By Frederica Jansz
On December 13, 2009 The Sunday Leader’s headline “Gota Ordered Them To Be Shot” – General Sarath Fonseka would become the most explosive story of the year.
The article which, perfectly accurately, quoted the General as saying he had heard that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had given an illegal order asking Brigadier Shavendra Silva (later promoted General) to not accommodate surrendering LTTE cadres, became more than a news story.
It became a political phenomenon and the allegations, denials, retractions and recriminations that followed are history.
However it is a history that has come to be grossly distorted.
As all the various parties caught in the story’s fallout struggled to save face, what began as a piece of journalism accusing the government of a serious war crime would become, through lies and deception, a coup for the Rajapaksa administration. Ultimately the campaign to vilify and distort the article and discredit me has now reached a point where I feel, I must comment and present what I believe to be an accurate version of the events leading to and following its publication.
To start at the beginning
After the presidential election was formally declared The Sunday Leader’s management made a decision that the paper would at an editorial level broadly throw its weight behind Sarath Fonseka’s campaign.
The Rajapaksa administration, by filing multiple law suits against this paper and failing to take real action in the ongoing investigation into Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, left The Sunday Leader’s management with no alternative.
Facing devastating court cases The Leader had no option but to back Fonseka and despite my personal reservations I sympathised with the management’s position and agreed to devote a large amount of page space to the General’s campaign.
As part of our effort to give publicity to Sarath Fonseka’s campaign I requested on Monday, December 7 an interview with the General. The interview was intended to both give the reading public a better idea of the General as a person and allow him to put forward his views regarding his campaign and major policy issues.
We requested the interview on December 7, and were told that it could be done on Wednesday December 9 but at extremely short notice we were informed that the General would only be able to see us on Tuesday December 8 at 5.30 p.m.
Even at such short notice The Sunday Leader considered the interview sufficiently important that Lal Wickrematunge, the Leader’s Chairman, Raknish Wijewardene, a journalist, Thusitha Kumara a photographer and myself gathered at the General’s office at Reid Avenue on December 8th a little before 5.30 p.m.
As the General was preoccupied with the important business of managing a campaign we waited over an hour for our appointment but were eventually granted an audience with the man himself.
The interview proceeded as a series of questions and answers on major topics and issues and a transcript of the interview by Raknish Wijewardene appeared in The Sunday Leader of December 13, 2009.
However towards the end of the interview we began to discuss the ethnic conflict and the role Fonseka had played in the war.
I then asked him one final question. In relation to claims made both internationally and locally that LTTE surrendees carrying white flags had, instead of being accommodated, been killed. I asked the General what really happened.
In that context Fonseka made the allegation that would later appear in the newspapers.
He claimed he had heard that Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered any surrendering LTTE cadres to be shot, and related the story of Pulidevan and Nadesan’s surrender.
When Sarath Fonseka made this allegation I reacted as any journalist would. A presidential candidate and decorated war hero was accusing the incumbent President’s brother of ordering the death of unarmed surrendering LTTE leaders and their families.
That was simply an extraordinary story and I knew immediately that this would be the paper’s headline for the week.
It was at this point that I took the decision to run Fonseka’s allegation as a headline separate from the main interview.
It seemed obvious that an allegation of this magnitude deserved special attention.
As the accusation; the massacre of surrendering cadres and their families was extremely serious, I contacted all of those implicated in the General’s denunciation.
When I spoke with General Shavendra Silva he said he could not comment without permission to do so. I then spoke with Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara who later got back to me saying he had discussed the matter with the current Army Commander Jagath Jayasuriya as well as General Shavendra Silva and collectively taken a decision that they would not issue any comment. When I spoke with Basil Rajapaksa he denied that Norway had got in touch with him regarding this issue. Rajapaksa however did not deny knowledge of the incident. I tried contacting Gotabaya Rajapaksa but was told he had not come into his office on that day, December 11, 2009. I left a message with his office but Gotabaya Rajapaksa holds a personal grudge against this newspaper and refuses to speak to the Leader.
However, having secured an adequate number of responses from the government and the army I was able to compile the story.
Realising the impact such striking allegations would have, at 9.45 a.m. before the paper went to print on Saturday I once gain contacted Sarath Fonseka.
During a twenty minute phone conversation the General reiterated that he stood by the allegation. At that point I asked him who the journalist was who had told him about the supposedly illegal order given by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Shavendra Silva. Fonseka gave me the journalist’s name but asked that I not name him “for reasons for his own personal security.” A request I obliged.
Fonseka then said that he was willing to go on record with his claim and he assured me he would not back down. Only with that assurance did we go to print.
