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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The pallbearers’ legacy

Lasantha Wickrematunge may have been killed, but his spirit lives on in those he left behind. Lasantha’s tribe, some of them exiled in far off lands, others – brow-beaten, hunted and still pushing the boundaries at home, continue to be a thorn in the side of the rulers and remain keepers of the flame
On 12 January 2009, a short distance away from the entrance to the Borella General Cemetery under a blazing afternoon sun, a photograph was taken. The crowded image shows throngs of mourners, wearing black or white, arms raised in protest as far as the lens could capture.

 At the centre of the photograph, the coffin carrying slain The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge to his final resting place is held aloft in turn by his comrades-in-arms. Over the course of four hours, schoolmates and lawyers had carried Lasantha, an Old Ben and an attorney by profession, on their shoulders during this long march along the Baseline Road. But it was to the tribe of scribes that Lasantha really belonged. And so it was to men just like him, men who had shared his passion and fought alongside him, men who would have to go on fighting after that fateful day, to whom the final leg of Lasantha’s journey was entrusted. In the iconic picture of Lasantha’s funeral march, the faces of his pallbearers are blazing with rage or twisted in mute grief.

 In the five years that have passed since the brutal murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, one by one, each of those faces have disappeared from the Sri Lankan media scene, each one forced to flee the country in order to stay alive. From afar, some have gone on fighting. Others have simply faded away into new and different lives.

Thorn in the side
 Those who keep fighting have embraced the Lasantha Wickrematunge philosophy. From new homes in places where they cannot be harmed, they continue to be a major thorn in the side of the Sri Lankan Government. Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, a group made up of exiled scribes, struck perhaps the heaviest blow when it passed on damning footage of alleged abuses by security forces during the last days of the war to Britain’s Channel 4, several years ago.

 Using non traditional media, exiled journalists continue to tell the stories reporters based in Sri Lanka cannot. The shrinking spaces of the mainstream media in the country are countered effectively by these alternative news sources that are increasingly relied upon to provide context and perspective to a lacklustre, deadpan news cycle.

 For every website that is unofficially blocked or censored in the country, a new avenue opens up. Proxy servers that enable the viewing of banned sites, unheard of until the Government began blockading the internet, are rattled off the tongues of voracious internet news seekers in corporate offices and Government departments. In the absence of an effective and engaged Opposition, these news sources keep the searchlight on the ruling administration, engaging in a type of investigative reporting that died with Lasantha on the streets of a Colombo suburb five years ago.

 As a certain type of journalism quietly fades from public memory, the efforts of ‘The Exiled’ keep fighting to bring it back. After his death, Lasantha’s pallbearers became the hunted. And somehow, in choosing to stay engaged with Sri Lanka, they remain the most faithful keepers of his legacy.

Pushing boundaries
 Others still writing and reporting from within the island, push the boundaries of the confines that have come to define Sri Lankan journalism today. In the aftermath of Lasantha’s murder and the countless attacks and abductions since his death, journalists have learnt to tread more carefully than ever. But stories have a way of getting told, sometimes in oblique or angled ways.

 The clampdown on the free press may have successfully obscured the vision and awareness of the citizenry, but between the public and the news that sometimes cannot be broadcast, stands the journalist; compelled to tell the brighter side of the tale perhaps, but in possession of the truth. To stay alive to tell the stories when the dam of self-censorship and fear finally bursts therefore, has become the primary objective. In the aftermath of Lasantha’s murder, Sri Lankan journalists are learning new ways to survive and keep writing.

 And every year, January comes around. Heavy-hearted and careworn, journalist colleagues, reporters he mentored and groomed, politicians and activists, friends and family will mourn him and plead for justice. Every year, we are reminded of how long it has been since a citizen was slaughtered on the streets and how little our Government cares about it.

Black January
 The bleak January of Lasantha’s death has been followed by many other Januaries. New tragedies have unfolded. Fresh impunities perpetrated. The January of Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance was to follow one year later. In January 2010, the offices of the JVP affiliated Lanka newspapers was sealed and its Editor detained in State custody. In 2011, the offices of Lankaenews, now a banned website in Sri Lanka, were set on fire. A string of attacks against journalists and media organisations have been recorded in January since 2009, prompting media activists to dub the month ‘Black January’.

