Americans. One of them, obviously in very good spirits, asked me “You work in this hotel?” One moment, you are at the zenith of your professional glory. The next, you get mistaken for a waiter. I replied “No! My Arab uncle is buying this hotel tomorrow.”
Space constraints prevent me from delving at length into another episode in 2008. It requires a detailed explanation. It is my fervent hope that I could place the facts in the public domain one day. One aspect is worth mentioning though for the damage it caused is irreparable. One night, I was alerted to a possible raid on my residence. It was reportedly to seize some documents related to a controversial transaction and thus track down my sources. I spoke with trusted sources. I was advised to close the house and move out. “If they want to search, let them break it open and do so. But don’t leave anything incriminating,” the source said. Before I left with my wife and daughter, there was a bonfire of partly completed lengthy handwritten outlines of my book. There was a pile of documents, some of them classified or secret. These were papers on which I was confirming the factual accuracy of various military operations, what followed and photographs. A lot of kerosene was poured to finish the job soon. If I was found with those documents, under the state of emergency that prevailed, it would have been enough cause to detain me. My claim of writing a book would have just been dismissed as sheer bluff.
The Eelam War IV was heating up towards the end of December 2008. Two vans packed with well-built men, openly displaying assault rifles, had arrived outside my house past11 p.m.They were in civilian clothes. They tried to climb the high wall but found it difficult due to the strands of barbed wire on top. They were planning their next move, when a Police Emergency vehicle approached. They had hurriedly dispersed. An alert neighbour had telephoned 119. The next day, I received a telephone call. “We could not get you last night. But we will kill you soon if you don’t stop writing,” the caller said in Sinhala. This incident took place exactly ten days before Lasantha Wickremetunga, Editor of The Sunday Leader was killed. I made a complaint to the Mirihana Police.
I told a Cabinet Minister who is still holding office. He conveyed the news to President Rajapaksa. The President had ordered the then IGP Jayantha Wickremeratne to ask Mirihana Police to conduct patrols around my house. Though I had not asked, the Minister explained it was not possible to provide any security other than irregular police patrols. This was reportedly on the grounds that the war was escalating. He also cautioned me not to make too many people aware of the measures taken. Earlier, security provided to me on the basis of intelligence the government received was withdrawn. Appeals from various quarters were of no avail. Not even protests by media organisations.
Just two days after Mr.Wickremetunga’s death, atmidnightI was warned by an authoritative source that I was the next target. My suspicions were confirmed when he said about the presence of unidentified persons around my house. There were occasions when men on motorcycles followed me. There was one of them, his pistol bulging out of a tight bush shirt. He came in a motorcycle. He stopped a pedestrian a little away from my house and asked about my whereabouts. He least realised he was the driver of my vehicle. Details in the number plate was noted down and checked. It belonged to a lorry. I left home the next day and flew to Thailand. I lived for months, separated from my family and friends. There, I learnt what solitude means. Perhaps living in solitude is what drove even former Commander of the Army, Sarath Fonseka, who once wielded unlimited military power, to consent to negotiations for his release after 27 months in jail.
These are only a few snapshots from a long catalogue of encounters I have had as a journalist. There is both good and bad in them. The good is that there is a vast number in the defence and security establishments who stand for the truth. They want corruption exposed. Even more importantly, they were concerned about my safety. Otherwise I would not be living. They are bold enough to place their jobs and even their lives on the line. On the bad side are those corrupt and even the inept: Those who profited financially from the war. Truth is an embarrassment to them. They will go to any length to hide it, no matter what the consequences are.
I have had to face what I believe is more than my share of ugly encounters. This is because the Sunday Times is the pioneer in specialised reporting on matters related to both defence and security. This is through the Situation Report column. It is not an exaggeration to say most other media followed suit and began to have their own Defence Correspondents thereafter. In bringing to the public domain the varied aspects of the separatist war, I had to set my own benchmark. The principle criterion was to avoid the military’s operations becoming public knowledge or privy to the enemy before or during an operation. That would have been treachery. I have strictly abided by this rule. But some politicians did not. I recall an instance where a politician responsible for the military declared at several public meetings that his government’s military aim was to capture Jaffna within weeks. That the Tiger guerrillas made preparations thereafter is now history. They even smuggled in military hardware to defend themselves.
