Investigative Journalism in Sri Lanka: Vulnerabilities

by Iqbal Athas

David Kaplan, Executive Director of the Global Investigative Journalists Network (GIJN) identifies five different characteristics of investigative journalism:

1.Systematic enquiry:This means you are taking your time and going in a systematic way to analyze what is going on.The work you are doing is original and in-depth. Original reporting is investigative journalism.

2.Forming a hypothesis: This is about what is going on. To form a theory, find the facts that will support it. If it does not, you have to abandon it the theory.

3.Using public records and public data:Investigative Reporting is following people, money, paper and data trails, collecting public records, and documents leaked, and analyzing them.

4.Making public matters that are secrets that remain hidden. Investigative Reporters are often dealing with secret information. The people in power do not want it brought out. It is embarrassing for them.

5.Focussing on social justice and accountability.

I am not a teacher in investigative journalism. I will not, therefore, deal with the different technical aspects. Instead, I believe, it may be useful for those of you, who want to pursue investigative journalism, if I share some of my personal experiences in this field.

Before I do that, please permit me to strike a personal note. Fifty years ago, straight out of school, I walked into the office of the now defunct SUN / WEEKEND in Hulftsdorp. It was then one of the largest groups. I did not realize that it was going to be a turning point in my life.

I was offered a job as a Reporter and requested to work the very next day. I asked for time. I had to wind up a course in Sales Management. A week later, I joined to cover Tamil political parties due to my fluency in Sinhala and Tamil languages.

My work then took me to different parts of the North and East of Sri Lanka, which were to later become the battleground for a deadly separatist insurgency. I became familiar with the terrain . At that juncture, there were only two major Tamil political parties. I covered their annual sessions and other events of importance in these two provinces.

By the mid-1970s, moderate politics was transcending into militancy. Tamil political parties and groups united through what is known as the Vaddukottai resolution to go beyond democratic pursuits. Over a period of time, this saw the birth of a plethora of militant groups. During the early phases of what is euphemistically called Eelam War I, they functioned separately but were unified in their objective of confronting the Security Forces and the Police.

The subsequent phases of what was dubbed as Eelam War II and III became fierce in character. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), often known as Tamil Tigers, literally eliminated their rival groups in some of the crudest and bloodiest battles. New military hardware was inducted by both the militants and the military. In May 2009, the LTTE was militarily defeated. Thus, I was fortunate in being able to cover the birth, growth and the death of separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka.

Murky MiG 27 Deal

Iqbal Athas
Military procurements were becoming controversial. Both those in uniform and in civvies were profiting hugely. I began exposing some of the controversial deals. The travails I faced were far too many to list here. I can only say I have lived to tell the story.

In September 2006, a source in the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) gave me a bulky document – a so-called contract for the procurement of four MiG 27 fighter jets. Each was to cost US$ 3,462,000 or over Rs 265 million. These were for aircraft manufactured between 1980 and 1983. The contract claimed they were Government to Government deals. I investigated the matter for many weeks, talking to my sources as well as diplomats who specialized in defense and security. A clear picture emerged.

After the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, as you are aware, Ukraine became another state. A fleet of MiG 27s lay in a parking lot exposed to snow, sun and rain. A company based in Singapore was among those which were wanting to sell these aircraft to the Sri Lanka Air Force, and there appeared to be many irregularities.

The Sunday Times bared the details in an expose in December 2006. A few highlights of the report: “A contract between the Air Force on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka and the Ukranian Government-owned firm Ukrinmarsh is touted as a Government-to-Government deal. Such deals are made to obviate the need to call for tenders to pick the lowest bidder. The widely accepted principle in these deals, referred to as G to G, is the elimination of third parties who make fat commissions and become billionaires overnight.”

Now, this so-called contract was signed on July 2006 – just a day before, the Lanka Logistics and Technologies Limited came into being. This wholly state-owned concern was set up to procure all military equipment and related items for the armed services and the police. It was shocking to learn that the MiG 27s in question were those left over from two different purchases which the Air Force teams that went to Ukraine had carefully selected.

