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Lasantha: A classic case of publish and be damned

Journalists in Sri Lanka, two to three decades and before, comprised all varieties from brilliant products of universities, dropouts, those fired from various posts of responsibility in state and private sectors to even seamen who had roamed the world in cargo ships. That was the mixture of grizzly old gentlemen of this 'profession' when I joined it in the '60s but gradually it has gained uniformity from O/L and A/L 'pass outs' to graduates in journalism from various institutes.

Enter a young man

In the '80s there were few rough diamonds around and I was surprised to be introduced to a young man who had left the Sun newspaper for The Island. The Editor was Vijitha Yapa and I was his Deputy Editor/News Editor. The soft spoken young man, Lasantha Wickrematunge had done a stint in law at London and come back to Sri Lanka, done journalism at the Sun and taken on the post of a Deputy News Editor of The Island.

He looked too young to be among ruffians - some of them veterans with 20 to 30 years experience who dominated the news desk and the sub-editors' desks and I had my doubts whether he would last long. However, I was soon to realise that he was a serendipitous find for the newspaper.

While the veterans roamed the streets, bars and bragged about their brawls and nocturnal adventures, Lasantha quietly got about his job and when it was deadline for printing, almost invariably he produced the lead story. News editors, even now, I believe develop gastric ulcers awaiting news stories as the printing foreman walks up and down shouting loud and clear that it is past deadline and the paper will be delayed if page one is not closed.

For that to happen there has to be a lead story. The circulation manager having a sneaky eye over the production process leaks it to some kind of 'director' or some other hot shot that the paper is likely to be delayed and a large percentage of papers will be left on the streets  unsold, the next day.

 I have gone into length about the working of the news desk to recall, in appreciation, of how much this quiet, unobtrusive youth helped me in my task. I got on well with him because I came to know his father was Haris Wickrematunge, the former Deputy Mayor of Colombo when I was the Municipal Council reporter for the Observer.

Harris was a reporter's delight and enjoyed working with the press. He opened confidential files to reporters providing excellent stories. Those were heady days of politics in the Colombo Municipal Council with the Premadasa and Sugathadasa factions of the UNP locking horns and an enigmatic Mayor Jabir Cader thundering about: 'Who gave that information to the Observer fellow.'

Old world traditions

Lasantha was 'a find' and he needed no special considerations. Since I was his father's friend, he called me Mr. Weerakoon even though cub reporters after two weeks in office will call even the chief editor by his first name.

It amazed me that even when I joined The Leader three years ago as a Consultant Editor, Lasantha, the Editor in Chief and now my boss, called me, Mr. Weerakoon. He did it to his dying day. It is unbelievable that the man who has torn the mightiest in the land to shreds in his paper stuck to old world values and respected his father's friends. Even Lasantha's elder brother sticks to the same family tradition which speaks volumes for their ageing father Haris now living in far away Canada.

Publish and be damned

How this quiet young man became the bete noire of almost all political leaders in so short a time needs much greater study in depth than in this article. He was threatened by the UNP government under Premadasa and fled to Australia with his family. He came back and continued with his explosive exposures but it was only after he commenced editing his own paper that sparks began to fly.

He was once dragged out from his car and assaulted; later his home was riddled with bullets by unidentified persons; The Sunday Leader was proscribed and sealed under emergency laws; the paper was reopened under a ruling of the Supreme Court; innumerable threats made against his life and finally he was shot at and killed by eight armed persons on four motorcycles.

Daily his friends and colleagues warned and advised him on the risks he was running but he carried on regardless as a fearless independent journalist on a dedicated mission. This was a classic case of: Publish and was Damned.

Born to the profession

 My first editor Denzil Peiris used to say that there were two kinds of reporters: Hat in hand reporters - those who begged for news and those with bristling moustaches who kicked open doors,  barged into officials' rooms and demanded news. Lasantha was neither. I would describe him as a born journalist.

Even as the Editor-in-Chief reporting was his forte and this he could do better than any one I knew in my comparatively long career. He had the ability to make people talk whereas many others asking the same questions would have been ejected through doors. Lasantha kept his trade secrets well. He was unbeatable.

 Perhaps his lawyers' training of preparing a brief well might have helped him. He knew the subject he was investigating and though his voice may have been soft and not be intimidating he got his answers. He was tenacious in his questioning.

One of the few incidents I recall was when he  was to interview the then powerful UNP Minister Gamini Dissanayake on a Mahaweli project. Gamini Dissanayake did not like probing questions and a verbal row had flared up. Lasantha not intimidated by ministerial rank pressed on with his questions. An angry Dissanayake was then on my line saying: 'This fellow is asking me impertinent questions and Iam not going to answer him.' Lasantha shouted into the phone: 'He is dodging the vital question!'

I felt proud of him but clearly he was exceeding his limits. I persuaded Dissanayake to give the phone to Lasantha and explained to him that at an interview with the Minister, he (Lasantha) was the guest and could not force the Minister to answer him. An indignant Lasantha came back to office muttering, not too happy about my stand.

Political foray

I was sorry when he decided to quit The Island and contest the Colombo North seat on the SLFP ticket. Father Haris had changed parties. So did Lasantha. He lost, but became the secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, Sirima Bandaranaike. He offered to write a political column for The Island but the paper's management was too jittery in having the young buck back in its ranks.

Lasantha then contributed to The Sunday Times and it has to be said The Island's loss was the Sunday Time's positive gain.

 A short while after publication of The Leader commenced I met him at a diplomatic party and he asked for my opinion about his paper. I said it was 'hectic' but would he be able to keep up the pace? He laughed and said: No problem.

Three years ago when I joined him as his Consultant Editor, he reminded me of what transpired at that party. What did I have to say?

 Fantastic. I said. What else could I have said?     

 


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