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   Unbowed and Unafraid


Armed police officers seal the Leader
press in May 2000


One of the bullet-riddled vehicles at
Lasantha’s residence


Journalists inspect the charred remains of their press


A copy of last Wednesday’s Morning
 Leader
that survived the inferno

By Vimukthi Yapa

From its inception in 1994, The Sunday Leader's editors and scribes were presented with a special gift from their publishers: a pledge of editorial freedom.

It was this special carte blanche that was most responsible for The Leader's ascension as one of the strongest foci of liberal democratic values in Sri Lanka. The newspaper was quick to discover and indiscriminately expose regular acts of corruption by the ministers and officials of every government that has come into office since, regardless of political complexion.

Thus The Leader newspapers and its writers have frequently been threatened and come under attack by those exposed in its pages, and those opposed to its values.


"I will show you what it is to be scared! I will rest only once I have destroyed you! You wait and see!"

— President Mahinda Rajapakse


One of the first and to date most twisted stones cast at this newspaper was in 1995, following a spate of exclusive exposures on corruption at the government owned national carrier Air Lanka, now SriLankan Airlines.

Attacked

At around 11 pm on Tuesday, February 7, 1995 the Editor-in-Chief of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge and his wife were driving home when they noticed what they thought was a broken down vehicle. When they stopped to offer assistance, a brutal ambush was sprung. Four masked men sprang from the vehicle armed with clubs and nail-spiked poles, physically thrashing Lasantha to the ground, and unleashing what was left of their fury on his helpless wife, beating her as well, before making their hasty escape.

Lasantha was hospitalised briefly with cuts and bruises, but after he was discharged, the work of the paper continued unabated. Despite a complaint made by the Wickrematunges to the police, not a single suspect was ever arrested in connection with the case, and the perpetrators walk free to this day.

As the work of The Leader continued and grew in tenacity, its growing list of enemies sought more means to silence its Editor and thus stifle its string of damning expos‚s. Three years after the first attack on the Wickrematunges, spiked poles and clubs had ceased to be the order of the day for politicians irritated by continuing exposures of corruption and incompetence in The Sunday Leader.

In mid-1998 details of the backroom dealings and improprieties that led to the privatisation of Air Lanka through a sale of its stock to Emirates were laid bare in The Leader. This series of expos‚s put graft in the order of millions of dollars before the public eye, and was clearly not to the liking of many. How better to muzzle the press than by going Mafia style, using military-spec assault rifles against journalists?

Automatic fire

In the second week of June, 1998, Wickrematunge began to notice that his house was under surveillance. A mysterious white van with tinted windows was regularly parked outside the premises. On June 17 Wickrematunge and his wife attended a dinner, where they exchanged pleasantries with some cricketers before returning home at around 11 pm. About 10 minutes later they heard what they initially thought was an explosion of firecrackers. A few seconds and several shattered panes of glass later they realised that they were under attack.

Wickrematunge, his wife, children, and domestic aides dived for cover as their house in Nugegoda was bombarded by heavy penetration ammunition from weapons of war, shattering windows, chiselling at the walls, and effortlessly cutting through the garage gate to severely damage the two vehicles parked inside the residence. A driver nearly lost his life as he ducked behind a jeep in the garage, bullets whizzing bare inches from his neck. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Inspections later revealed 40 empty T-56 bullet cartridges strewn on the road outside the house. This heavily armed assault team also managed to vanish into thin air, despite the country being on a war footing and the suburbs of Nugegoda being littered with checkpoints.

Were the culprits ever found? Was a suspect ever questioned or an arrest made? Did the government or any local authority really lift a finger to apprehend and bring to justice those responsible for an act of such barbarism? The answers are no, no, and of course, no.

Harassment

It was later that same year that the government officially engaged in harassing The Sunday Leader. The paper had carried a story on July 26 producing a letter written by two members of the Bribery Commission to then Speaker of Parliament, K.B. Ratnayake, urging that he remove two ministers, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and G.L. Peiris, from a Parliamentary Select Committee that was probing their own conduct!

Both ministers refused point blank to step down from the committee, and the result of the expos‚ was a concerted campaign to dislodge the two bribery commissioners, T.A. De S. Wijesundera and Rudra Rajasingham, from their office.

