17 November, 2018

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Was Prageeth Abducted For His Journalism Or For Mailing Human Ash?

By Uvindu Kurukulasuriya – 

The Prageeth Ekneligoda disappearance has caused alarm and distress as much as it has been the subject of intense controversy. Many theories have been put forward why he was abducted. Was his abduction a result of his journalism or something else? Was he really a journalist or a poser?

Prageeth Ekneliyagoda (R) and Sandaruwan Senadheera (L) prominently among demonstrators at the funeral of TNA Jaffna member of Parliament and lawyer N. Raviraj who was shot dead by two assassins on a motorcycle in November 2006 as he drove to work. Photo by Uvindu Kurukulasuriya

June 8 was to mark exactly 500 days since Ekneligoda said to be a cartoonist of the Lankaenews website disappeared after being abducted. In all this time no progress has been made in the investigation and his family have no recourse to justice or comfort. They do not know whether to hope or to grieve.

The BBC recently quoted the UN’s working group on disappearances saying it has been waiting more than four years for the government to respond to its request to visit Sri Lanka. There are some 5,653 unsolved cases over two decades which the group has looked into but the disappearances haven’t stopped. The US State Department, in a recent report, quoted one estimate that said 77 people had gone missing in 2010 alone. Certainly the phenomenon is part of the landscape of absolute impunity now enjoyed by the Rajapaksa regime.

Gordon Weiss

Last month Gordon Weiss released his book The CAGE, The fight for Sri Lanka and the last days of the Tamil Tigers. Weiss was the UN Spokesperson in Sri Lanka during the last three years of the war.

In his book he says “On the twenty – second day , a freelance Sinhalese journalist, Prageeth Ekneligoda, is abducted from his home by men in a white van, tied to metal bar and terrorized, but later released. A week later, armed men stop a car carrying the news director of the TNL television station, Namal Perera, and savagely beat him and a friend in an attempt to abduct him.” (Page 151 Chapter seven-The struggle for truth)

Weiss has done an excellent job of drawing into his work the key components of the issues that faced Sri Lanka, he has researched the nation’s past admirably and woven it thoughtfully into the present. But in many aspects there are irritations throughout the book due to factual errors. Many of them occur in his assessment of the media. But again many would not fault an outsider for his lack of media literacy in such a nuanced often cantankerous, deceptive, cagey, chameleon like atmosphere that is the media in Sri Lanka.

That said, in the quoted paragraph above Gordon Weiss has either got his facts wrong or has for reasons best known to him deliberately exaggerated the issue.

Not working journalists

Firstly neither Prageeth Ekneligoda nor Namal Perera were working journalists at the time these incidents took place. It is my considered opinion that there is more than sufficient evidence of genuine journalists who have suffered immensely under a repressive regime and such evidence is more than adequate to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is media suppression in Sri Lanka. There is no justification to exaggerate or colour a situation or issue. Such practices even with the best of intentions will only help discredit rather than help.

Secondly, Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted a long time after the Namal incident. Ekneligoda was abducted for the first time on August 27, 2009 where as Namal Perera was attacked on June 30, 2008. Thus not only did Weiss get the chronology wrong he got the timing wrong as well. It was not a gap of a week as Weiss claims but over a year between the two incidents. Weiss claims to quote a monthly e bulletin by the Free Media Movement (FMM). I was both the Convener of the FMM and a Director of the Sri Lanka Press Institute where Namal was working during the relevant period. But I’m unaware such a monthly report existed.

Thirdly the question that has to be raised is that while Namal Perera’s incident was related to Journalism whether Prageeth’s was also.

It is proper to quote here what Lankaenews of which news website Prageeth was said to be a journalists and cartoonist published about his first abduction.

