Inexplicably the journalist that first exposed the 2006 MiG-27 deal, Iqbal Athas has turned propagandist for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa even after he recalled the horrific threats to his life and being forced to flee Sri Lanka as a result of exposing the shady aircraft purchase as recently as January this year.
In 2006 Iqbal Athas exposed the irregular procurement in the Sunday Times causing ripples in the defence establishment then headed by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. By his own admission in a speech made at a public forum in January 2019 the senior Sunday Times Journalist said that the FCID had commenced its investigation into the 2006 MiG 27 procurement by the Sri Lankan Government, based on his own initial statement to the newly established police division with a mandate to investigate financial crimes and corruption. In his speech in January the former defence reporter spoke at length about how the defence ministry then led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the state media called him a traitor and explained how he had to flee the country overnight on a tip of shortly before Lasantha Wickrematunge the editor of the Sunday Leader who followed up the MiG deal story was murdered.
“There was more disturbing news just two weeks before Lasantha Wickrematunge was murdered. A very highly placed source asked me to get out of the house that very night. I flew to Thailand. I had spent long stints there living in an apartment cooking food, washing clothes and working online. The next morning, my driver who was alerted, saw a man with an oversized bush shirt moving outside my house in a motorcycle. When there was strong blowing, the bottom part of the shirt went up. There was a pistol on his waist. The driver noted the registration number. I checked it on a secure phone from Bangkok. The registration plate belonged to a lorry.
When the so-called Yahapalanaya government came to power, they set up the Financial Crimes Investgation Division (FCID). I made a statement to them in early 2015 and investigations began,” Athas said during his speech at the Kadirgamar Institute earlier this year. He also spoke of how crowds were mobilized to protest outside his house, with some of them demanding his arrest.
But in his current political columns featuring weekly in the Sunday Times, long considered the newspaper of record in Sri Lanka, Athas who authors the column as the newspaper’s political editor fawns over the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration almost outshining the state controlled newspapers in heaping praise on the new President and harshly criticizing the previous Government and its failures. This week the column went so far as to “advise” the Government that the failure to control the prices of essential items that have skyrocketed in recent weeks could result in the public mood turning against the President and his new Government. The column hastens to add that the price hikes had occurred through no fault of President Gotabaya. The senior journalist in penning his column also heaps criticism on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s critics and political opponents making blatant accusations with little or no basis about grand conspiracies to discredit his new hero’s Government.
Athas who was strongly defended by media rights groups and international NGOs when his life was in danger from the Rajapaksa Government in 2007-2009 has also recently been disgustingly critical of NGOs and civil activists referring to them as “NGO wallahs” and accusing them of working to discredit Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Government in order to ensure they keep getting donor funding.
Long time readers of the Sunday Times political column have been stunned about the position the newspaper has taken week after week since Gotabaya’s election as President. “There’s no information in the Times political column anymore. The columnist is just pushing a line and lately the line is entirely pro-Government. It is quite odd. Perhaps like the Times no longer feels safe enough to criticize the Government,” said one long time reader of the ST political column. It is unclear if the position is fully backed by Sunday Times Editor Sinha Ratnatunga whose editorials have taken principled positions that do not reflect the sycophancy of the large spread that is published alongside. Ratnatunga also continues to publish senior lawyer and columnist Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena’s articles which have remained strongly critical of high handed moves by the new administration and its attempts to dismantle state systems for political gain. Sources told Colombo Telegraph that Athas has cultivated a strong personal friendship with PC MM Ali Sabry the head of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s team of lawyers and another Muslim politician strongly aligned to Gotabaya.
Political observers wondered whether the journalist was adopting a particularly sycophantic writing style since Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office as President, even though he appeared to be aligned with the former Defence Secretary for months before, in order to ensure the new political administration does not turn Athas for being the first to expose the infamous “MiG-deal”. “It might be fear driving Athas’ latest drift. Difficult to imagine that the man who was once trying to hunt him down had become a saint overnight,” said a senior journalist in Colombo familiar with the Sunday Times journalist ordeal over his MiG deal reporting. (By Janakie Mediwake)