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   When media freedom was reduced to ash


Staff salvaging some of The Morning Leader paper
 bundles to be dispatched to the news stands

Photo by Asoka Fernando

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Exactly a month ago from today, on October 24, a young Sunday Leader journalist, Arthur Wamanan was arrested by the CID on an uncorroborated complaint lodged by Enterprise Development Minister, Mano Wijeratne.

It sounded outrageous to those who knew him, and the heartache and anxiety his arrest brought have not diminished as yet. When Wamanan's colleagues felt that things could not get any worse than having the young reporter remanded on a trumpeted extortion charge, they did. Disaster came in the form of petrol bombs and wreaked havoc on the printing press of Leader Publications disrupting publication, and entailed a loss of over Rs. 80 million.

Around 2.15 a.m. on November 21, a group of unidentified goons jumped over the Leader walls from different directions and overwhelmed the security personnel on duty. Armed with cricket bats, petrol cans and T- 56 weapons, the thugs managed to access a building located in an area considered a high security zone situated in close proximity to the Ratmalana air base. 

The scheme

The arsonists simply went for the printing machines as they ordered the workers - both security personnel and those helping to bundle The Morning Leader copies that had just rolled out of the machines to kneel and not get in the way. The workers' mobile telephones were swiftly removed while a single worker, bemused by what was going on was dealt severe blows with a cricket stump. He sustained injuries that were later treated in hospital.

The Morning Leader newspaper that was being readied for distribution became the first casualty. Instead of making it to the newsstands on November 21 morn, the copies were burnt to cinders by the arsonists. They lay in ugly heaps in many a corner of the burnt up printing press, sad piles in silent testimony to the violence that threatens to consume media houses in flames of fury today. Some copies which the staff later managed to salvage were quickly dispatched to the news stands.

Activists and media organisations expressed their shock and dismay over the incident, the second time the same printing press came under attack while the state too joined to quickly condemn the incident. In 2005, a goon squad carried out an arson attack in the run up to the presidential election.

Worldwide condemnation

While there was worldwide condemnation and the Free Media Movement (FMM), an IFJ affiliate reported that the recent civil defamation filed by The Morning Leader editor against the Asian Tribune website could be the likely motive for the attack.

 "This vicious attack underscores the dangers faced by the media in Sri Lanka," said IFJ, Asia -Pacific Director, Jacqueline Park. "The authorities must take immediate action to locate and punish the attackers. Journalism cannot flourish as long as this level of violence is tolerated."

Independent observers however attribute the attack to the recent spate of articles published in the publications of The Sunday Leader, The Morning Leader and Irudina exposing corruption in high places.

"It is the kind of institution that would be either loved or hated. It has a history of coming under attack for being critical. It is critical at a time when many institutions seek cover under safe and uncritical journalism, lest they earn the wrath of the powers that be," notes Convenor, Free Media Movement, Sunanda Deshapriya.

The story of Leader Publications cannot be said any better. In February 1995, Editor, The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge came under physical attack. Three years later, in 1998, his house was attacked. Two months later, the CID grilled the editor.

Intimidation

As if the multi faceted attacks on Wickrematunge were insufficient to try and muzzle the publication, in May 2000 the newspaper was sealed by the then administration in connection with a news report published on the Palaly air base not coming under attack.

In 2003, a senior cabinet minister at that time threatened to kill Wickrematunge. In October 2005, just over two years ago came the first attempt to destroy the printing press where the three newspapers are published.

On January 13, 2006, The Sunday Leader Editor received a threatening telephone call from the highest in the land pledging to 'finish him off.' En route to Geneva, Wickrematunge was next harassed prior to departure, causing a furore at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). As the year ended, on December 28, 2006, over a story published in The Sunday Leader about a presidential bunker in the Fort, the CID attempted to arrest Wickrematunge. It was media solidarity that stood in the way of embarrassed sleuths that day. 

Grilled

Just last month, Arthur Wamanan, a young investigative journalist was grilled by the CID and then remanded for two days on an uncorroborated charge of extortion. The latest in this series of attacks is the petrol bomb attack on November 21.

