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Tales by the Beira

| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(July 18, 2013, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) The late Bonnie Fernando, one of my mentors in journalism used to say that people bought Lake House newspapers to read in the toilet. Unless they read them they could not defaecate.

This writer entirely agrees with him. The state media organ has its uses despite the fact it is not conditioned to produce news (North, East, West and South). Since the ‘80’s Lake House only produced West and South news. Even weather forecasts for North and East were left out in news both electronic and print media. But it produced excellent paid marriage proposals column and the advertisements have helped many happy marriages and business boosts.

The reason this writer left Lake House after just four years was the clinical depression she suffered due to the fact that she was compelled to write sunshine stories about the ruling party and never mention Tamils or LTTE.

If memory serves right, the year was 1991 when the then Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne was killed in an LTTE suicide road bomb attack at Thunmulla Junction. A woman LTTE cadre among others was hauled up in court as a suspect. She arrived in handcuffs and senior journalist at Daily News Mr J.B. Mendis and this writer as cub-reporter went to cover the proceedings.

When we got back to the news-desk Mr Mendis proceeded to write the story on the Remington typewriter provided. He then gave it to me to check the spellings of the Tamil suspects. When this cub-reporter pointed out he had mis-spelt the woman suspect’s name he retorted, “Come on, the bitch killed our minister. What does it matter if her name is spelt wrong”.

Mr Mendis covered parliament on a daily basis (covering parliament entitled you to a seven course luncheon at Rs 5.00 and office transport; far better than varaya buth) and although he was a devout Catholic his years of genuflecting before the ruling parties made him a racist. Not surprisingly, Lake House had die-hard racists during my time and even the peons used to whisper, Miss Thevanayagam is Pirabakharan’s sister as I passed them on the corridor.

Then anonymous telephone calls whispered that I am an agent of the LTTE and the chairman wanted to question me. The pay at Daily News was pretty good with five months salary bonus and free five star hotel holidays whenever we wanted. But I was not happy there. I was a journalist but my hands were tied. I had to be his masters’ voice namely extolling the virtues of the Premadasa Government.

After much soul-searching I left Lake House and joined Sunday Leader, a fledgling newspaper started by the late Lasantha Wickrematunge, a firebrand journalist who had equally competent if not better journalist wife, Raine in 1994. No bonuses, not much of a future but enough freedom to write as I wished and go wherever I wanted to.

For a brief period Ranil W was Prime Minister. Once I answered the phone and RW wanted to speak to the editor. Not recognising his voice I told him the editor was not in his office. It was payday and all the male members had decamped either to the water-holes around Beira or taken their paramours to freebie five star hotels. Ergo I was left to man or woman the news desk.

RW was livid. “Do you know who you are talking to? I am the PM,” he thundered. I mumbled yes sir, no sir and ran to the chairman’s office and Sunil Rodrigo scuttled to Daily News and took the call sans his security in tow.

Translator Wickremasinghe came to the office at 11.00 am and would be gone by 2.00 pm to work for the ministries. He received bonuses for good attendance. Translator Dissnayake would come at 12.00 mid-day to translate Dinamina’s horoscope and would be gone by 2.00pm. So much so once he had lost the day’s horoscope. Running his fingers through his dyed hair he promptly produced the previous week’s horoscope and readers were blissfully unaware of his deception.

Lake House has not changed much and it remains the State’s mouth organ. The editors change with the regime change. Even chairman Sunil Rodrigo was not given time to clear his mahogany desk. This piece of furniture was procured by the previous chairman R. Bodhinagoda who managed to transfer most of Lake House furniture to his house.

Is Sri Lanka a corrupt nation? Transparency International has much work to do.

(The writer has been a journalist for 24 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal;where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at pearltheva@hotmail.com)
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