The Sri Lankan media Mafia (Part 2)

What follows is the second part of Ravaya editor Victor Ivan’s expose’ of the Sri Lankan media mafia.

By Victor Ivan

(April 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)The next example relating to the blowing up of things out of all proportion, that I wish to cite involves both Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha. This incident will also help explain some unclear issues that have developed recently over General Fonseka.Both Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha supported President Mahinda Rajapakse at the 2005 Presidential election. The newspaper published once or twice in the name of ‘Mahinda’ was a creation of these two persons. After the Presidential Election, in recognition of the services rendered by them, both were promoted in their jobs at Lake House.

After the Presidential Election, they started working on various projects under the Free Media Movement while obtaining salaries from the Lake House without performing any duties. Because the Free Media Movement, was an association confined to a handful of media personnel, it became necessary for them to have the Professional Journalists’ Association represented within the FMM to project the image of a group representing a large number of media personnel. Therefore, it became necessary for the Free Media Movement to keep these two with them by offering them various ‘incentives’. Because of various payments they were getting from the Free Media Movement both of them were forced to dance to the latter’s tune.

It was a matter of surprise to the Army Commander to find Sanath Balalsuriya and Poddala Jayantha who supported President Mahinda Rajapakse during the presidential election, all of a sudden shouting slogans condemning the Army Commander and the war at picketing campaigns. The Army Commander was of the wrong view that these protest campaigns were being held at the instigation of President Mahinda Rajapakse to damage his image and the army commander had said so to several people. When Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapakse, Secretary to the Ministry of Defense came to know about this, presuming Sanath Balasuriya and Poddala Jayantha to be close supporters of President Rajapakse, called both of them together with the Chairman of Lake House and explained that the Army Commander was under the wrong impression that their protest campaigns were held at the instigation of President Mahinda Rajapakse. He also explained to them that there was no harm in criticizing the President or Mervyn Silva because they were politicians; if necessary, they could even criticize him (Gotabhaya) since he held a political appointment made by the President. But, it was not appropriate to criticize the Army Commander, particularly at a time when there was a decisive war, and explained that the Army Commander possesses wide ranging powers and if he chose to respond to the agitation made against him , then he would not have the ability to come to their rescue. The Defense Secretary gave this advice to them on the presumption that both of them were supporters of the Government and the President.

When this meeting with the Defense Secretary was taken up for discussion at a meeting held with the Free Media Movement, both these persons believing that this incident could be used to their own advantage, issued a press release stating that the President and the Secretary of the Professional Journalists’ Association were summoned by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and threatened for being critical of the Army Commander. This became a big story not only for the local media but also the international media.

My experience

I had to face a similar situation in 1987. That was during the second insurrection of the JVP. Upon an invitation received from President J.R.Jayawardene, I went to see him at the Presidential Secretariat. There was a heap of Ravaya newspapers on his table. While discussing the prevailing situation in the country, he insisted that if I wanted to continue with the publication of the newspaper, that I should stop writing the political column under the caption ‘Kalinga’s Political Commentary’. After the president had said what he wanted to say, I too explained my point of view respectfully and calmly. I explained that my objective was to bring this battle that was being waged with blood and iron into a more civilized phase. He listened to me attentively. I noticed that after my explanation the tough expression on his face relaxed. However, he did not change his decision. After I left him I did not make what he said to me, a big story to attack him. It was clear to me that there was a change in his attitude. It was only for one month that I refrained from publishing ‘Kalinga’s column’. After that I resumed its publication without seeking his permission. However, he tolerated it and did not make an issue of it. But if I had proceeded to convert what he had said to me, into a huge story to attack him the way Sanath Balasuriya or Poddala Jayantha would have been inclined to do, it may not have been possible for me to continue with the publishing of the ‘Ravaya’.

The likes of Balasooriya worked not to get the existing problems solved but rather to aggravate them. They attempted to debit every incident into somebody’s account and paint one dismal picture. When Keith Noyhar of The Nation was abducted and subjected to barbaric torture, I requested them to refrain from simply making accusations and to investigate and find out from whence the assault came. There was an internal conflict between two power blocks in the military. Keith Noyhar’s reporting was in favour of one power block. I told them, that in the event of a struggle for power between two thugs in my village for example, as a journalist I would not attempt to help one of them. And if I did so and subsequently got assaulted by the other thug, I have no right to portray it as an assault made against media freedom. Sanath Balasuriya was also present among those who attended this discussion. But for this group, it was not important who carried out the assault. The justification of my stance was established when Namal Perera was assaulted, but it was not important for them to find out who was behind the attack. They can now question Keith Noyhar and Namal Perera, and find out who was responsible for attacking them, but they don’t want to do so because they are not prepared to change their initial interpretation.

