There’s a saying that Sri Lanka has plenty of media freedom. Journalists are free to write whatever they wish, and everyone else is free to kill them. So I tried to hide my worry as I stood at the curb in the passenger drop-off lane at Dulles International Airport outside Washington , D.C. , in late September 2009 and hugged Namal Perera as he set off for home on the South Asia island off the coast of India .
I was fairly certain I’d never see him again. A gang of militant thugs had violently attacked him as a result of his journalism, causing him to flee Sri Lanka and spend a year at the University of Maryland on a special rescue program for endangered journalists. As director of a fellowship program, my job was to oversee Namal on campus. I felt more friendship with him than with most Fellows
More than 100 reporters, editors, even advertising employees were assassinated during a bloody 26-year civil war that had split the tropical isle into ethnic factions. Sinhalese — like Namal — and Tamil minority journalists have been abducted, beaten, tortured and killed with impunity. None of the attackers has been brought to justice. But the war had more or less ended, and Namal, then 33, decided uneasily that he could risk a return. A brave smile lit his earnest face behind wire-rimmed glasses — that of a studious scholar rather than a threatening rebel, despite a pirate-like scar across one cheek. “Don’t worry. I will call you,” he said and turned to go into the terminal.
Fast-forward to December 2010. The Fulbright Commission had arranged for me to live in a third-floor room with a Sri Lankan family in the leafy residential neighborhood of Colombo 5. The room felt like an aerie up in the palm treetops, where I fell thankfully asleep after the journey that had consumed 20 hours in the air and two days on the calendar. Late in the afternoon, a knock on the aerie’s door announced Namal’s arrival, and there we were, laughing, amazed to see each other. Namal wanted to do everything for me all at once, and set about getting me life’s necessities that very day: a cellphone to call him at any time, and a USB device to plug into my laptop to connect to the Internet.
The next morning, he and a car with driver (since his return, he had been provided transport as a security measure) fetched me to go to the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, where I would be stationed for two months as a Fulbright Scholar. As its director, Namal commanded a small, glass-fronted office next to the desks of the eight faculty members, who teach in English, Sinhala and Tamil languages.
Namal arranged for me to sit at the desk outside his door, so he could leap up to help me on any matter, no matter how small. I saw that he had built an easy, collegial relationship with his merry band of faculty and staff, full of laughter but enlivened by his energetic commitment and his willingness to spend day and night at the office.
Within a few days, we drove by the main access road along Colombo’s busy west side, where Namal pointed out the scene of the bold attack against him — a busy, divided roadway, in plain sight of shops, commuters and pedestrians.
For eons, the teardrop-shaped island called Serendip by Arab explorers has lured adventurers and treasure-seekers to its golden beaches and mist-shrouded mountains. For more than 2,000 years, Sri Lankans battled Tamil invaders from South India who established their own kingdoms, lasting for centuries. Buddha is said to have come there on a mystical quest, imbuing the island with a special holy status. The British took over in the 1800s, named the island Ceylon and, when their coffee plantations were decimated by a virus, planted tea throughout the cool hill country. Tea continues to be an important export, as are rubies and sapphires mined in shallow rivers. After the Brits were booted out and Ceylon gained independence in 1948, the island embraced socialism, beginning a slow economic decline.
When Sri Lankans talk about the current state of affairs, in which the rule of law doesn’t exist, racism has been institutionalized and civil liberties have been seriously eroded, they always start their explanations in the distant past. In the 1950s, the government disenfranchised the minority Tamil population, the South Indians, predominantly Hindu, who had been imported by the Brits as plantation workers, and who now comprise 18 percent of a population of 21 million in an area the size of West Virginia
Sinhala, the language of the country’s majority Sinhalese population, was anointed official status, and those who didn’t speak it were barred from government jobs. Buddhism became the state religion. First in 1956 and again in 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983, thousands of Tamils have been killed in ethnic riots and pogroms, and driven back to India in forced migrations. A growing movement to claim the northern part of the island as a separatist state gave rise to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — known as the LTTE, or the Tamil Tigers, the terrorist insurgency that pioneered the suicide bomber belt and which claimed its own navy and air force. Tiger guerrillas struck terror throughout the country. They bombed downtown Colombo buildings and, in a daring move, the airport, disabling half the Sri Lanka Army’s planes.
