Eighteen And Counting
By Romesh Abeywickrema – Director – English News (MTV/MBC)
It would not be incorrect to say that The Sunday Leader redefined journalism in Sri Lanka.
In 1994, when The Sunday Leader first hit stands, little did the newspaper-reading public in this country realise that this newspaper would soon reshape and redefine local journalism. For the first time, Sri Lankan readers were introduced to proper investigative journalism. Its bold, straight-forward, no-nonsense style of journalism was intoxicating and therefore, addictive.
Scandal after scandal adorned the pages of The Sunday Leader and the reading public lapped it up. By 7 am the Leader would be sold out at news stands and in the stands the paper was still available, queues had formed. The pages describedin vivid detail the politics of the day, the politicians involved in the politics, the backroom deals and strategic manoeuvres, the illegal transactions, deals and the wheeler dealers, the financial scandals, market manipulation, sex, sleaze, you name it and it was all there in the first 16 pages of The Leader.
Crooked conversations that were meant to be private were taped and splashed across the pages, underhand deals were caught on camera and published for all to see, and documents that were thought to be securely locked up in safes and vaults were exposed.
Founder Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge left no stone unturned in giving readers the complete picture whatever the story maybe. There was no room for half-bakedproducts and the readers knew this and grabbed it every Sunday week after week.
It is only natural then, that the paper would have to face the wrath of those who stood exposed. And it did. In no uncertain terms. Year after year the attacks continued until finally the Founder Editor wassilenced. But the spirit of the staff could not be silenced that easily and I remember conducting an editorial meeting in the mortuary of the Kalubowila Hospital on the afternoon of Thursday, the 8th of January, 2009, with Lasantha’s body in the other room.
The assassins’ intentions were destroyed when the paper was out, bold as ever, just 48 hours later. That edition named the suspects. Lasantha himself, speaking loudly in death as he did in life, boldly said who would have him killed in his epic editorial published the very next Sunday, “And Then They Came For Me”.
But even three years later, that investigation is still going nowhere and those responsible are roaming free. How prophetic then Lasantha’s last words in print, “the killers will never be caught.”
Those who have been fortunate enough to have passed through the portals of The Sunday Leader know very well that it taught them one thing; to be an all-weather journalist. The bigger the challenge, the greater the commitment and no mountain, too tall to climb.That was the spirit driven in to each and every one by Lasantha Wickrematunge.
He made sure, and he went through great pains to ensure this, that whatever a journalist wished to say he would let them have their say in the pages of The Leader as much as he would have his say if the story was found wanting. He gave journalists all the freedom they could possibly ask for. To the genuine journalist looking for the high octane ‘stuff,’ this was nirvana. No one would dare let the side down and to compromise on the high standards maintained at each desk, was plain and simple sacrilege.
The Leader thrived with its heady mix of exposes, precisepolitical insight, cutting edge editorials, comprehensive news coverage and entertaining features.
The proof they say is in the pudding and ever since the Editors Guild Awards of Excellence were introduced in 1997, The Leader dominated the awards, so much so that 10 years down the line the organisers’ could stomach it no more and having run out of options, resorted to the most unsavoury device of changing the eligibility criteria to keep the paper out. The Sunday Leader has been principled enough to stay out ever since.
While many newspapers have come and gone in the 18 years The Leader has been around, none have come anywhere close to achieving the success that it has. This I believe is because The Leader has stayed anchored to its founding principles, taking a step at a time, unbowed and unafraid.