By Rajan Philips –
Last Sunday Colombo Telegraph marked the tenth anniversary of its launch as a public interest website and online journal. The journal was launched on 12 September 2011 by Uvindu Kurukulasuriya from London where he was living in exile. He had left Sri Lanka following the murder of his friend and fellow journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge on 8 January 2009, and the subsequent threat to his own life broadcast over national radio by the media advisor to Sri Lanka’s then President. Those were dark days for journalism and media freedom in Sri Lanka. In one year alone (2008-2009) 19 journalists and dozens of media workers – including newspaper vendors, were killed; hundreds of journalists were harassed and/or abducted. The notorious white van carried a special seat for journalists. Even the day Uvindu left Sri Lanka, another Editor, Upali Tennakoon was attacked in his house.
Uvindu launched Colombo Telegraph (CT) almost singlehandedly with 25 dollars to buy the domain, and writing and publishing everything himself. The idea and the inspiration for the initiative came from a July 2010 Stockholm congress for exiled journalists from around the world. Uvindu was invited to attend the congress as a moderator and one of its outcomes was the development of a supporting program for exiled journalists to assist them with website hosting. Colombo Telegraph has benefited from this program and its Virtualroad.org hosting provider.
But there was a lot more to the launching of Colombo Telegraph than the compulsions of an exile journalist. Sri Lanka in 2011 was in dire need of a viable independent media outlet, and CT as a public interest online journal was able to meet the famous twin requirements for an independent newspaper: a live editor and a (virtually) dead proprietor. For ten years, Uvindu has been publishing Colombo Telegraph depending almost entirely on Google ad income which is never enough to cover even operational costs. The same source is also used to give assignments to reporters in Sri Lanka and at times to support local journalists who lose their jobs for writing truth to power.
CT’s Mission Statement stipulated the need for it in Sri Lanka and the framework for filling the void from London – by turning the spotlight, locally and globally, on stories that are under-reported, miss-reported and/or censored in Sri Lanka. CT became a hit within a week. It now counts more than a million hits in a month which more than double whenever there is political turmoil in the island. Over the years, CT has provided a forum for hundreds of political activists, opinion makers, intellectuals and academics to proffer their opinions and contentions on Sri Lankan politics. It also provides a smorgasbord for comments by readers, ranging from the sharpest to the silliest and everything in between.
When CT was launched in September 2011, Mahinda Rajapaksa was nearly two years into his second term as President. After the end of the war in 2009 and landslide victories in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2010, there were both possibilities and expectations for the country to be positively led back to pre-war normalities in civilian life, and for finding reasonable solutions to pre-war political problems involving the majority (Sinhala) and minority (Tamil and Muslim) communities. They were not to be.
Instead, the MR government went utterly off rail. It subdued the legislature, intimidated the judiciary, impeached the Chief Justice, picked a fight in Geneva, and changed the constitution to make the executive presidency a timeless possession for the first family. Corruption and cronyism became a way of life at the highest levels for the newly arrived. The people pushed back and in the 2015 elections they defeated the Rajapaksas and elected a ‘common opposition’ president and a diarchic prime minister on the promise of good government.
That promise was broken in no time through the infamous bond scam, and the no less infamous Ranil-Maithri diarchy lurched from one disaster to another leading up to the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019. The people had it with good government and put the two grand old parties out of misery in 2015. And the Rajapaksas returned – with a new makeover: Gotabaya Rajapaksa promoted as President and Mahinda Rajapaksa demoted as Prime Minister. Tweedledee was fired for ineptitude, and Tweedledum was rehired for miracle-work.
Except, there has been no miracle, only misery, made worse by a raging pandemic and a tanked economy. And compounded by unprecedented incompetence, knee-jerk reactions, and a biannual global auditing in Geneva. What now, is the preoccupying question. It is not for the media to provide answers to political questions. But without free and independent media, there will be no forum for raising questions and pushing for accountability.
Ten years on, Colombo Telegraph is on track true its founding mission. While many things remain the same in Sri Lanka, politically speaking, quite a few things have changed and quite significantly so. Unlike in 2011, the government is more on the defensive now and its critics have grown bolder and louder than then. CT may still be hacked and blocked as it has been in the past, not only by the Rajapaksa government but also by folks in the yahapalana government. But it will not be silenced. For that and for all that has been achieved, Colombo Telegraph and Uvindu Kurukulasuriya deserve all the praise and kudos that CT users can muster. And to assure every support needed for its vigorous continuation.