While complaints about the lack of democracy in Sri Lanka have been voiced for decades, they have increased under the regime of the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He narrowly won the 2005 election as a hard-line populist nationalist from the south and has since adopted a blatant, no-apologies command of what is becoming a rogue state. He has installed numerous relatives into high-ranking government jobs, including one brother as minister of defense and another brother as speaker of the Parliament.
Inescapable, larger-than-life images of the president appear on billboards throughout the countryside, picturing him in white traditional dress and a presidential red sash. During his campaign, Rajapaksa had clearly signaled that he would pull out of a failing cease-fire agreement with the separatist LTTE forces. Rajapaksa set about building the largest and best-equipped army Sri Lanka had ever seen, adding an additional 40,000 troops. Throughout 2008, his Sri Lanka Army inexorably advanced northward into Tiger territory with intense fighting, commanded by General Sarath Fonseka, hailed as the greatest general in the country’s history.
All was going according to the Rajapaksa/Fonseka plan. As secrecy tightened, the army marched north, systematically capturing Tiger territory and evicting outside observers. The Rajapaksa regime also escalated its undeclared but effective war against the media. Journalists who wrote about the conflict in anything but enthusiastic terms were considered threats. Namal Perera wrote defense commentary for the brash Singhalese newspaper Ravaya. He broke a story about how the Air Force commander was driving home from a late night party, struck a truck and, when the driver later died, tried to blame someone else. The commander was forced to resign.
“Namal is one of the best newsmen in the country,” says one of his closest friends, Amal Jayasinghe, longtime bureau chief for Agence France-Presse in Colombo . “He is a damn good journalist.” For more than 15 years, Namal has had a close friendship with Jayasinghe, an ebullient punster, and the more dour Mahendra Ratnaweera, a former journalist who is now a political officer at the British High Commission. They share wisecracks and a black sense of humor, often dining together on Friday nights. Friends call them the three musketeers.
In 2006, Namal stepped back from the front lines of journalism, accepting a prestigious job with the independent Sri Lanka Press Institute, coordinating courses and later serving as its press advocate. As journalism became riskier, he gave up freelance writing entirely. He ceased acting as a source for foreign news outlets, which had quoted him frequently by name
But he still worked his extensive contacts in the military and around the country, and received information that ended up in stories by others. One friend, Keith Noyahr, deputy editor of The Nation, wrote a story that military medals had been awarded not for bravery or other merit, but as favors to Fonseka’s friends. Shortly thereafter, on May 22, 2008, Noyahr was abducted, assaulted and tortured. He fled Sri Lanka and now lives in Australia . Police confiscated Noyahr’s cellphone; they also found in his wallet Namal’s business card.
Soon Namal started receiving strange phone calls; military men showed up at the press institute asking for staff home addresses. After work on the evening of June 30, 2008, Namal was playing badminton outside the institute. At 5:50 p.m., his pal Ratnaweera arrived, as was their routine, to give Namal a lift home. Within a few blocks of setting out, they spotted two suspicious-looking young men standing in the road, talking into cellphones. First motorcycles followed Ratnaweera’s blue Honda. Soon an ominous white van with dark tinted rear windows — the preferred vehicle of the paramilitary forces — pulled in behind them and started to tail them.
As Ratnaweera turned onto a main road, the white van cut sharply in front of them, blocking them in. Three men leaped from the van. They beat Ratnaweera’s car with thick wooden poles and bats, smashing the front windshield, pulverizing the side windows. The men tried to haul Namal out of the car. “You get out! You get out!” they shouted. Namal frantically covered the door locks with his hands to prevent them from opening the doors. The men swung the butt ends of their weapons to jab him through the smashed windows. Namal clung to the door, refusing to let them open it.