As a part of this campaign, CID officers were dispatched on August 14, 1998 to the office of The Sunday Leader demanding a statement from Editor-in-Chief Lasantha Wickrematunge on who it was that had leaked the letter about the ministers to the newspaper. Of course, The Sunday Leader has never revealed its sources, and never will. In response to the CID's interrogation, Wickrematunge insisted that the CID record his response: why had they not recorded a statement regarding the shooting up of his house a mere two months earlier?

The next serious challenge posed to the newspaper was a legal one in 2000, precipitated by the military setbacks suffered in the north as a result of political meddling in the armed forces. On April 22, 2000 the LTTE attacked the military complexes at Elephant's Pass, over-running the base and quickly pushing the armed forces further north towards Jaffna. The embarrassment led to the appointment by the government of a media censor to block all reporting on the military situation.

Censorship

This led, amongst other stipulations, to the broadcast of foreign TV news services being suspended in the country and all newspaper articles pertaining to the war being screened by the government. Needless to say, most of the content the government sought to prevent from being published was an effort to hide its own incompetence. The Sunday Leader was quick to prove beyond doubt with an expos‚ published on May 14, 2000 that the censorship itself was aimed at protecting the government rather than the armed forces.

The paper sent two articles to the censor, one blaming the entire state of the nation on the government and the other identical, except blaming the UNP and the leader of the opposition for the same. Guess what? The article about the government was rejected outright and that blaming the UNP was approved with barely a single change. How could a government with that much egg on its face defend itself other than by shooting journalists?

By mid-May panic had engulfed the whole country, with the over-running of the army camp at Palai by the LTTE, as it was mistakenly thought that the Air Force Base at Palali - the last major military bastion in the north - had been captured instead. Later news began to spread about a large scale LTTE attack on Palali itself, and terror gripped the nation, which was kept in the dark on what was going on.

The Sunday Leader took the view that the way in which the media censorship operated was unconstitutional, and so published on May 21, on its front page, an article titled 'War in Fantasy Land - Palali not under attack' in an attempt to tell the public what was 'not' happening in the north.

Sealed

The very next day, agents of the government arrived en masse at our press in Ratmalana and surrounded it, locking it up and shutting it down under powers claimed had been vested under the director of information through Section 14 of the Emergency Regulation No. 1 of 2000.

Leader Publications 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. A three judge bench of the court heard the case and, on June 30, 2000 gave a judgement in favour of the newspaper.

The court not only overturned the ban on publication and sealing of the press, but invalidated the censorship regime, calling it unconstitutional, and ordered that the paper be re-opened.

The Sunday Leader has not been victimised only by governments lead by the SLFP. It was during Ranil Wickremesinghe's tenure as prime minister that a threat to murder the Editor-in-Chief was uttered in the corridors of parliament by a sitting cabinet minister.

The Sunday Leader had in July 2003 begun running a series of exposes into corruption in the ministry of then-UNP Minister Mahinda Wijesekera. As quoted without contradiction in reports published by several rights groups, he responded with these words aimed at Lasantha uttered in rage at the parliament complex: "very soon I'll put him in a room and have him shot or he will be stabbed to death!"

From hero to zero

When Mahinda Rajapakse was sworn in as prime minister in April 2004, The Sunday Leader warmly welcomed him to office stating in our very next editorial that "We at The Sunday Leader cannot hide our pleasure at welcoming Mahinda as the country's next prime minister." We also set a precedent in the warmness of that welcome by referring to Rajapakse throughout that editorial by his first name.

It was just over a year later that the same pages bore the politically tragic details of his now infamous 'Helping Hambantota' scam.

Sadly, Rajapakse had not lived up to the expectations the country had of him. The actions today of the Rajapakse brothers demonstrate that Helping Hambantota was but a modest beginning.

This viewpoint cost The Leader dearly and on October 16, 2005 the premises of The Leader's press were raided by an armed gang, which assaulted and threatened employees, and set fire to newspapers and machinery before taking flight. Thankfully Leader staff had been able to extinguish the fire, thereby saving the printing press from destruction. No action to apprehend those responsible was ever taken by the police.

Even after Rajapakse won office as President in November 2005, the newspaper continued to perform its duties unabated, earning a vicious threat from our Chief Executive.

Editor-in-Chief Lasantha Wickrematunge received a phone call on his mobile at 11:13 am on January 11, 2006. The man who ultimately came on-line at the other end was the elected Executive President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka: His Excellency Don Mahendra Percy Rajapakse.

Rajapakse had a lot to say, and he chose his epithets carefully from the choicest available in the Sinhala lexicon. Here is a reminder of some of the things the President said:

 "F**k your mother, you son of a bloody wh**e!"

