By Malinda Seneviratne –
Two questions have been posed by journalist Hafeel Farisz on the subject of Lasantha Wickremathunge: Has Lasantha’s journalistic panache evolved into a more vibrant and potent form of media, or have we been left still fighting to sift through the rubble after his death? What does it mean to the rule of law and the right of the public to be informed, when an editor of a national newspaper is brutally murdered a stone’s throw from a High Security Zone, with not a single person found responsible for the murder?
Farisz believes that the answers to these questions ‘will help unravel the many strands that truth might possess and help understand the bigger dynamics of democracy that prevail in the country as of now’. He believes also that his death should not be mourned and instead his legacy demands celebration.
The last is a personal view and a subjective assessment of legacy worth. Nothing wrong in that. It is something applicable to anyone who has died whatever the circumstances of death. The questions, however, are pertinent. Let’s consider them.
Lasantha had panache, few would disagree. He got stories that made waves. He dug deep into things that others didn’t dare touch or just could not. There was vibrancy and potency. Then again, he was selective. There was a lot of frilling. He got the cheers from his readership because they for the most part shared his political positions, especially his party color. He was also cheered by fellow-travelers who shared his pet peeves. He benefitted posthumously from those associations and the accolades showered on him by people who found it a useful way of feathering their own nests. In that rush to make political capital these individuals including those near and dear did Lasantha the supreme injustice by penning in his name a from-the-grave editorial. Peruse his work and you will easily notice the difference in style.
He was selective and conscious of the costs and benefits to party, political project and preferred outcomes. He was effective. His relentless pursuit of Thilanga Sumathipala bore fruit. And yet, once Thilanga plonked himself in the UNP camp, he went silent. He drew from the adage ‘enemy’s enemy is friend’ and this saw him bed with less than savory creatures in the political firmament including the LTTE.
Through it all, however, Lasantha was not apologetic. He made no bones about his preferences or rather didn’t have to. Everyone knew.
These histories frame him squarely. His vibrancy and potency likewise are qualified by his politics which include loyalty, selectivity and obviously conspicuous silences. So when we consider the ‘now’ of media and ask if our ‘today’ is less or more vibrant and potent, the issue spills over everything that ‘Lasantha’ means and has been taken to mean since he was assassinated. If, on the other hand, such things are assessed by consistency, panache, effectiveness and rigor of taking on particular regimes (different from critique of regimes in general) then the benchmark is not too high. Too often courage and panache are assessed in terms of the target of the particular journalist. Throw in venom and then you are champion in the eyes of political friends. If one is sober, is focus on policy rather than individual and still distance oneself from the benefitting party and that’s not enough. Not enough panache, not enough courage. No, one has to attack regime and stand with opposition.
For the record, Lasantha did bite his political enemies, but left corporate crime strictly alone. He picked his fights, as do others, for whatever reasons. He was not a ‘bring it on, bring it all on’ kind of person. On the other hand we have many who would never even dare whisper, even in secret, those words, ‘bring it on’. Comfort zone journalists have always been the majority. Lasantha was an exception.
In short there’s always been navel gazing and always been look-in-the-eye probe. Farisz himself has taken bulls by the horn, so to speak. The Ravaya, then and now, framed by ideology more than party preferences of course, does it well. Thisaranee Gunasekera writes as though she’s never had a happy week in over thirty years, but her critique is as sharp as anyone’s. Emil Vander Poorten sticks to his guns, powered by his own ideological and political preferences. There’s no lack of courage in either. That there are no takers for other reasons (for example their political histories and preferences) is a different matter altogether. As a tribe we are not richer or poorer in that sense. We are poorer because we have lost a colorful, and in many ways charming, fellow journalist. We are poorer because even if it was party politics that shaped his work there was courage in what he did; vibrancy and potency if you will. That rubs off.
Farisz’ second question is more important. Lasantha’s killers are still at large. Any killer at large is a threat and an affront to the rule of law and law enforcement mechanisms. When a journalist is murdered and the killer roams free then indeed the right to information is compromised to boot. Lasantha was unarmed. He was killed in cold blood, and as Farisz says, ‘a stone’s throw from a high security zone’. Failure to apprehend the killers is a blot on the Government and a blot that continues to grow with each passing day, more so because we are talking of a system that was able to track down key terrorists overseas. It is not a can’t-be-done thing. It appears more like a will-not-do thing.
We have lived through many eras where governments of all political persuasion imposed limits by way of regulation and intimidation. The media has taken hits but has not turned over and died. That however is not comfort enough, not reason enough not to be perturbed and certainly no reason not to fight.
If we want to celebrate Lasantha’s life, then, we have to go beyond his legacy, recognize his humanity, his courage and his frailties, draw strength from what was best of the man and cross the boundaries he set himself. That’s how issues embedded in Farisz’ second questions can be addressed.
For now, five years after he was slain, let us remember a man who lived in a country where many lived as though dead and who in death remains alive and gives breath to the living, regardless of differences and preferences.