“Independent correspondent and Journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted on 27th August by a group which accosted him having arrived in a white Van. He was forcibly bundled into the Van blindfolded, handcuffed and taken away. According to Ekneligoda, on the 27th night at about 12.30 a.m. ,when he was on his way walking to his home down Mekandura Road , a white Van had suddenly pulled up alongside him. Then, three hefty individuals of young age who descended from the Van had caught him and forcibly pushed him into the Van, was then immediately blindfolded and handcuffed. These abductors who did not say anything; after travelling for about half an hour, took him to a house and kept him in a room handcuffed to an iron bar till early morning. On the following day , he was asked to do a wash ; and later, his blindfolding cloth and handcuff were removed(SIC). A leader of the group who was in the house has then come up to him and said, we have made a mistake. You are of no use to us. But, don’t whisper one word about this to anyone, he has warned.(SIC) After blindfolding and handcuffing him again, he was brought in the Van and dropped near a quarry at Koratota at about 10.30 a.m. on 28th August, Ekneligoda told ‘Lanka e News.’ The leader of the group had examined his identity card. It appeared that the group who abducted him are experienced, Ekneligoda further stated. Ekneligoda has made a complaint to the Homagama Police on 28th noon in this connection. Ekneliyagoda was for a while attached to the ‘Lanka e news’ and had written several articles. He was a cartoonist also. http://www.lankaenews.com/English/news.php?id=8238

Nonetheless since Ekneligoda’s second abduction he has been missing 500 days and Sri Lanka being a country for conspiracy theories, there have now been at least four theories posited on this disappearance.

First theory – Victor Ivan

The first theory came from Ravaya editor Victor Ivan in his article titled ‘Is it only politics that is uncivilised?’ (Asheelachara thanaka thibenne deshapalanaya pamanada?) published in the Ravaya newspaper on 28 February 2010.

Victor Ivan

Victor Ivan

Ivan alleged that Prageeth had been in the business of writing unsubstantiated scurrilous articles for websites and had been instrumental in penning a scurrilous article on the sex life of a certain minister of the government. Ivan’s view was that if a journalist chooses to publish unsubstantiated stories and slander as news and as a result he/she is subjected to physical violence by an aggrieved party(s), that could not be construed as suppression of media freedom.

I certainly do not agree with Victor Ivan’s conclusion on this matter. But the said article in question http://www.lankaenews.com/Sinhala/news.php?id=11422 allegedly penned by Prageeth, appeared sans by-line on December 8, 2009. Editor Lankaenews Sandaruwan Senadheera denied the claim that Prageeth wrote it. While I respect Sandaruwan for not breaching his agreement with the writer, it was in fact Prageeth himself who told several of his friends that he wrote that article.

One also has to remember the eternal spin that would be put on anything coming from Victor Ivan as a Rajapaksa supporter. Victor’s spin was obviously to protect the Rajapaksas from any blame in the abduction and to effectively shift it to the narrow personal confines of an irate and humiliated government minister whose sexual promiscuity and erotic secrets had been revealed.

And yet what is most ironic and demonstrates the hypocrisy of Victor Ivan is that he knows very well his own track record on the publication of sexually explicit material in his newspaper Ravaya. When popular actor Kamal Addararachchi was indicted of abduction and rape of a young girl Inoka Gallage in August 1993 Ivan thought it fit to publish every single gory detail of her cross examination and every word of her sexually explicit description of the alleged rape. Fittingly he published the same on Page three of the newspaper.

But Victor’s fascination for titillation did not end there. When in 1999 Magistrate Lenin Ratnayake was charged with allegedly raping the wife of a suspect in a case, Victor Ivan was quick to again publish every detail and not only that contrary to ethical and moral standards publish the names and photographs of the alleged rape victims in his book ‘Unfinished Struggle.’

Queen of Thieves

His controversial book about the former President of Sri Lanka Chandrika Kumaratunga titled Chaura Rajina (Queen of Thieves) is more a lecherous account of the alleged sexual exploits of the former Executive than anything else. In this book he even quotes a dead man Yasapalitha Nanayakkara as having called Kumaratunga a prostitute.

