30 May, 2023


Lasantha Outfoxes The Censor

By Raine Wickrematunge

Raine Wickrematunge

As a journalist and Editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge was both gutsy and mischievous. Whether assigning a young male journalist to go dressed up as a woman to a ‘women only’ event, sending a team of reporters to key establishments in the city with wires and batteries in their lunch boxes to test how security conscious these establishments were, or flouting a media censorship with an audacious plan, Lasantha constantly thought out of the box.

Today, on the 10th death anniversary of this bold, ballsy and brilliant journalist, we reproduce excerpts of Chapter 7 – ‘Lasantha Outfoxes the Censor’ – from the book ‘And Then They Came For Me’ by Raine Wickrematunge.

*   *   *

Hardly a week into the appointment of the Competent Authority, the Editor of The Sunday Leader was to be given a rap on the knuckles. On May 9, 2000, the Competent Authority issued a warning to the Editor on the basis that a photograph of an opposition rally and “other news items” published in the May 7, 2000 edition, contravened Regulation 14. Lasantha immediately shot off a letter to the Competent Authority asking for clarification regarding the scope of Regulation 14. He queried with dripping sarcasm whether articles highlighting corruption and mismanagement would also be covered under the regulation. A miffed Competent Authority did not respond.

All media institutions and personnel, mindful of reprisals they may have to face if they flouted this new regulation, duly complied. Several newspapers however declared their displeasure of the ban by carrying blank pages. Others left several white spaces in the articles with the word ‘censored’ printed across.

The Sunday Leader too published highly censored versions of their articles but Lasantha, now in his sixth year as Editor, believed this ban on reporting was counter-productive. Wild rumour and crazy speculation about the war situation became the sworn truth to a people kept in the dark and fed only the highly manipulated official line. The only certainty was that there was heavy 

Lasantha was vocal in his view about the wisdom, or the lack of it, of the ban. He was staunch in the belief that the censorship was not only unconstitutional in that it violated the Article 14 guarantee of freedom of expression, but it had been imposed, not to safeguard the war effort but to protect and prop up an unpopular government. He also saw political manipulations in the censor’s so-called duties. He was determined to expose these facts in his newspaper; the censor’s warning he had just received only sought to give him more determination. The same day, having given it some thought, probably two whole minutes, he came up with a brilliant idea.

He sat at his office desk and penned two fictitious articles. One blamed the war situation in the country on policies followed by the former UNP government; the other story detailed how the UNP was divided on the manner in which the war should be prosecuted. 

He then commissioned cartoonist S. C. Opatha to replicate a cartoon which had appeared in the government-controlled Daily News a few days earlier. It showed a scene from a ‘UNP Hotel’ where Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, portrayed as a waiter, is shown waiting on LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran who is preparing to carve Sri Lanka which has been handed to him on a platter.

 That same day, May 9, Lasantha despatched to the Censor the cartoon depicting Ranil Wickremesinghe and the articles relating to the UNP.

That evening the Leader office received the articles and the cartoons, duly checked. The stories about the UNP had been given the greenlight with just one insignificant deletion. The cartoon too had been passed with a delighted tick of approval.

The next day, May 10, Lasantha duplicated the articles he had sent to the censor with a few changes. In the copies, he substituted ‘UNP’ and ‘Ranil Wickremesinghe’ with ‘PA’ and ‘Chandrika Kumaratunga’ and replaced the names of UNP Members of Parliament with those of PA Ministers. The cartoon too was changed in that the figure of Ranil Wickremesinghe was replaced by a caricature of President Kumaratunga.

The articles and the cartoon were despatched to the Censor, who, buried under reams of articles sent for his approval – or disapproval – had no idea of the trap that had been neatly laid out by a mischievous Editor. The articles and cartoon duly landed on Chief Censor Ariya Rubasinghe’s desk while Lasantha waited in happy anticipation at the Leader office, wondering if, and hoping that, his plan had worked.

He need not have worried. The same day, the two articles and the cartoon were returned to the Leader offices with a howl of disapproval in the form of pen marks run right across the text on all pages. The cartoon had suffered the same fate. 

The Censor or those working for him, were unaware of their colossal blunder. They also had no idea of what awaited them in the form of a full-page article in the following Sunday’s edition of The Sunday Leader. 

On May 14, 2000, Lasantha gleefully splashed the Censor’s massive faux pas on Page 8 of his newspaper. In a full page story titled, “Censor exposed” by Ariya Borusinghe¹ he explained the Censor’s duplicitous actions. He wrote, “Given the Supreme Court judgments that no power can be exercised by any authority arbitrarily, The Sunday Leader last week, in the public interest, moved to test the credibility and the manner in which the Competent Authority Rubasinghe exercised his powers in terms of the newly gazetted regulations.

“The Sunday Leader submitted to Competent Authority Ariya Rubasinghe two stories critical of the UNP which he unhesitatingly approved. The following day, the same two stories were forwarded again but by interpolating PA and Chandrika Kumaratunga for UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Guess what Rubasinghe did?”