A crowd started to assemble — it was rush hour on a main road. The assailants panicked, scrambling back into the van and pulling away
Ratnaweera was soaked in blood from two facial cuts; Namal had suffered bad blows to his ribs, and later he would have root canals for two front teeth. Otherwise, he bore no permanent injuries — a childhood accident had left a deep facial scar, although many assume it was a result of the attack.
Although less seriously injured than Namal, Ratnaweera was no less traumatized. For months he feared another assault. He lived for much of the time in Jayasinghe’s walled compound, a combination of house and AFP office. Ratnaweera stopped going out at night. He no longer attended government press conferences, assuming as low a profile as possible. A subtle social stigma enveloped him. “Anyone who had been attacked by the SLA was assumed to be favorable to the LTTE,” he explains.
The Sri Lanka Press Institute, with help from Fojo Media Institute, a Swedish NGO that heavily funded the Sri Lankan institute, arranged for Namal to leave the country. After three days in the hospital, he went to the airport, escorted by three security vehicles. Once in Sweden , Namal lived for a month in the countryside as the sole occupant of the student dormitory that normally housed 45. The school was empty due to summer vacation, as was the local Fojo office. Although Johan Romare of Fojo included Namal in family activities, Namal was alone most of the time. Several times, he says, he found himself crying. His laptop and cellphone became the center of his life, as he called his fellow musketeers and his family.
Namal pleaded to return to Sri Lanka . “I proposed that the press institute could hire security guards for me. Or I could live inside the institute building and avoid going out,” he says. The press institute rejected both plans as too dangerous. “I was totally frustrated,” Namal recalls. “If I could have escaped, I would have gone back to Sri Lanka .” But Fojo did help arrange for Namal to receive a special rescue fellowship, provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists, to spend a year at the University of Maryland . A visa would take two months to arrange, so Namal flew to Singapore for the long wait.
Over Skype, Jayasinghe counseled Namal that the situation would not stay the same forever, and he could eventually return home. After a white van filled with paramilitaries went to Jayasinghe’s house to pick him up in 1990, the AFP journalist had fled to Afghanistan to spend a year reporting. “I have gone through it,” he told Namal. “I know what it’s like.”
When Namal was about to leave Sweden , he confided to Jayasinghe that he had to return his borrowed laptop. By the time Namal arrived in Singapore , Jayasinghe had wired money to a friend there. A new laptop was waiting.
Namal arrived at last at the University of Maryland on October 12, 2008.
CPJ arranged for Namal to be attached to the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at Maryland , an international exchange program for mid-career professionals from the developing world, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Fourteen Humphrey Fellows had already been on campus for two months. They had followed Namal’s saga and discussed how they could help. Namal bunked in with three Fellows for his first weeks: a Bulgarian media professor; a newspaper editor from Zimbabwe whose paper had been shut down; and Phuntsho Wangdi, a newpaper editor from Bhutan
Wangdi and Namal shared a wry sense of humor and a need for fiery South Asian food and cigarettes. I’d increasingly find Namal smoking outside the door of Preinkert Field House, where the Humphrey offices were housed, and learned to gauge his stress level by the number of cigarettes he consumed. “Namal knew he could get into serious trouble, yet he went ahead and did what he believed in,” Wangdi recalls. “He knew a lot about defense and how the army worked. But given his friendly persona, it would be hard to tell that he believes so strongly in bringing out the facts.”
Namal located a cheap basement apartment in Hyattsville near Maryland ‘s College Park campus, sending money back to his family.
In my time directing the Humphrey Program at Maryland , I’ve seen more than 100 Fellows come and go. Namal stands out among the very best. Focused and energetic, he attended journalism classes religiously, lined up an internship at American University ‘s Peacebuilding and Development Institute, and took full advantage of Washington ‘s think tank offerings of lectures, workshops and seminars. Namal was a natural student. And he had other attributes: He was humble and considerate. He cleaned the office and begged me for other tasks.