Indeed it was Victor himself who took up his pen to write the details of the dalliance between a young girl and the former Chief Justice of Sri Lanka Sarath N. Silva. Not for Victor Ivan the broad strokes of the incident. He went into every undulating crevice of the story to publish what can only be termed erotica.

Man under threat

During President Kumaratunga’s rule Victor Ivan was a man under threat. So much so both he and Lasantha Wickrematunge had even discussed fleeing the country for a space till things settled down. Is it Ivan’s argument then that had he been abducted during this time such an abduction could have been justified on the grounds that since he wrote sexually explicit details that would humiliate and mortify the victims of his pen, it was somehow justified?

But Victor Ivan’s theory is flawed in another sense as well. It does not explain why Prageeth was abducted the first time on August 27, 2009, because at that time there was no allegedly scurrilous published article by Prageeth.

Second theory – C.A. Chandraprema

The second theory came from the political correspondent of The Island newspaper, C.A. Chandraprema published on May 7 and 8, 2010. He wrote two articles under the title The Prageeth Ekneligoda affair.http://www.island.lk/2010/05/07/features8.html

According to Chandraprema, the disappearance or abduction of Prageeth Ekneligoda was an elaborate fraud carried out by Prageeths’ wife Sandhya and some others in the Fonseka election campaign.

C.A.Chandraprema political columnist for the Island newspaper

C.A.Chandraprema political columnist for the Island newspaper

Chandraprema says “By staging the disappearance of Prageeth in the last 48 hours before the day of the election, the objective was to bring the government into disrepute by making them go into an election with the abduction of a ‘journalist’ in the headlines. By the time the public would get to know that Prageeth was no journalist, the election would be over and Fonseka would be in power. Now things have gone wrong and Prageeth cannot come out. So there are attempts to build up a false case to the effect that he was wanted by the government.”

But Chandraprema goes even further than Ivan. He says he doesn’t believe the first abduction either; “besides almost all abductions reported in the recent past were those of Tamils. Prageeth is a Sinhalese. Could it ever be possible that some security agency had followed a rare Sinhala suspect and nabbed the wrong man by mistake?………He has never asked me for money, but people who were closer to him like Nelson and Jayalath had been giving him small amounts of money from time to time. My theory is that he staged his abduction the first time with the hope of being able to obtain political asylum overseas with his family”

Chandraprema concludes by saying; The fact is that in normal life, he was in dire financial straits and had taken the Rs. 300 given to him by Gunadasa Jayalath. He had even been asking Nelson Edirisinghe for reloads for his mobile phone. These are the unvarnished facts of this case. Prageeth was penniless and his sons were growing up – the typical profile of a man who would want political asylum overseas, where he will get a dole and will not have to struggle for day to day survival, and there will be subsidized housing, health care and free ‘overseas education’ for his sons.

Unfair and unjustified

Chandraprema’s theory however is unfair unjustified and does not hold true – especially the fact that Prageeth’s intention was to claim asylum. When Prageeth was abducted the first time in August 2009, the Cartoonists Rights Network International. (CRNI) the world’s only free speech and human rights organization dedicated exclusively to the care and well being of political cartoonists in trouble, contacted me and asked my help to liaise with him.

I kept sending emails to Prageeth repeatedly and he didn’t get back to me. So I phoned him and told him about the Cartoonist Network’s request. While we were talking he explained to me what happened. What he said corresponded exactly with the Lanka e news report on his first abduction as I reproduced above. But he said nothing about what happened that night. He could have told me a lie. He didn’t. He said just one thing to me. “Machang, it looks as if we can’t write anything by pen” His tone and voice made me to believe that he was in fear. He wrote to me later that he felt fear.

Prageeth did not seek asylum

On my part, I did not genuinely believe that what he had so far written had any relation to the abduction or any subsequent threat. Not only that Prageeth had hardly written anything for a long time and neither had he drawn any cartoons. However as a friend I offered to help him if he thought he needed to escape from the country. I know for a fact he never wanted to go abroad. So Chandraprema is wrong and perhaps attributing to Prageeth, his own personal ambitions of flight.