These purchases, my report in the Sunday Times said: “This was on two different occasions. On the first occassion six years ago, the prices were much lower. And now they have been contracted for higher prices. The first purchase was on May 25, 2000 when four MiG 27 jets were purchased for US$ 1.75 million each. They were manufactured between 1982 and 1985. The second purchase was on October 24, 2000. In this deal, two MiG – 27s were purchased at a cost of at $ 1.6 million each. One was manufactured in 1981 and the other in 1984,”

You will observe from what I said, that the last purchase was made from MiG 27s remaining after the better ones were chosen. If the two earlier purchases were for ones manufactured before 1985, the last were those made between 1980 and 1983. I continued my investigations. When more reports began to appear, those at the highest levels of the Government were incensed. Powerful persons with a bottomless reservoir of arrogance, vengeance and vendetta unleashed a campaign of terror against me. Unfortunately, those travails had to be borne even by my wife and daughter. I must confess that after studies abroad, this was the reason why my daughter chose to work outside Sri Lanka. That was not the only heavy price I paid in the name of investigative journalism.

Dubbed Traitor

The continued exposure in the Sunday Times saw a vicious campaign by the state-run media. Together with them, the Ministry of Defence gave me a dubious title in their website – Traitor. I must single out the Sirasa television network during this troubled time for standing up to the truth. They even broadcast a letter from Senator Joe Biden, who was to later become US Vice President to then Sri Lanka President on my behalf. Crowds carrying placards calling me traitor, backed by a local councilor, demonstrated near my house. Some of those taking part demanded my arrest. I came under close surveillance and an effort was being made to locate my sources. Leave alone being arrested, if indeed I was considered a traitor, no state agency questioned me. I was making the news daily. I knew that someone somewhere was deeply hurt by my embarrassing disclosures.

Attached to me was a security contingent from the Army. I am sure you will agree that for a journalist, working with bodyguards around, is anathema. Their presence will discourage of dry up sources. I had no choice. It came on the recommendation of intelligence agencies who said there were threats. They were subsequently withdrawn.

One day, I had a telephone call from the leader of a left-leaning political party who had close connections with those at the Defence Ministry. He was on visiting terms. He met me at home and did not lose time in asking me how I got details of the MiG-27 deal. I had to open a Pilot’s briefcase to pull out the documents and prove a point to him – why not punish those involved, I asked. He asked me for a copy of the contract but I said it was difficult at that point of time.

Hounded for Expose

What I heard days later from my sources in the military was distressing. Plans were afoot to raid my house. They were after the pilot’s briefcase. A sinister plan had already been set in motion. Loud hailers fixed with speakers were going around the area where I live warning residents that LTTE cadres were hiding in homes. Hence, the announcement said, a house to house search was underway. The idea was to raid my house. My source who was very familiar with the plans and asked me to get out of the house with my family. The advise was because I had some cause to protest that my house was raided in my absence.

There was a problem. A religious event in Colombo that had drawn members of the Bohra community from world over. All hotels in Colombo were full. My friend Amal Jayasinghe was kind enough to arrange for a hotel in Kalutara. Two others who are common friends, including a staffer in a diplomatic mission, drove me there. He also took charge of the pilot’s briefcase.

There was more disturbing news just two weeks before Lasantha Wickremetunga was murdered. A very highly placed source asked me to get out of the house that very night. I flew to Thailand. I had spent long stints there living in an apartment cooking food, washing clothes and working online. The next morning, my driver who was alerted, saw a man with an oversized bush shirt moving outside my house in a motorcycle. When there was a strong wind blowing, the bottom part of the shirt went up. There was a pistol on his waist. The driver noted the registration number. I checked it on a secure phone from Bangkok. The registration plate belonged to a lorry.

When the so-called Yahapalanaya government came to power, they set up the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). I made a statement to them in early 2015 and investigations began. I have learned that an FCID team went to Ukraine. On April 25, 2016 at 10 a.m. they met top Ukranian government officials including the Prosecutor General. When told about the purchase of the last four MiG-27s, their response was shocking. The answer was “we never sold any MiG 27s to Sri Lanka.”