In 2013, a different type of blow was struck to democracy when the Government impeached the country’s first female Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake on 11 January, ignoring not one but two Court orders including a constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court. The Shirani Bandaranayake impeachment, which went on to define the year for the Rajapaksa Administration, created the largest press and public outcry since the Lasantha Wickrematunge assassination. In the end, it achieved just as little as the regime pushed through with her sacking. But inch by inch the Government persists in chipping away at its own legitimacy every year. Every year, it creates new dissidents and new role models.

 If the Lasantha Wickrematunge killing and the failure to bring his killers to justice set in stone the Rajapaksa Administration’s treatment of the independent press, the Shirani Bandaranayake impeachment sullied forever the regime’s claim of a robust and efficient Judiciary in Sri Lanka, capable of credibly investigating allegations of rights abuses during the last phase of the war.
 As the incumbent administration gears up to face its toughest international challenges yet this year, realisation must dawn on some level that there are certain, very specific acts of impunity that keep cropping up. The Trinco-5, the Muttur-17, the Lasantha Wickrematunge murder, the Prageeth Ekneligoda disappearance, the shooting of civilian demonstrators in Weliweriya and the Shirani Bandaranayake impeachment – each one of them avoidable, each one of them redeemable, and yet each one simply refusing to go away.

Silence falls

 In the immediate aftermath of Lasantha’s killing, many believed his death would become an instant catalyst against the growing impunity of the ruling regime. The Sunday Leader Editor had been a vocal critic of the Rajapaksa Administration and his death, the mourners felt at the time, had to mean something. The truth was far more brutal.

 A triumphant victory over the LTTE intervened. Sri Lankans rejoiced at the sight of Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s dead and bloated body. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was crowned king, for just a little while. For a little while, except in the hearts of those who knew and missed him the most, the brutality of Lasantha’s death faltered somewhat, set against the monumental changes sweeping the country.
 But the years went by, and the allegations grew around the final phase of the war. As the pressure mounted and damning footage emerged of heinous crimes during the conflict’s final days, just months after his murder, the meaning of Lasantha’s loss became abundantly clear.

 In 2000, when the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government imposed a press censorship on war reporting to mask casualty figures and bad news on the military front during the siege and fall of Elephant Pass, Lasantha Wickrematunge decided one Sunday to challenge the censorship and the Government’s Competent Authority who regularly slashed reports of military news. He did it in his own inimitable style.

 The lead story of the Sunday Leader one weekend in May was titled, ‘War in Wonderland’ and tongue-in-cheek, Lasantha reported all the military news as if it had never happened. For his efforts, the Kumaratunga administration sealed the Sunday Leader presses, forcing the publishers to file Fundamental Rights cases in order to resume printing.

 With Lasantha Wickrematunge dead and buried in January 2009, the Government effectively had four months in which to carry out what has been called its ‘war without witness.’ Had Lasantha lived, his newspaper would have borne witness to those last four months of the war, when Sri Lankans were treated to daily news reports of heroic acts by armed forces personnel.

 Had Lasantha lived, the last harrowing battles from January to May 2009 would not have unfolded in secret; they would not have unfolded in ‘wonderland’. Perhaps that was what his killers feared.

Keepers of the flame

 In death, Lasantha Wickrematunge became so much more than he was even in life. As a political activist and a journalist, Lasantha was loved and hated with equal passion. Nobody painted him lily-white, not everybody agreed with his methods. He had carved for himself and his newspaper a unique and incomparable space, and it was not necessarily a space that every journalist would comfortably inhabit. But even to his detractors, his existence proved that space was available in Sri Lanka for all types of expression. His murder had robbed everyone of that assurance and so, for a time, silence has fallen.

 Five years later, no one has come forward to reclaim the spaces Lasantha inhabited. In valour, in passion and sheer cheek, he remains matchless. In this cloistered space, there is little room for giants of Lasantha’s calibre to manoeuvre. Bereft of role models, with little inspiration and even less hope, Sri Lankan journalists must carry on. The day will come, when the floodgates will open and Lasantha’s legacy will thrive and shed light in dark places again. Until then, it is left to us, his tribesmen – those near and far from home – to remain symbolic pallbearers; keepers of an undying, inextinguishable flame.


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