In fact Robert Russell, Executive Director -CRNI was to write a lengthy email to Prageeth on September 7, 2009 that is 11 days after he was abducted. Russell offered help. Robert said, “Of course if you were still in lockup, or if anything in the future more aggressive happens against you we kick into a more proactive gear in terms of direct support and public information. Your family should be briefed on us”. Robert asked, “Is there anything we can do to help you?” But, Prageeth never asked for any help. Chandraprema also claims that Prageeth was penniless. He takes this to support his “asylum” theory.

While I did not agree with Chandraprema on the other aspects I was also under the impression that Prageeth was a man under somewhat straitened circumstances.

I now turn to an article penned by Malinda Seneviratne, titled On Ekneligoda, in spite of Ekneligoda and his pals published in the State run Daily News newspaper on March 1, 2010. In this article he identified Prageeth with someone else who was corrupt, asking what can you expect of a man who keeps friends like these.http://www.dailynews.lk/2010/03/01/fea02.asp

On that very day I wrote to Malinda saying “Machang I don’t like the way you described Prageeth, he is a poor man with some commitments.” Malinda replied, “I didn’t know anything about his wealth; was commenting on content and the website. I think there will be another occasion to write about prageeth….then i will mention that he is not a wealthy man and that he is not a crook…”

Prageeth, a wealthy man

It was much later however that I came to know that I too had been wrong about Prageeth’s financial status. Prageeth was a wealthy man. He had a 6 or 10 acre tobacco farm in Dambulla, a prime two and half acre plot in Trincomalee with beach frontage and another plot of land in Batticaloa. He also ran an agency distributing Maliban biscuits under his brother in law’s name. He had two offices in Pettah and Amor Street to run the typesetting, artwork and printing business. He sent his sons to International schools. I contacted his wife Sandya to confirm the above. She confirmed that she had visited their lands in Trincomalee and Dambulla but that Prageeth had not left any documents relating to the Batticaloa land. She however denied that Prageeth owned the Maliban biscuit Agency and said he only helped her brother with the business. But this goes to show that Prageeth wasn’t a poor man. The Island Political Columnist Chandraprema had got this wrong as well.

Election Gimmick?

Certainly, like Chandraprema I too in the first flush of hearing the news did not find the second abduction on January 24, 2010 a credible one. I had my misgivings and I too thought it may have been “an election campaign gimmick”.

However, three days after the disappearance I was to ring one of Prageeth’s closest friends Sandaruwan Senadheera – the editor of Lankaenews on another matter and he told me, he was busy as he was going to identify a dead body which was found floating in the Kelani river. To double check for myself, a little later I called Asanka who was a typesetter with Lankaenews and asked him where Sandaruwan was. He replied, “Boss went to identify a dead body.”

Actually Sandaruwan had gone there with some friends. He had gone to see if the body floating in the river was that of Prageeth who had been abducted three days before. From this I understood that the disappearance was most likely not an election gimmick. If it were a gimmick Sandaruwan must surely have known about it. Sandaruwan and Prageeth go back a long way and he too was involved in Sarath Fonseka’s election campaign with Prageeth and some other friends who were with Prageeth just before Prageeth went missing.

But this fact still cannot completely discredit Chandraprema’s second theory that Prageeth is in hiding. Incredible as it sounds Prageeth may have proceeded on a course of action to which Sandaruwan was not privy to. It is almost impossible to believe but for the sake of truth and justice I have to leave that open at this point.

Be that as it may since, while I did believe there was a genuine abduction, I did not believe it was due to his journalism – which is almost non existent – I called a friend of mine in the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and asked if there was any reason for this. He could not enlighten me either. Relentless in my pursuit to find out the reason for the abduction two months later I rang my CID friend once again. This time he had more to tell me. It wasn’t much but it provided me a vital clue. He said it had to do with identifying Prageeth’s handwriting rather than dissecting the content of his writing.