Here are some of the findings: The so-called contract which the Sri Lanka Air Force signed with Ukrinmarsh does not exist. If there were claims that the moneys were remitted to a Bellimissa Holdings, to a drop box number in London, it was false. It has transpired that Bellimissa Holdings was a company formed by the previous supplier only for the purpose of the last deal. That had been kept a secret by those involved.

I will not delve into more details since the investigations are still underway. However, like thousands of Sri Lankans, I am skeptical whether the findings into the MiG-27 deal will see the light of day. Yet, it is with great delight I say I am vindicated. For those who accused me as a traitor, I have proved I am not. I have that way done a service to the country. The traitors are those who have milked the Sri Lankan taxpayers money.

There is also a good side to all this. There are a vast number of honest, committed and patriotic men in our military. They are vast in number, the crooks are a handful. As you know, it is one of them, who wanted the Sri Lankan public to expose the corrupt activity, who gave me the contract. There are those who were very concerned about me and my family. Some even diverted their own men to drive past my residence late nights to ensure nothing was wrong.

Mystery of Missing Mortar Bombs

Since time is too short, I will briefly mention to you another instance. One day, the Defence Attache of a western diplomatic mission invited me to lunch. During our conversation, he asked, what I made of a fax he had received. It neither had the name of the sender nor the title of any organization.

The text claimed that they had seized 32,400, 81 mm mortars that were consigned to the Sri Lanka Army. I told the officer, with whom I was closely associated over a period of time, I would bet it was from the LTTE. “How can you say that?,” he asked. I said that the typeface was similar to the one used by LTTE in their news releases. He gave me the copy and I began investigating. It took several weeks.

I learned that a stock of 81 mm mortars had in fact been ordered by the Sri Lanka Army from the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) in Zimbabwe. An advance payment had also been made to an intermediary in Singapore. The stocks, though expected, had not arrived in Colombo.

In that meanwhile, it came to light, that the Tiger guerrillas were using an increased volume of mortars in the battle areas. I found out how the mortars ordered by the Army fell into the hands of the LTTE.

The Zimbabwe Defence Industries did not have stocks at the time the order was placed. Since the Army was in a hurry, a corrupt official at ZDI had approached an Israeli arms dealer. The latter arranged for the stock of 32,400 mortars in the surplus stocks from the Bosnian war. They were loaded into a ship that was to first travel to Zimbabwe. I have not been able to establish the link from there until I found that it had been loaded into an LTTE cargo ship. That brought the stocks to the waters off Mullaitivu.

This was why, the ship that remained anchored for weeks, was later destroyed by the LTTE. It did not sail away. The advance paid by the Army remains in Singapore and the story ended there. There were moves then to prevent a detailed probe.

I chose to mention these instances purely to underscore the fact that investigative journalism is not an easy task. There is someone somewhere who wants to hide the secrets of wrong-doing so that the public may not know. For those of you who aspire to become investigative journalists, it would be good to bear in mind the words Briitish playwright Christopher Hampton. With apologies to him, I have modified it to say “asking what an investigative journalist what he thinks about critics is like asking a lampost how it feels about dogs.”

In all the trials and tribulations, I must record the fact that I owe my great gratitude to my Publisher Ranjit Wijewardene, and Editor in Chief Sinha Ratnatunga. They have not only stood by me but have been a tower of strength. I also owe a great thank you to my wife and daughter who had to bear all that I went through for no fault of theirs

(The above was the keynote speech of Iqbal Athas at the inauguration of Center for Investigative Reporting Sri Lanka held in Colombo on January 30, 2019. Athas was the only Sri Lankan member of the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The membership is peer recommended. ICIJ is the first global organization to use the cyberspace to collaborate in investigative projects. Years earlier, Athas had collaborated in their project titled: “The Business of War.” Now in the form of a book, it deals with mercenary groups and how some of them gained legitimacy in battle zones. It included a part on Sri Lanka).