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Sunday, December 3, 2023

The story of Sunday Leader, Sunil Jayasekara and Frederica Janz

 Sunday Leader master head has now erased Lasantha’s picture and his words Unbowed and Unafraid

There were questions then raised about the ethics of a newspaper editor taking the witness stand against a news source for a story carried in her own newspaper under her byline .
FMM activist Sunil Jeyasekara, who worked as deputy editor of Irurasa, the Sinhala language weekly published by the Sunday Leader, came to accept the many months of salary denied as a consequence of the financial distress the group was going through. He continued working out of a sense of commitment, but was told in July by the group chairman, that his services were no longer needed. It is not clear if the termination of his services then had anything to do with a number of hostile articles that the Sunday Leader published around the same time, about the FMM.

Frederica Jansz, editor of the Sunday Leader was forced to resign at the end of September, within months of the newspaper passing into the ownership of a stock market investor. Asanga Seneviratne, who now owns a substantial stake in the newspaper, insists that he only came in to retrieve the Sunday Leader from a precarious financial situation. Jansz was in this account, instrumental in bringing him in as an investor and was paid a substantial commission as part of the deal. When Seneviratne later decided to switch the editorial management, he paid Jansz an agreed amount as severance pay.

The narrative that has gained ground though, is of Jansz having been forced out because of her history of taking on the ruling dispensation and especially her many bruising encounters with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, another brother of the President’s. This is a history that goes back to stories run in the Sunday Leader under Lasantha Wickramatunge’s editorship, alleging serious corruption in the acquisition of defence equipment under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s watch. Just prior to the January 2010 presidential election, the Sunday Leader ran a front-page story putting down the summary execution of LTTE leaders who were surrendering under a white-flag after painstaking negotiations brokered by international actors, to an explicit order from the Defence Secretary. Fonseka was quoted definitively making this pronouncement, though a study of the fine print seemed to indicate that he was actually speaking on the basis of information received from journalists embedded with the army unit in the area. The public revelation of this information in the mood of post-war triumphalism, was a considerable public relations setback for Fonseka’s candidacy in the presidential election. Despite President Rajapaksa’s comfortable victory in the January 2010 election, the family seemed intent on pursuing a vendetta against the former army commander, placing him under arrest shortly afterwards and putting him on trial in a variety of cases.

In October 2010, Jansz took the stand as a witness for the prosecution in a case brought against Fonseka under the Army Act, for putting out details of what came to be called the “white flags story”. There were questions then raised about the ethics of a newspaper editor taking the witness stand against a news source for a story carried in her own newspaper under her byline. Jansz proved eager to prove the case against the former army commander, handing over her notebook from the purported interview at which he made the “white flag” revelations. This led to Fonseka’s conviction in November 2011 under the Army Act, for causing disaffection within the ranks and violating principles of the “chain of command”.

In July 2012, Jansz called up the Defence Secretary to verify information gathered on the change of duty rosters in a scheduled flight of the Sri Lankan national airline, to accommodate a family intimate of his in bringing home a pet dog from Switzerland. The public interest angle here was the supposed cancellation of twenty passenger bookings on the flight in question, since the pilot assigned to the task of transporting the Defence Secretary’s pet was not licensed to fly the large aircraft normally deployed on the route. The change in duty roster had been revoked after senior pilots of the airline registered their protest. Jansz’s call to the Defence Secretary quickly descended into bitter acrimony. A few days later, Jansz called up the Defence Secretary again to inform him that the Sunday Leader was not carrying the story, though not because the facts were in question. Again, the Defence Secretary erupted in anger and intemperate abuse. The Sunday Leader carried the transcript of both conversations prominently on front page the very next week, causing great public outrage.

As this situation report is prepared for publication, the Sunday Leader is believed to have acceded to a directive by the Press Council to publish an apology for this story, which brought the Defence Secretary into disrepute. If true, this would be the first exercise of authority by the Press Council, with serious long term consequences for the Sri Lankan media.

– From the IFJ report ‘Situation Report: Sri Lanka,Media Freedom a Neglected Dimension of Post-War Politics
Full report can  be read here


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