Third theory – Sandaruwan Senadheera

This piece of information contrasted sharply with the position of the Lanka e news editor Sandaruwan Senadheera who said it was to do with Prageeth’s journalistic act. After he fled to the USA, Sandaruwan insisted the abduction related to an investigation Prageeth was conducting regarding the use of chemical weapons by the government in the last stages of the war. According to him both the LTTE and the government had allegedly used chemical weapons.

Chemical weapons story

After Chandraprema’s theory was published in the Island on May 7, 2010 Sandaruwan wrote an article titled “Why Prageeth Ekneliyagoda went missing?” to Lanka e news which says it was due to this investigation. http://www.lankaenews.com/English/news.php?id=9530

I then started to investigate the chemical weapons issue with more vigour. I talked to some of my friends and relatives who were top army officers on the frontlines of the war but drew a blank.

Upheaval within army

There is today a great upheaval within the army among the rank and file and especially among the top brass. Many jostle to have the spotlight shone on them as the heroes that defeated the Tamil Tigers. The implosion within the army however started with the move by the former Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka to enter politics in mid 2009. Once the former Commander was arrested six days after the Presidential election of 2010 which swept Mahinda Rajapaksa to a second term in a landslide victory, it was a free for all. Fonseka was tried for several offences in three courts martial and many army officers and rank and file were falling over their boots selling, passing on war crimes evidence and video footage. And yet nothing has so far come up relating to chemical weapons usage. This alone does not disprove the theory that chemical weapons were used but let’s just say the jury is still out.

Fourth Theory

In Victor Ivan’s theory he portrayed Prageeth as character assassinating tabloid writer. In his article he states that the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) had in their possession a jungle paper (Kalapaththarayak) purportedly written by Prageeth. Meanwhile I had now heard that another friend of Prageeth’s, Kelly Senanayake – owner of Navamaga Printers was questioned by the CID and the CID had in fact taken a handwriting sample from him. Kelly confirmed he had in fact been summoned to the fourth floor of the CID and questioned about the said document on either the 8th or 9th of January 2010. He had been asked if he had penned the document in question. Kelly had denied writing the same at which point the CID had taken some samples of his handwriting.

Kelly Senanayake

Kelly Senanayake

In fact the document was one Prageeth had written to support Fonseka’s election campaign. In that document he focuses on 23 persons in government including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Presidential siblings Basil, Chamal and Gotabaya, President’s son and nephew Namal and Sasheendra and Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Dulles Allahapperuma. It was a cleverly written work in the first person. For example, “I’m Basil. I’m an American citizen. People call me Mr. ten percent…etc.”

The document was type set and Prageeth checked the proofs as well. Moreover his handwriting was also visible in some sections of the document. But this still did not explain why Prageeth was abducted the first time. For then there was no such document and the Fonseka election campaign had yet to kick off. Moreover the Presidential election itself was yet to be announced.

Human ash

Based on my own research, I would therefore like to posit another theory. It relates not to Prageeth the journalist or cartoonist but to Prageeth the man. I had been reliably informed by one of my sources that Prageeth had been posting human ash in small envelopes to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Prageeth discussed this issue with his closest friends and one of them spread it among his own network.

It was Ravindra Chandralal who spread Prageeth’s idea. Chandralal was not a working journalist either. But he worked in the Free Media Movement as a project-coordinator in the public service journalism prize programme. Chandralal left Sri Lanka after Prageeth went missing.

I contacted Chandralal last week and he confirmed that Prageeth had indeed discussed with him about sending human ash to the President. But he insisted he didn’t know whether Prageeth actually did it or not. When I asked Chandralal whether he had repeated this to anyone he said he might have told this to some others.