The page carried the four articles that had been submitted to the censor, side by side. Published on the same page were images of the actual articles and cartoons, very clear for all to see with their ‘cut’ marks on the ones critical of the PA. The Censor had ‘censored’ everything critical of the PA but had approved the identical articles and cartoon critical of the UNP. 

Lasantha’s expose´ of this duplicity was a monumental slap on the face of the Censor. It was an embarrassing gaffe and the Competent Authority’s political game-playing lay exposed for all to see. They were understandably livid but there was little they could do about it than silently fume.

                                              *   *   * 

By mid-May, the Palaly army camp was overrun by the LTTE but since the censorship prevented people from learning of the real situation, wild speculation and rumour raged. Later, news began to spread about a large-scale LTTE attack on the Palaly army base and the nation was engulfed in a sense of foreboding and fear. Still the country was kept in the dark. There was talk that a very large number of soldiers had perished in the attack.

Lasantha, having amassed all the details of the attack including the number of casualties from his contacts, was bursting to give his readers the real story. The ban on reporting war-related news however stood in his way. If he sent the story to the Censor, there was no doubt in the world of it being axed outright. He needed to come up with an ingenious plan. 

As with other news establishments, it was a practice at the Leader Editorial to work on Page One of the first edition on Friday evening after most of the other pages had been put to bed. Every Friday evening, I would sit at the computer where Page One had been laid out, giving headlines, editing, cutting and chopping.  Lasantha would come in from time to time and instruct the computer operator and me to effect certain changes. He would also rattle off stories which I typeset directly onto the page. And it was in a similar scenario that on Friday, May 19, he came in to the room looking rather pleased with himself as I worked on the May 21 issue.

Waving a few handwritten pages, he asked us to typeset its contents and place the story across on the top of the page below the masthead.

The story went on to describe in detail the overrunning of the camp, how it happened, how many military casualties it had claimed and all other pertinent details relating to the debacle. But every statement in the article was preceded, by the word not. The headline of the story, as directed by Lasantha, was ‘War in fantasy land – Palaly not under attack.’ 

I was aghast but had to admit it was a clever ploy. However, I was worried about what the repercussion of this act of defiance would be on the newspaper.

The article of course was not despatched to the Censor for his approval because in theory, it did not report news from the warfront. In fact, it specifically said there had not been an attack on the camp and so many soldiers had not been killed.

Following is an excerpt of that article:

Heavy fighting was not raging in northern Jaffna peninsula and Tigers were not pounding Palaly with heavy artillery and mortars for the fourth consecutive day. In the so-called attacks, no soldiers were killed nor wounded and several buildings within the base had not suffered minor damages.

 “Tigers were not using Kaithady, an area located northeast of Navatkuli as the artillery launching pad to pound the Palaly air base where thousands of soldiers were not under siege by LTTE cadres. In the so-called attacks, the communication tower was not partially disabled, crippling military communications between Colombo and Jaffna for a few hours on Thursday.

“With heavy shelling not being directed at Palaly and areas around the base, the three service commanders did not fly to Vavuniya to co-ordinate counter-offensive measures with their field-commanders.

“Tigers did not enter Kaithady on Wednesday night after 12-hours of so-called fierce hand-to-hand fighting in which more than 40 soldiers were not killed and scores not wounded. The attackers did not breach the forward defence lines of the government forces and did not damage any armoured vehicles nor destroy several gun positions of the army.

“Military officials in Colombo did not say that the situation was very critical and they did not say the stand-off weapons which were ferried to the troops last week were of no use since the morale of the soldiers was very low.

“Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Sarath Fonseka did not have to in a last-ditch attempt stall the advance of Tiger rebels order his men to dig bunker lines and mine the areas to prevent Tigers reaching the outskirts of Palaly air base…….”

To anyone reading the article, it was obvious what the writer of the news story was trying to convey.  The paper duly went in to print and by Sunday morning, readers of The Sunday Leader had a full and detailed account of what had taken place in Palaly.

But if the Editor thought he had got away with it, he was soon to learn otherwise. The bolt that stopped us in our tracks was about to hit. The very next day, May 22, 2000, the Competent Authority wrote to Leader Publications stating that the May 21, 2000 article was published in breach of Regulation 14 because it dealt with the operations of the security forces but had not been submitted for prior approval. Furthermore, it said, the article was “prejudicial to the interest of national security and the preservation of public order.” A printing suspension of six-months was issued on the printing facility.

The same day police officers stormed the Leader Publications press in Ratmalana and surrounded it, shutting it down. 

That Monday, I sat at the computer in our office in Borella, editing a copy that had just come in. Suddenly Lasantha burst in to my room; one look at his face and I knew something disastrous had just occurred. “They have sealed the press,” he said breathlessly. We both rushed in to the news room. Everyone – desk heads, reporters, sub-editors, photographers, typesetters and layout artists from both the Leader and Irida Peramuna – stared dumbfounded as Lasantha explained that a little while earlier, police had sealed the Leader printing facility in Ratmalana. 