On Saturday the paper went to print and at The Sunday Leader’s premises at Ratmalana extra precautions were taken to guard against possible government reprisals; new lighting was installed, and new private security personnel were hired. Publishing what we thought was a story that would damage the credibility of senior government officials the newspaper naturally feared that the government or those aligned to it would, as they have done in the past, react violently.
And that was our biggest mistake
We assumed the government would react as they have done in the past with threats and violence but the Rajapaksa regime is capable of learning and should never be underestimated.
By contacting Basil Rajapaksa we had already given the government advanced warning; they knew the story was coming and they reacted decisively; not with the violence as we had expected but with spin.
After the story broke, instead of flatly denying the allegation or threatening journalists the government began to portray Fonseka’s allegation as an act of treachery. The story of the massacre was irrelevant. What mattered was that by speaking out Fonseka was betraying Gotabaya, the army and the country.
We believe the outcry that followed the story was to a large extent the result of an orchestrated campaign.
A government backed campaign to publicise particularly in Sinhala, a distorted version of the story, and present the General as a traitor. The objective behind the campaign was to convince the General that his accusations were eroding his popularity and to force him to back down in the interest of winning more votes.
This campaign began immediately after the newspaper went on sale with radio shows denouncing the story as an act of treachery by early Sunday morning.
The Sunday Leader’s message board which usually receives one hundred responses for a lead story was flooded with messages by 2 a.m. on December 13 and received well over one thousand (1000) responses to the story; the vast majority of them being extremely similar comments denouncing Fonseka.
Our analysis indicates that this was an orchestrated campaign with a small number of users using multiple log-in names to post multiple messages on The Sunday Leader website denouncing Fonseka as a traitor.
However the internet was only a small part of the campaign and by Sunday afternoon the state media was in a frenzy already denouncing the General as a traitor and alleging a conspiracy between The Sunday Leader, the General and the usual unpatriotic forces – the Western NGOs, etc.
Despite this pressure it is notable that in the hours after its publication the General stood by the story. In a press conference he gave on Sunday afternoon at the Jaic Hilton, documented by the BBC, he made no effort to deny the story.
It was only as the government’s denunciation campaign intensified with TV, radio, and internet sites declaring the former war hero a traitor that Fonseka’s advisors Mangala Samaraweera, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Vijitha Herath in particular advised him to retract part of the story.
At a meeting with the Chairman of The Sunday Leader, Lal Wickrematunge on Monday, December 14, senior UNP leaders together with Samaraweera and the JVP insisted that a retraction was necessary as the story had damaged Fonseka’s reputation as a patriot.
It was requested that The Leader retract those parts of the article mentioning Shavendra Silva. The argument being that by criticising the army Fonseka was betraying his own comrades and losing public support.
However as a journalist and as someone who is committed to the truth I refused to publish a fraudulent retraction.
Also as I had contacted Shavendra Silva to get his version of events it was impossible for me to deny that he had been mentioned.
Later that same day, December 14, I met the General at approximately 2.45 p.m. whereupon he reiterated that he could not deny what he had said.
Mangala Samaraweera and Vijitha Herath however remained adamant demanding that The Leader publish a partial retraction. However as a journalist I refused to back down knowing that what I had published was the truth.
Finally, we agreed on a compromise whereby a clarification written by Sarath Fonseka would appear in The Sunday Leader of December 20, 2009 issue. This clarification emphasizes a technical point and is in no way a retraction.
However, The Sunday Leader is of course a weekly paper and during the course of the week pressure continued to mount on Fonseka.
Accused of betraying the army and conspiring to involve the international community in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, at a hastily convened press conference at his offices at Reid Avenue the General addressed the matter of The Sunday Leader story.
Under immense pressure at this briefing and unable to flatly deny what he knew to be the truth, the General waffled and issued what was neither a clarification nor a retraction.
However over the following days his advisors and supporters would insist that Fonseka had denied the story.
The move from clarification to retraction and denial proved to be a disaster.
By backing down the politically inexperienced Fonseka ultimately played completely into the hands of the government.
He immediately came across as indecisive and weak. No one believed his half-hearted denials and his credibility suffered considerable damage.
The original article was written in part to demonstrate that Fonseka as a true war hero was not scared to confront the government’s bogeymen head-on. By backing down he proved himself to be incapable of tackling the Rajapaksas with the most powerful weapon at his disposal; the truth.
Again the fundamental mistake was the assumption that the government would react clumsily and violently and attempt to intimidate the newspaper into burying the story. By reacting with spin and turning Fonseka’s allegation into a question of patriotism the government was able to deal in its favourite currency of traitors and patriots.