 "I will finish you!"

 "I treated you well all this while. Now I will destroy you. You don't know who Mahinda Rajapakse is. You watch what I will do to you!"

Not quite, perhaps, what his alma mater, Thurstan College, expected of its alumni.

Over nothing

Uncharacteristically rattled by Rajapakse's outburst, Wickrematunge had inquired what exactly it was that Rajapakse was so upset about. The President was referring to an article about his wife Shiranthi, that simply did not exist in that day's Morning Leader. Lasantha had explained that such an article was a figment of the President's imagination: someone had been feeding him meat.

He had added, addressing Rajapakse by his familiar first name, "Mahinda, just because you are President, do not talk in that threatening way. We don't get intimidated by threats. Tell us what it is we are supposed to have written."

And how did the duly elected President of Sri Lanka respond?

 "You are not scared!"

 "I will show you what it is to be scared. I will rest only once I have destroyed you. You wait and see. You don't know who Mahinda Rajapakse is."

Just a month later, on February 21, 2006, Lasantha was harassed by immigration officials acting on the dictates of the government as he waited to board a plane at Bandaranaike International Airport, to attend the Geneva peace talks.

Detained

Wickrematunge arrived at the airport and presented his passport to emigration officials who held him up and questioned him for over half an hour. It was only when Wickrematunge broadcast his plight on Sirasa Radio via his mobile phone that authorities received a hasty message from Colombo to let him through, a mere five minutes before his flight was to depart.

It was later revealed by Immigration and Emigration Chief P.B. Abeykoon that the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) had issued orders to prevent one "Wickrematunge" from leaving the country, thus the holdup.

Luckily for them, only 'one' Wickrematunge happened to pass through the airport on that day. Heaven help the airport authorities should the NIB order them to detain every "Perera," "Silva" or "Mohamed" that arrives at the airport.

Next up in this sordid saga was the attempt made by the government to actually arrest Wickrematunge on December 28, 2006, for 'endangering national security' by publishing the details of a luxury bunker to be built in the presidential complex. That exposure was considered a threat to national security, even though the plans for the bunker were publicly available. Annoyingly for Rajapakse, The Sunday Leader had in advance of publication of the details sought a clarification from Director General, Media Centre for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle.

The trusty Daily News slipped in a 'Talking Point' article on their December 28, 2006 issue hinting at the Attorney General to give a green light for Wickrematunge's arrest. Ultimately the pressure brought to bear on the government was too great and moves to arrest the Editor without the approval of then Attorney General, K.C. Kamalasabeyson, which approval, correctly, was not given, stopped cold.

Bizarre episode

Perhaps the most bizarre of the attacks against this newspaper took place just last month with the arbitrary incarceration by the CID of young journalist Arthur Wamanan and his mother, who was later forced to leave her son in custody at the CID's notorious fourth floor. Wamanan was arrested based purely on a statement made to the CID by Minister Mano Wijeratne.

The CID tried their very best to hold Arthur in remand, but were ultimately forced to produce him in court in the full glare of the public and the media.

 When the Chief Magistrate of Mount Lavinia asked what the CID's objections to bail were, pat came the answer from the CID Chief Inspector presenting the case: "His family is from the north, and he lives in Wellawatte." That a man charged with enforcing the law, protecting the public, and seeking justice would say such a thing in court to justify an arrest, in itself proves how vital it is that The Leader and other institutions keep the flag of liberal democratic values flying in Sri Lanka.

Commando style

Earlier this week, an armed group of masked men burst into the press of The Leader newspapers for the second time in two years - this time in commando style.

They surrounded the press building, apprehending at gunpoint every person present, forcing them to kneel in a line and surrender their mobile phones. No mistakes this time, they were determined to finish the job. A few petrol bombs later, and the printing machine put out of use, the goons fled in their four wheel drive vehicles through the high security zone.

Notwithstanding this cowardly attack, we will continue to publish. That many pages of today's issue are in black and white serve to highlight the determination and courage of this newspaper's loyal and dedicated staff to bring you this newspaper.

Come what may, The Leader newspapers will continue to prove to its detractors that the pen is mightier than the sword.

We will prevail...unbowed, and unafraid.



©Leader Publications (Pvt) Ltd.
24, Katukurunduwatte Road, Ratmalana Sri Lanka
Tel : +94-75-365891,2 Fax : +94-75-365891
email :
editor@thesundayleader.lk

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