Certainly given what we know now, if such a thing were done then the idea had to come from Prageeth. In Sri Lanka the power of spirits and human ash is deeply believed in. Steeped in mysticism and the spirit world as most Sri Lankans are, with politicians rarely stepping out of a morning without consulting their astrologer, the perceived power in such a gesture is phenomenal. In fact many people resort to sending human ash when they feel oppressed or when there is widespread suppression.

Be that as it may one morning The President’s media director Chandrapala Liyanage had chanced to open an envelope which contained human ash and scared out of his wits by this, screamed loudly.

Prageeth who had got to know of Liyanage’s reaction had laughed heartily finding the incident rather funny. The President’s Media Secretary Liyanage however did not see the joke. Terrified he begged the President to give him another job. So the President sent him to the Sri Lankan embassy in Italy.

I spoke with Chandrapala Liyanage last month who confirmed the incident took place and further said that two people were questioned regarding this issue.

It seems clear that Prageeth had been allegedly sending human ash to the Presidential Secretariat from where ever he used to travel to – Matale, Dambulla, Anuradapura, Trincomalee, Batticaloa etc.

Himself a gifted artist Prageeth would have done it using his talent to change his handwriting. Therefore when he was abducted the first time in August 2009 it was most likely because he was allegedly sending human ash in envelopes to the Presidential Secretariat. (At this point it is important to note that this was probably not human ash at all but collected from a firewood stove and merely had the appearance of human ash – but the psychological impact of such a package to a spirit sensitive society is tremendous).

It is therefore reasonable to conclude that his first time abductors had taken samples of his handwriting and had checked it and then released him. Prageeth is an excellent artist and exceptional at his craft. He may have cleverly changed his handwriting so they could not recognise it. That is why they said he was the wrong man and let him go. That is perhaps why he didn’t tell anyone about it and didn’t want to talk about anything that happened during that night in captivity. It was to Prageeth’s advantage to cover up the issue from everybody. Even if People didn’t believe he was abducted he didn’t care. It was more important for him that the issue just go away. I recall what he said me when I phoned him after the first abduction. “It looks as if you can’t write anything by pen.”

Prageeth’s abduction has nothing to do with his journalism

It is my considered opinion that Prageeth was not abducted due to his journalism. Therefore to portray him as a missing journalist is false and unfair to genuine journalists who undergo real hardship. Those who portray him as a journalist are wrong but we must give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes circumstances call for desperate measures and to save a life of a fellow human being we perhaps can forgive the slight twist of fact. These persons may have done it to accelerate the finding process and apply maximum pressure on the government of Sri Lanka who are undoubtedly guilty of media suppression to the worst degree.

Nonetheless it is said that “Journalism Is The First Rough Draft of History”. So as journalists we have to first respect the truth. But beyond the interpretation of truth there is one exception.

Can journalists lie to save lives?

The prohibition on lying is central to virtually every moral outlook that can be taken seriously, and it reflects the value that we necessarily place upon truthful communication and the benefits that commonly flow from it. But although some great moralists and philosophers have argued that we are unconditionally obliged not to lie, their arguments fail to address adequately those circumstances that are either so morally trivial that they annul the charge of immorality ( as with certain jokes that rely upon momentary deception for their moral point), or, more significantly, are so morally grave that they override the point of prohibition. This last possibility is well illustrated by the lies and deceptions that had to be practiced by many of the heroic people who helped rescue Jews and other victims from the Nazis during the Second World War. Oskar Schindler was but one such case. Another was Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman and early Fascist who later broke with fascism and posing as a Spanish diplomat who worked through the Spanish embassy to save thousands of Jews in Hungary by various techniques that involved elements of deception and lying. (Page 77 Report of the Ethics Review Committee- Australian Journalists’ Association Section- 1997)

I agree with Malinda Seneviratne when he says we need to know where Ekneligoda is, in spite of who he is, what he did/does for a living and who his friends are. We need to know where he is because he is a fellow-citizen.

*This article is first published on June 13, 2011 in Lanka Independent 

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