Ten minutes later, Lasantha’s brother Lal who was now Chairman of Leader Publications, came in and addressed the staff. The Sinhala paper had not flouted any censorship regulations but with the suspension on the printing press, they had become victims of collateral damage. 

Lal provided the staff with more details of the closure and the events that had led to it and asked everyone to report to work every day if they so wished. “We will continue to pay your salaries,” he promised.

Lasantha informed the staff that Leader Publications would fight the ban in courts.
For the next few weeks, everyone faithfully turned up to work each day. There were no stories to write and no newspaper to print but everyone reported to work anyway. There was doom and gloom written on faces; the staff – many of them with dependent families – wondered in despair whether the two papers would ever be in circulation again. 

Lasantha and the management were not going to sit around licking their wounds. Their lawyers immediately filed a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court stating that its right to equality under Section 14 of the Constitution had been infringed by the shut-down of the paper. The respondent was ‘Ariya Rubasinghe, Director of Information and the Competent Authority, et al.’ 

On June 2, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the petition and during the preliminary hearings the presiding judge questioned the legality of the government’s emergency censorship regime. With this slap in the face, President Kumaratunga ordered the ban be reduced by several months and on June 26, the government announced that the Leader Group could resume publishing their newspapers on July 31.
Before that could happen however, on Friday, June 30, the three judge bench of the Supreme Court who had heard the case, in a unanimous decision, ruled that because the appointment of the “competent authority” charged with enforcing emergency censorship regulations had not been submitted to parliament for review within seven days as required by law, his decision to shut down the Leader group was “a nullity, and of no force or avail in law.” In addition, the state was ordered to pay Leader Publications 100,000 rupees in court costs.

Jubilant Leader and Peramuna staff left the courthouse and rushed off to the Leader Publications office to start work on the following week’s editions.

With the ‘nullity’ of the Competent Authority thus being judicially declared, the ban on another newspaper, the Jaffna-based Tamil daily Uthayan too was automatically dissolved.

Meanwhile, on the same day that the government temporarily suspended Regulation 14, a judge from Colombo’s High Court, armed with the country’s archaic criminal defamation laws, sentenced Lasantha to two years in jail on charges of criminally defaming President Chandrika Kumaratunga in relation to an article published in The Sunday Leader in 1995. The defamation charge had been filed in response to an article titled ‘A Promising Government’ that Lasantha had published in The Sunday Leader on September 3, 1995. The article was a scathing attack on the President accusing her of not fulfilling her election promises which prosecutors said implied President Kumaratunga was corrupt.
The sentence was suspended for five years.
Condemning the sentence, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said at the time, “No journalist should ever face the threat of jail for something he or she writes. With a potential jail term hanging over his head for the next five years, Mr. Wickrematunge is bound to think twice before writing anything critical of the government. The press should be given the widest possible latitude to criticize public officials…… If criminal defamation laws can be used by a President to silence journalists, the media will not be able to play its watchdog role.”

Both the Editor Lasantha and his brother, Publisher Lal were indicted under Section 480 of the Penal Code. However, Colombo High Court Judge, Andrew Somawansa, while finding the Editor guilty of the offence, acquitted the Publisher. 

If the CPJ had feared that, “Mr. Wickrematunge is bound to think twice before writing anything critical of the government,” Lasantha was going to put all those fears to rest.  He dug his nose deeper into dodgy affairs of governance and came up with bigger and even more embarrassing stories each week.

Just a month later, another journalist was to pay the supreme sacrifice for carrying out his craft. On October 19, Jaffna-based journalist Mylvaganam Nimalarajan who had been filing reports to various news organisations about the vote rigging and violent tactics in the parliamentary elections was shot by an unknown gunman while he sat at his desk at home writing an article. A hand grenade was also hurled into the house. Nimalarajan’s parents and young nephew were also injured in the attack. Nimalarajan himself later died of his injuries in hospital.

During the five weeks of The Sunday Leader ban, the annual awards ceremony organised by the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka recognising journalistic excellence took place. At a ceremony in Mt. Lavinia Hotel on Sunday June 4, 2000, represented by journalists from the country’s Sinhala, Tamil and English press, the Guild presented awards to those who had excelled in their craft the previous year. The Sunday Leader won seven awards in total.

Among those invited by the Guild to present awards was the ever-smiling Ariya Rubasinghe.

That same year, Lasantha’s pioneering investigative journalism was recognised internationally when he won the first ever Integrity Award from Transparency International, the global coalition leading the battle against worldwide corruption.

Transparency International said, “Lasantha Wickrematunge has earned a reputation for courageous investigative journalism. He has been dedicated to exposing corruption in all branches of the Sri Lankan government and his exposes´ have dealt with issues ranging from petty to grand corruption in areas such as privatisation and arms deals. When government authorities shut down his newspaper in May, he fought back and succeeded in having the presses re-opened. 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 t serve through his determined investigation of the truth.”

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  • 2

    We miss this kind of youthful energetic, cleverly written journalism today.

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