Lasantha Wickrematunge repeatedly attacked Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse not only on the MIG issue but even before that. Thinking that he should not remain silent any more he went to Courts when the article alleging irregularities in the MIG purchase was published. Lasantha never expected something like that. he did not possess evidence to prove the charges he had made against the Defense Secretary. When he realized that he has got trapped and cannot come out of it easily, he attempted to renew his ruptured friendship with his former friend President Mahinda Rajapakse. Lasantha who followed a policy of severely and mercilessly attacking media organizations that went for discussions with the President went to the extent of meeting President Rajapakse at night, and having long discussions with him. Although the President attempted to summon Gotabhaya and call off the Court case against Lasantha, Gota was not willing to forget the sustained attacks against him. It was not only the Defense Secretary who was subjected to strong attacks by Lasantha. The Army Commander was also a person who was subjected to nasty attacks by him.

After Lasantha was assassinated this group of media persons marched in his funeral procession holding a banner which read "Gathakayaa Satakayaa" (The man with the shawl is the murderer). With this they pronounced their verdict on that assassination. The so called last editorial titled And then they came for me published after the assassination and which received huge publicity in the international media can be considered the lie of the century. This was not the only lie concocted and distributed worldwide during this turbulent period, but was only one among the hundreds of such lies. Some of the journalists, who fled the country citing death threats did so having fabricated those stories.

A lack of maturity

Many of the ugly things witnessed during the final operation against the LTTE also prevailed during the second insurrection of the JVP. During that terrible period there were threats against both media personnel and media institutions. Many front line media personnel like Premakeerthi de Alwis, Thevis Guruge, Sagarika Gomes, and Richard Soysa became victims of assassination. There were also abductions and disappearances of media personnel. That insurrection was cruel and so was the suppression launched by the security forces to quell it.

During that period no media personnel attempted to highlight the excesses and challenge the security forces or the government. Although the situation that prevailed was rather unpleasant, the people as well as media personnel had well understood the importance of defeating the insurrection. On the other hand media personnel had realized that in they were not in a position to change the course of events and all they could do was to minimize the dangers they may encounter. Even criticism and debate, which was very rare, was conducted in such manner so as not to do any damage to the operations of the security forces.

It was not a secret that insurgent leaders such as Rohana Wijeweera, Upatissa Gamanayake, and Saman Piyasiri Fernando were murdered after they were taken into custody. But no one ventured at that time to criticize or protest against such acts. From time to time such special situations may occur in history. The final war against the LTTE was such a situation. In such situations, what the Media fraternity should have done was not to adopt a policy of trying to thwart that operation which was steadily progressing, but to take precautions to minimize the dangers they may be likely to encounter. Yet this group of media advocates committed the folly of not doing so. In that process, they not only invited dangers to themselves but also plunged the media industry of the country in to an abyss from which it will not be easy to come out. In that sense this group of media advocates can be described as the most foolish group ever present in the history of the media industry. Their immaturity, lack of wisdom and greed for money has invariably contributed to the present situation.

In a sequel written to this article in last Sunday’s Ravaya, Ivan has revealed that the Sri Lanka Press Institute had wanted to complain to the Fraud Bureau about the misuse of funds granted to the Free Media Movement but that the FMM had avoided this by paying back the money from some other funds that they had. The interim committee formed by the FMM had wanted to hold an inquiry into this fraud, however, all those involved in the fraud have sought political asylum overseas as journalists under threat. The last such person to leave had been the person handling the funds, one Faisal, who is not a journalist and has sought political asylum in Switzerland.

Ivan says that those who do have threats and those who don’t both flee the country and that there is an organized racket which he compares to the story line of the international film ‘Machang’ where a group of enterprising young men from Sri Lanka find an ingenious way of getting to Italy as immigrants. Ivan says that there is a planned programme to send people abroad. He says that a Ravaya staffer also utilized such means to obtain asylum overseas. The journalist in question had complained one day that two unidentified suspicious looking individuals had been seen loitering around his house. Then a report to this effect was published on a website. Consequent to this, an international Journalists’ organization put out a statement expressing concern at this turn of events. The report on the website and the statement from the international journalists’ association was sufficient to get this individual political asylum overseas.

In last week’s Ravaya, Ivan has also referred to the purported ‘list’ of 28 media and NGO personnel under threat and said that this too has all the hallmarks of being a part of a racket. The names of well known individuals like Pakiyasothy Saravanamuttu and J.C.Weliamuna have been included in this list and when an international body condemns this ‘hit list’ the unknown persons in it also get the opportunity to apply for political asylum.