The number of times Leader journalists have been grilled by the CID are too numerous to record here. It is as if the entire system is conspiring to cripple the organisation and to harass and intimidate its journalists.

The latest attack however leaves some questions unanswered. Let's momentarily overlook the issue of media freedom here. Turn to national security, the mantram of this government as well as its most marketable excuse.

For all intents and purposes, the newspaper office and its printing press are said to be located within a high security zone (HSZ) in Ratmalana, in close proximity to the airport, the SLAF airbase and the Kotelawala Defence Academy. Access to such an area is not easily gained.

But the emergence of this factor has suddenly caused the defence establishment to go into 'denial' mode and claim that the area is not designated as a HSZ. And that's what OIC, Mount Lavinia Police, Mahesh Perera claimed, laying the blame on the newspaper establishment for "insufficient private security."

With several roadblocks in every direction, it is absurd even to suggest that a goon squad, armed and travelling around 2 a.m. not even being detected by any of the security check points. If that does not smell of complicity, what does?

As news spread like wildfire about the Leader coming under attack yet again, President Mahinda Rajapakse was among the first to call and inquire about the attack and to promise an impartial inquiry. It is an interesting undertaking given that investigations into the 2005 arson attack are yet to yield any results.

Overwhelming support

As always, it was the overwhelming support of the media community that helped us keep our flag flying despite adversity. This time it was no different. Calls and visits of concern were many. Some callers, bless them for their generosity, offered the services of private printing presses to print the newspaper until the machines were restored.

"Whatever happens, please publish The Sunday Leader," pleaded some callers. 

Among those who expressed solidarity were editors of leading national newspapers. We count among them, The Nation Editor Lalith Alahakoon, The Island Editor Prabhath Sahabandu, Lakbima News Editor Rajpal Abeynaike and Daily Mirror Editor, Champika Liyanaarachchi.

They shed editorial policy differences to call for an urgent and impartial inquiry and unequivocally condemned the unleashing of brute forces upon a media institution.

There were media activists like FMM Convenor, Sunanda Deshapriya, Sanath Balasuriya, Poddala Jayantha and others who stood shoulder to shoulder, making us feel that it is well worth the struggle. There were also the people's representatives who condemned the incident as an attack on media freedom. Their support remains our strength - the wind beneath our wings.

Flag flying

This issue of The Sunday Leader is a dedication to those who pleaded with us to publish and not to feel intimidated. We had no wish to disappoint them and to deny them their favourite newspaper. This edition is also dedicated to our detractors who simply do not believe in democratic opposition that falls short of wielding guns and cricket stumps. We owe our courage to them.

The more we come under attack, the more we feel that we are doing something right. That for a section to so want to stifle this one institution, we must be stating unpalatable truths. For should we ever utter an untruth there is always the civilised way of recourse to the legal system. We will continue to tell our stories in the years to come - unbowed and unafraid.

Prophetic intelligence advice

A highly placed intelligence officer, perturbed by the harassment faced by the newspaper shared his views about individual journalists coming under attack as part of an 'offensive against the paper.'

In the aftermath of the arrest of Arthur Wamanan he made some pertinent observations about 'patterns of attack' - the kind those like him were trained to identify and study.

For, in his wisdom, this overseas trained officer felt he should share his thoughts with the hope of pre-empting possible attacks or at the very least, to have the scribes sufficiently alerted about lurking dangers.

After the illegal arrest, he warned Wamanan's colleagues to be careful for next time around, the oppressive tactics could go beyond journalists. As a precaution, he warned avoiding travel by regular vehicles, travelling at different times and not according to a set schedule.

At the time he feared that next it would be a goon squad at work and yes - arson was a possibility.

On November 21, the officer's worst fears were proved well founded. Seeing a pattern that is becoming a reality, he next warned of acid attacks. "It costs little money and needs no massive planning. Anyone could simply drive past the place and hurl acid. But it can alter everything - from injury to death itself," he warned.

Some instructions were given: "It is good enough to have famous bylines. The faces need not be known. Some of them are too familiar like that of your editor," he said in his innate wisdom.

Having lived through two of his accurate predictions, all that needs to be found out is that the third would also come true. Except that scars of any kind could submerge the truth.



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