There are readers who have often given well-meaning advice. I have benefited from them. There are others who have been bitterly critical. I have accepted such criticism with all humility. There are yet a few who are vituperative, driven by personal agendas and motivations. I have refused to bow to them. I never will. There was one President who years ago had the tax men investigate me. They looked for my hidden millions, both rupees and dollars. What he learnt perhaps exasperated him. “Mekaa hingannek ney,” (this fellow is a beggar) he told a confidant.
I was one of the early or perhaps the first recipient of a dubious national honour – being called a traitor. There were government-sponsored demonstrations outside my house after a string of exposures in the Sunday Times. If indeed there were transgressions of the law, since treachery is an offence punishable with death, not one single state investigatory arm has questioned me. Therefore, threats and name calling, sometimes even killing of journalists, is to muffle their voices or shut them up forever.
Some have singled me out to claim that in my writings I had said that the war was “unwinnable.” I have mentioned this on occasions and clearly reasoned out why. I was not alone. There were many others more knowledgeable than me. This included three former Presidents and a Prime Minister. They are the late J.R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe respectively. This is expressly why they embarked on peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during different stages of the separatist war.
The Sunday Times (Situation Report) column has always protected not only the country’s sovereignty but also kept readers informed. In other words, in our own way, we have made a national contribution. In April 2003, when the Norwegian-brokered Ceasefire Agreement was in force, there was a move to formally recognise Sea Tigers, the ocean-going arm of the Tiger guerrillas. The Sunday Times (Situation Report) exclusively revealed that the head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Major General (retd.) TryggveTeleffeson proposed that the Sri Lanka Navy should recognise the LTTE’s Sea Tigers as “a de facto Naval unit and the LTTE should be excluded from the law concerning limitations on outboard motors (OBMs) horsepower.” Until then, no one was aware. Thereafter, in what he called “Adjusted Proposals”, Maj. Gen. Teleffson sought to confine the Sri Lanka Navy’s exercises, particularly live firing to specified areas at sea. He also wanted to carve out separate areas in Sri Lanka’s sovereign territorial waters for “training and live firing” after repeating his earlier call to recognise the Sea Tigers as a “de facto naval unit.”
If not for the exclusive disclosure, the issue would have remained cloaked in secrecy. The Sri Lankan public would not have known that a non-state actor was to have its so-called navy formally recognised. This and another incident forced President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to write to then Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, seeking the SLMM head’s recall. He was withdrawn. In addition, I reported on many occasions about a guerrilla build-up during the ceasefire. During this period, I revealed exclusively how a string of 18 guerrilla camps had sprung up with the objective of surrounding the Trincomalee port. It caught the UNP Government by surprise.
The then Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando, drove from his office to Army Headquarters to ascertain the position and report to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe immediately. One in particular was the Kurangu Paanchaan base. The late Lakshman Kadirgamar, one-time Foreign Minister, raised issue publicly thereafter. This was a major cause for President Kumaratunga to withdraw support to the Ceasefire Agreement.
I also reported how the LTTE was moving valuable military items via the Bandaranaike International Airport when they passed through to Wanni after peace talks in various foreign capitals. I learnt recently that the Government now has official confirmation of this fact. It had come from a former high-level LTTE personality in a confession he made. If Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was kind enough to speak on my behalf earlier, as Prime Minister I had earned his ire. I was banned from his news conferences. His confidant, who was also my friend, conveyed to me that if I do not stop criticising, I would be “exposed” in Parliament.
In marked contrast, President Kumaratunga, who had cohabitation issues with the then UNP government, wanted to confer national honours on me. She said so to her parliamentarians. One evening, after coffee with her at the Janadipathi Mandiraya together with the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, I had a call from her office. One of her staffers said the President needed my bio data since I was being considered for a national honour. By hindsight, I am quite happy this did not materialise. I point this out to show how on the one hand, a President wants to honour a journalist. On the other extreme, the same journalist is vilified as a good-for-nothing traitor. During the conversation at the coffee meeting I had occasion to speak about some highly irregular procurements by the Sri Lanka Navy.
