| by Dilrukshi Handunnetti
( May 7, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) With the war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) intensifying in 2008, among journalists, the group to feel the most amount of pressure was the defence correspondents. The column writing slowed and ceased, and soon, media activists and dissenting opinion peddlers too came under severe pressure. The year 2008-2009 was dubbed annus hornbills for Sri Lankan journalists, for a reason. By the February 2009, over a dozen journalists have fled the island.
While there is no denying that some journalists and media workers, made use of the prevailing situation in the country to seek greener pastures in Europe and Nordic countries, claiming of various threats to themselves and families, there were activists and journalists who did not see this as an opportunity to live in the developed world, but intended to stay on and practice their craft. When they left the shores, it was done with bleeding hearts and with a strong sense of separation and being wronged by the State.
According to Poddala Jayantha, an investigative journalist cum media activist who currently lives in an undisclosed location in the United States, “Being separated from the country and the craft amount to living death.” The onetime President of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), Jayantha became a regular victim of hate speech practiced by State television, branding him and others associated with media activism as ‘traitors.’ Some of them had honorary mentions on the government’s Defence Ministry website, sealing not just their fates but also their reputations.
When placed under severe pressure, Jayantha left Sri Lanka and took refuge in Nepal, with the hope of returning to Sri Lanka at the earliest opportunity. By then, The Sunday Leader’s founder editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge was slain and there was immense fear within the dissenting media community about not just the space for their craft, but for their physical safety.
A determined Jayantha, nevertheless returned soon after, hoping to pick up from where he had left off, only to be brutally assaulted, leaving him with permanent scars and a disability. “I miscalculated. I wanted to return and practice journalism. My disappointment knows no end,” he says, in a tearful voice.
The recipient of the prestigious Integrity Award 2010, Jayantha says, “In my mind, each morning I go to work, and sit at my desk. I imagine the smell of newsprint and the joy of writing an article. I daily break my heart knowing that it will never be my reality, again.”
As for his close associate and colleague, Sanath Balasuriya, now an exile journalist in Germany, it was a struggle that he would still want to continue, from his new base. “The personal tragedies we face are numerous. The condemnation and the quick judgment we have had to face only show how many enemies we dissenters will always encounter.”
Balasuriya came under serious threat after he gave leadership to an impromptu protest in front of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), demanding the removal of Minister Mervyn Silva, over his televised assault on a senior SLRC employee. The last public protest he gave leadership to was a protest against the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. “This protest must happen. There is no need for us to live here and call ourselves journalists, if not,” he said, at the protest venue. Having fled soon after, when it became evident that he was to be a target of violence, Jayasuriya was hoping to return when Jayantha was abducted and assaulted close to his home in Embuldeniya. Jayasuriya had to continue his exiled status.
Jasiharan and Valarmathy fled Sri Lanka, after their close associate, J.S. Tissainayagam was arrested, along with them. After many months of untold agonies, they now live in Switzerland.
“The less said the better,” says Jasiharan who feels the trauma that exiled journalists undergo, having to adapt to new cultures, climates, learn new languages and start life all over again, are not understood by those living in the safety and comfort of their homes in Sri Lanka.
“It is so much pain,” confirms his wife, Valarmathy. “I feel as we have lost our identities, completely.”
For the exiled, besides having to deal with fears connected to physical safety, there are many new issues to deal with. “It is God’s punishment and a way of saying, start life all over again – without anything you had before. Not your self-respect or identity,” says one Geneva-based journalist, speaking on the basis of anonymity. “You see, deep within our hearts, we still dream of returning home. We want to return, and to practice journalism. We have nothing to do with those who opportunistically fled Sri Lanka, using a bad moment,” he says.
A few have managed to return home, but they privately agree that the kind of activism they dabbled in before 2008-2009, is decidedly a thing of the past. Celebrating World Press Freedom Day, a key activist who has worked on ensuring the safety of journalists under threat says, “The fact that we cannot even hold more than a couple of events a year also proves that we are scattered, our leadership is in exile and we have lost our never. We have been beaten too much, not just physically.”
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there are over 400 journalists living in exile the world over, and nearly one fourth of them are form Sri Lanka, a media status any country claiming to be a democracy should do its best to avoid.
CPJ in a survey released three years ago noted, “The surge from Sri Lanka accounted for more than a quarter of the journalists worldwide who fled their native countries in the past year after being attacked, harassed, or threatened with violence or imprisonment.
“Sri Lanka is losing its best journalists to unchecked violence and the resulting conditions of fear and intimidation that are driving writers and editors from their homes,” Joel Simon, CPJ’s Executive Director, noted. “This is a sad reality in countries throughout the worlds where governments allow attacks on the press to go unpunished.”
In March 2010, Chief Justice Mohan Peiris who served as Attorney General of Sri Lanka at that time gave a public assurance that he was prepared to offer protection to any Sri Lankan journalist who wished to return from exile.
He was quoted widely in the media as having said: "Speaking for myself, and I’m fairly sure the government will back me up on this. There is no question that the government needs our journalists,” he reportedly told a CPJ delegation at his Colombo office.
“They must come back and work with us and help set up the structures so that we can work together and we can respect each other. We must work with these institutions because we need them. We know if they stay outside and attack the government that is not useful.”
He also offered a strong assurance on behalf of the government with regard to their safety. “If they come back, there must be a strong assurance on our part that they won’t come to any harm,” he said, during a meeting with CPJ’s Deputy Director Robert Mahoney and Asia Programme Coordinator, Bob Dietz.
Subsequent to the meeting, CPJ in a statement said: “The Attorney General’s appeal to journalists to return from exile is just a first step. The government must go further by taking concrete action to address the climate of impunity and intimidation that prompted them to flee in the first place.”
Growing population of exiles
While Sri Lanka remains listed among the worst countries for journalists to live in (or in this case, to return to), there had been assurances from the government for them to return home. But promises of safe passage and return are not acceptable to those who have fled, fearing serious reprisals. For them, it is also a question of being able to live without the fear of physical harm and to continue to lead normal lives.
“That’s never going to happen. We are condemned to die away from home, without the opportunity to practice journalism, all because we took stances and defended colleagues and good journalistic practices,” notes Poddala Jayantha.
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