By implying that the General’s comments made him appear a traitor and were losing him support, they put enormous pressure on him to rescind the story and squash any potential investigation into the event.
And Fonseka on the advice of his political advisors walked into the government’s trap; with a partial retraction that turned out to be a triumph for the government.
Fonseka’s garbled and gradual retraction destroyed his credibility, and also squashed any hope of an impartial investigation into the alleged massacre. As an added bonus for the government it also served to discredit that other thorn in the Rajapaksas side — The Sunday Leader.
As usual the government’s opponents — just like the LTTE, UNP and the JVP in the past — were through division, cowardice and petty-mindedness destroying themselves.
The end result has been devastating for Sarath Fonseka who has come across not only as unpatriotic but also as vacillating and indecisive.
To his credit the General never showed any enthusiasm for the denial always admitting that he had said what he had said. It was pressure from his advisors that pushed him to make his various half retractions.
To make matters worse however instead of burying the story after the press conference and clarification in The Leader, the JVP in particular began to circulate absurd rumors; that The Sunday Leader had conspired with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to discredit Fonseka, and that I had begged the General’s forgiveness for misquoting him etc. These hopelessly false allegations only had the effect of keeping an embarrassing story in the public eye.
Finally, the JVP threatened to sue The Sunday Leader for defaming Fonseka.
However, the UNP-side of the opposition alliance assured us that no Letter Of Demand would be forthcoming. In fact Malik Samarawickrema of the UNP finally issued instruction to bury the story and bring an end to a clumsy and bungled chapter in the General’s campaign.
And we at The Leader can only hope that once the story is buried the lies and spin associated with it will disappear as well.
The Red Comrades Bungle Again
The JVP in particular has failed to play a constructive role in containing the damage from the original story and the resulting government spin.
As Fonseka’s patriotic credentials came under threat the patriotic JVP fearing an erosion of support became determined to prove that SF was a true patriot and in doing so did half the government’s work.
They first pushed him into the devastating half retraction but having done that they realised that a retraction wasn’t enough and that in order to prove that he never said what he did actually say, he would have to sue.
Understandably the General is reluctant to sue as he is unable to honestly deny he made those comments. The General’s reluctance compelled the JVP to resort to new muckraking tactics, and they began to claim that the article was the result of a conspiracy between The Sunday Leader and the Rajapaksas.
Of course the idea of any collaboration between The Sunday Leader and the Rajapaksas not even a year after Lasantha Wickrematunge’s assassination is offensive and absurd.
Apart from these fraudulent claims, JVP mouthpieces online have published that at some point I began weeping and begging the General for forgiveness.
Personally however I’m not much given to tears and the JVP’s and Sarath Fonseka’s troubles are definitely not going to move me to tears any time soon. I certainly don’t feel I have anything to apologize for other than perhaps underestimating the sheer cunning of the Rajapaksas’ media machine and the JVP’s stupidity in playing into the government’s hands.
Extraordinarily, Lanka-E-News even went so far as to run a completely fabricated interview I was supposed to have conducted with General Shavendra Silva. They composed an entirely fictitious interview including a set of questions and answers with the General.
While this is an unusually creative attempt at defamation, in reality since my one telephone call to General Shavendra Silva on Friday December 11, 2009 to ask for his version of the original allegation I have not spoken with him once nor have I ever met him. I have certainly never conducted an interview with him.
Thereafter Lanka-E-News continued to publish more defamatory and outright lies against me. These claims are as baseless and absurd as the purported interview with Shavendra Silva.
Rajiva’s Letter – Proof Of Government Spin
That the government deliberately spun the reaction surrounding the article to its advantage is clear from the events surrounding Rajiva Wijesinha’s response to UN Special Rapporteur for Extra Judicial Killings, Phillip Alston’s query.
Alston has called for a government response to Fonseka’s allegations. However Wijesinha used Fonseka’s clarification in The Sunday Leader where the General claimed that no white flags were in fact carried to argue that there was no basis for an investigation.
Wijesinha’s response implied that the government accepted Fonseka’s clarification and was using it to clear its name at the UN and that as such there was no story.
Days later however the government withdrew this letter, in order to exacerbate the fall out from the story, which they would continue to spin to their advantage.
By keeping the story in the news they would continue to discredit Fonseka but when it suited them, preferably after the election they would use his clarification to quash any potential war-crimes investigation.
Fonseka’s bungling media camp however failed to see that Wijesinha’s letter and its subsequent withdrawal effectively vindicated their man. And they failed to point out that the letter proved that the government itself had accepted Fonseka’s clarification.