I finally gave him a project, asking him to chronicle the accomplishments of the 200 Humphrey alumni who had attended the program at Maryland over the previous 15 years. They were scattered all over the globe, often in hard-to-reach developing nations. Namal took on the challenge with great zeal, poring over Web sites, utilizing Google Translator and delivering results in detailed spreadsheets. But almost as soon as he arrived in Maryland , Namal started planning his return to Sri Lanka . By Christmas, he thought he could go home the following March. His mother had heart problems and faced possible bypass surgery. He wanted to be there.
Back in Sri Lanka , the Army appeared to be moving toward a final assault on the Tamil Tigers. On January 2, 2009, the SLA succeeded in reopening land routes to the key Jaffna peninsula. After intense fighting, government forces recaptured the strategic town of Kilinochchi , a Tiger stronghold. From a distance, Namal tracked how many Sri Lankan soldiers were dying in the final offensive against the LTTE. He told Wangdi that the information had been blacked out to protect the morale of the Sri Lankan soldiers. “But Namal felt that hiding such information was wrong, and that people must know at what cost the final offensive was being carried out,” Wangdi recalls.
Namal’s plans for an early return were shattered on January 8, by a 2 a.m. text message from his sister: Lasantha Wickrematunge has been shot dead.
The popular editor of the crusading Sunday Leader newspaper, Wickrematunge had been driving to work when young men on motorcycles started following him. They attacked in a manner eerily identical to the assault on Namal. But Wickrematunge couldn’t keep his car doors locked as Namal had. His assailants battered him with metal rods so savagely that when colleagues found the editor, they thought he had been shot, so deep was a wound to his forehead. (No bullet was found, although the post-mortem report was never released. Journalists later received leaks that the killing may have been a mistake — only a beating had been intended.)
Why was he attacked? Pro-government Web sites had accused Wickrematunge of playing up criticism of the war effort, arguing for consideration for the thousands of Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire. Others whispered that he had crossed an unspoken line with a printed reference to the president’s wife’s heavy makeup, hinting at wife-beating.
The SLA was delivering a message: No criticism would be tolerated. Only two nights before the murder, masked men had invaded the dominant private television and radio station, Sirasa TV. They shot up everything in sight with automatic weapons and then planted explosive devices in the control room. By chance, the bombs did not fully detonate, and so did not completely wipe out the station. Sirasa, too, had been accused on Web sites of exhibiting less than full loyalty to the Rajapaksa regime. Immediately after the bombing, the station’s young staff flooded into their offices and set to work. Pulling old analog equipment out of storerooms, they were broadcasting again in two hours.
Other abductions followed throughout the last months of the war. More than 30 — some count 50 — journalists fled the country shortly after Wickrematunge’s murder; most have still not returned. Journalists blame the Rajapaksa regime, and have pieced together information suggesting that the attackers were most likely intelligence officers — groups working undercover for the military to pick people up, mostly LTTE soldiers or sympathizers. There were suggestions that the military was operating independently, beyond the control of even the president. To date, no one has been indicted or prosecuted for Wickrematunge’s murder, the attack on Namal, the bombing of Sirasa TV or any other attacks on journalists.
The last months of the war, which at last ended on May 19, 2009, are likely to haunt the Rajapaksa government for years. The Army herded the remnants of the Tamil Tigers to a sandy slice of territory in the north, only a few kilometers long, along with thousands of trapped civilians. Soldiers evicted United Nations observers. Shelling killed thousands, including those in hospitals. Accusations of war crimes abound, with the Tamils and international human rights organizations condemning the SLA for up to 30,000 to 40,000 civilian deaths. The Sri Lankan government counters that the Tigers put civilians in jeopardy by using them as human shields.