Mr. Kadirgamar said, “Please tell HE all what you know.” I related the details. “What proof have you got?” she asked me. I produced a set of documents originating from Navy headquarters. “How did you get them?” asked Ms. Kumaratunga. Mr. Kadirgamar intervened promptly “You cannot ask him that. He is not going to tell you,” he said. Ms Kumaratunga backtracked by saying, “That is not what I meant.” She was seated in a chair with her back facing Navy headquarters. She turned in the direction of NHQ, raised her hand, pointed her finger and remarked, “That is where the bullet is going to come from.” I later learnt that she made her own inquiries by confidentially asking senior Navy officers.
With her PA government coming to power defeating the UNP, she held a conference of senior military officers and the Police high command at the BMICH in July 2005. She turned to the then Inspector General of Police Chandra Fernando and declared “why don’t you charge him under the Official Secrets Act.” Only weeks earlier, I had exposed a move by the Sri Lanka Navy to procure a battleship ‘Sir Galahad’ which was being discarded by the British government because it found it costly to maintain. The question I raised was how Sri Lanka could maintain such a large vessel on which British troops had gone to war in the Falklands (Malvinas). Ms. Kumaratunga’s outburst came after a Navy officer, now holding a higher position, raised issue. It was his then boss who was spearheading the negotiations for the deal. When most politicians are in the opposition, the journalist is their loved darling. Once in power, they become their most loathed enemy. Of course there are exceptions if one is willing to do their bidding.
Once on a visit to then LTTE-held Wanni during the ceasefire in 2003, I asked my escort Daya Master whether I could meet Captain Ajith Kumara Boyagoda of the Navy and other military men who were being held prisoner. The next day, I was taken to a location off Puthukudiyiruppu. We arrived at a house with a high parapet wall. A covered van brought Captain Boyagoda and six Army soldiers. At one point during my conversation with them, I asked Daya Master whether he would kindly withdraw so I could talk to them privately. He agreed. A long conversation ensued. Besides an account that appeared in the Sunday Times (Situation Report), I had also asked the seven, one after another, what I could do to seek their release. They briefed me but wished those accounts should not be published lest it endangered their position. I agreed.
After my report appeared, I met with the then Army Commander, General Lionel Balagalle and briefed him. I told him that the prospects for a release were very high. He had initiated action thereafter and they were free. The fact that I was instrumental in their release was publicly acknowledged in a speech Captain Boyagoda made at a ceremony. It was held by Deshamanya Lalith Kotelawala whose Ceylinco Group donated houses to the seven.
On another visit, this time with the Army to a battle zone in Paranthan, guerrilla mortars began to rain. I was hurriedly taken to a bunker. When there was a lull and I walked out, the sight I saw was most disturbing. Wounded soldiers were being loaded in the trailers of tractors and rushed for medical attention. I wrote about this in the Sunday Times (Situation Report). As a result, Dr. Anula Wijesundera, a public-spirited doctor at the Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital was among those who initiated a campaign to raise funds. The Army unit at Paranthan received a brand new ambulance. Reference was made at the handover ceremony to my initiative.
These are just a few of the innumerable instances where reporting has led to benefits both for the country and the military. However, it was not always that the media was given access to battle zones prompting armchair critics to say copies are written in air conditioned rooms. To some, the minds are so conditioned; they only see traitors and terrorist acolytes. If one is to ask me whether I am happy being a journalist, my answer would be ‘yes of course.’ That is notwithstanding the threats and intimidation. Mind you, we are referring to a period when Sri Lanka was listed as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. The threats will not go away. Someone, somewhere will feel hurt all the time. The more powerful he or she is, the bigger the threat. All these raise an important question — what is journalism?
The best definition I have read is from Bill Kovach whom I have had the pleasure of meeting a few times. He is guru to some New York Times staffers. He defines it succinctly in his book together with Tom Rosenstiel titled ‘Elements of Journalism’. They say “the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” To fulfil this task, among other matters, they note the journalist’s first obligation is to the truth and the first loyalty is to citizens.
Meeting those ideals, in today’s context in Sri Lanka, may be akin to swimming against the tide. Threats of white van abductions, intimidation, harassment and even killings stare in the face. Yet, for 47 long years I have remained a journalist notwithstanding the praises, threats, the abuse and name calling.
Note: Athas is Consultant Editor of The Sunday Times/Courtesy The Sunday Times 25th year souvenir