The victory was widely celebrated and turned Gen. Fonseka, the leader of the SLA , into a national hero, alarming the ruling regime. President Rajapaksa bestowed a new title on the general that, in effect, kicked him upstairs and took away his power. When Fonseka realized what had happened, he entered politics, waging a fierce campaign for the presidency.
But Fonseka’s plummet from power and the end of the war presented a reprieve for the media. The paramilitary attack squad appeared to fall apart. In his basement apartment in Maryland , Namal Perera closely followed developments on his laptop. He concluded he could finally go home. The Sri Lanka Press Institute offered him a good job as director of the College of Journalism . He would be provided with a car and driver for commuting, and he could sleep in the office if he felt the slightest danger.
Iqbal Athas, who covers defense for the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, met Namal at the airport on October 1, 2009. Athas himself had fled the country several times over the past two decades, and at times had security guards ever since military thugs broke into his house in February 1998 and held an automatic pistol to his head, in front of his 7-year-old daughter.
For Namal’s first weeks back in Colombo , he hid, not even contacting his family, smoking cigarettes.
“It was not the same man we knew,” recalls his close friend Amal Jayasinghe of AFP. For a year, Namal did not talk on the phone much. He wouldn’t get into Ratnaweera’s blue Honda, didn’t go out at night or in public. “He was very jittery,” Jayasinghe recalls. “I almost had the feeling he was always looking over his shoulder — cautious to the point of being paranoid.”
Fonseka’s political campaign did not succeed — Rajapaksa was resoundingly reelected in January 2010. The general was jailed on corruption charges and sentenced to 30 months in jail. He now faces other charges.
Meanwhile, Jayasinghe says, “We started to see a more relaxed Namal.”
“There’s an art to practicing journalism without getting your head blown off,” says Wijaya Jayatilaka, executive director of Transparency International Sri Lanka. A resilient journalism community has endured, exercising a pervasive self-censorship that avoids many direct hits against the regime. The Sunday Leader under the editorship of Frederica Jansz continues to practice the country’s most aggressive reporting, breaking a story in July that the Chinese government, which has funded numerous development projects in Sri Lanka , handed over $9 million in private funds to Rajapaksa “to use at his own discretion.”
The attacks against journalists have dwindled since their peak in January 2009.
“That era is over,” says Sinha Ratnatunga, editor of the Sunday Times. Yet the attacks have not disappeared, largely in rural areas, against ethnic media. A British citizen of Sri Lankan descent was arrested in July for allegedly contributing video of a controversial Channel 4 UK documentary that shows footage of the Sri Lanka Army shooting unarmed civilians in the final days of the war. Two journalists from Uthayan, an ethnic Tamil newspaper in the north, were badly beaten.
Namal took me to the modest house on the outskirts of Colombo where he lived with an extended family: mother — exactly my age; father, a retired government bookbinder; three sisters, two with young children.
I spoke mostly with his English-speaking youngest sister, Samanmalee, a nurse in the national hospital emergency room. “What impressed me so much about Namal,” I told her, “was his selflessness.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “That is our family’s great gift, that Namal is unselfish.”
As I left, his mother called, only half-jokingly, “Take him back to America ! Find him a wife.”
At the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, Namal continued to do well, earning great loyalty from most of the staff. But I could see he was chafing at the lack of autonomy and a salary that hadn’t met his expectations.
When I returned six months later for the second part of my Fulbright, Namal had left the journalism college to work as a political officer for the Australian High Commission in Colombo . The job requires him to use his journalistic skills, but comes with less stress, more regular hours and better pay. I didn’t see him as much on my second tour — his recent engagement to a young media researcher had plunged him into a flurry of social activities.
“Not only is he totally back to normal, but we’re seeing a different Namal,” says his friend Jayasinghe. “He’s blossomed. He’s more confident, seems more competent. Even his English language is better.” Jayasinghe says that Namal is so good at his job that his success at the High Commission may prevent him from returning to journalism. “At heart he is still a journalist. But it was his journalism that endangered his life.”
And he’s one of the lucky ones.