Well-known Sri Lankan Journalist-activist Poddala Jayantha was in the news last week when he sent a letter to the Director-General of Information, Dr. Ranga Kalansuriya, who is also the Secretary to the Cabinet Sub Committee on granting measures of relief to media persons who were subjected to various types of harassment and oppression during the period 2005 to 2015. Media reports said that copies of the letter had also been sent to the respective cabinet ministers serving in the cabinet sub-committee.
Several people witnessed the shocking incident. Among them was someone who knew Jayantha personally. This person who also knew veteran journalist Bennet Rupasinghe, telephoned him and told him of the incident
Upon seeing the media reports, I contacted Poddala Jayantha now living in the USA to verify the contents of the media reports and ascertain whether they were accurate. Jayantha affirmed that they were correct and confirmed that he had indeed sent the letter to the cabinet subcommittee. He was not very hopeful whether his missive would produce the desired results but was of the opinion that an attempt has to be made anyway.
Poddala Jayantha in his letter refers to the years 2005 to 2015 as a terrible period for journalists in Sri Lanka. Describing the nature of media suppression in the period between 2005 and 2015, the letter outlines a list of what happened then, “journalist killings, abductions, infliction of torture, threats, attacks on media institutions, committing arson, filing cases on frame ups, bringing pressure to bear on businesses of the media Institutions, threatening to cancel the frequency of the electronic media, purchasing media Institutions by force through outsiders, providing various inducements to journalists and media Institutions and silencing them and other criminalities not mentioned herein shall be reckoned as part and parcel of this media suppression,” the letter states.
Poddala Jayantha’s request or demand would no doubt strike a responsive chord in the hearts and minds of the scribe tribe in Sri Lanka. Besides, the request acquires much legitimacy and validity when a person of Poddala Jayantha’s stature makes it. Jayantha is a living embodiment of all what went wrong for Sri Lankan journalists under the Rajapaksa regime.
Poddala Jayantha was a home-grown journalist who stood up for freedom of expression and the rights of journalists as an active office-bearer of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists. Jayantha spoke the truth to those in power fearlessly and as a result he was horribly persecuted in the land of his birth. Poddala Jayantha was forced to flee Sri Lanka and seek refuge in the USA. I wrote about Jayantha’s ordeal in 2009 when it happened but would like to re-visit the chain of incidents concerning him in a bid to focus on the plight of journalists in Sri Lanka in the not so distant past.
Enemies Of The State
It was June 2009. The war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had ended in a military victory for the armed forces of Sri Lanka. Several journalists on either side of the ethnic divide had been victimised by the powers-that-be in Sri Lanka while the war was on. Now with an uneasy peace prevailing many thought that the pressures on members of the fourth estate would gradually diminish in Lanka. Alas! That was not to be. The witch hunt against journalists depicted as enemies of the State continued unabated in Sri Lanka.
There were six strong men like those who were in the military. Then they had cut my hair and beard and stuffed them into my mouth
The first post-war victim among Sri Lankan journalists was senior journalist and prominent media rights activist Poddala Jayantha. Poddala Jayantha as his name indicates hails from Poddala in the southern province. Poddala is a village about 119 km away from Colombo and about nine km from Galle. Jayantha was a sturdy son of the Ruhunu soil from a very poor family. His father was a tapper in a rubber estate while his mother was a tea plucker. Jayantha studied in the Sinhala medium and passed his “A” levels but failed to gain Varsity admission. Since his knowledge of English was very poor at that time, Jayantha could not get a good private sector job in Colombo. He started working as a security guard at Wijeya newspapers. While working as a security guard Jayantha began writing for the “Ravaya”. This was his entry into journalism. Later he became a full time journalist and joined the “Dinamina” at Lake House. He also became an ardent media rights activist and became an office-bearer in journalist associations and media movements.
Poddala Jayantha was abducted by a gang in a white van on June 1, 2009 at about 4.30 pm in broad daylight near the Embuldeniya junction in Nugegoda. At the time of his “white-vanning” Jayantha was a senior journalist at “Dinamina” the Sinhala daily run by Lake House. He was also the General Secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) and a key activist of the Free Media Movement (FMM) in Sri Lanka. On the day in question Jayantha telephoned his wife Kalyanie at about 4.15 pm and said he was on his way home. Jayantha was walking out of a pharmacy when a group of six men manhandled him and swiftly bundled him into a white Toyota Ace van.
Several people witnessed the shocking incident. Among them was someone who knew Jayantha personally. This person who also knew veteran journalist Bennet Rupasinghe, telephoned him and told him of the incident. Bennet Rupasinghe had worked for many years at the Communist party newspaper “Athha”. He was later working as news editor of the Lanka e-news web portal. Rupasinghe then told his editor in chief and publisher Sanduruwan Senadheera about the incident. Senadheera and Rupasinghe then began telephoning people to alert them of the abduction. Since they feared for Jayantha’s life both telephoned as many people as they could about the incident including different media personnel. The intention was to mount pressure on those responsible for ordering the abduction and make them release Poddala Jayantha safely.
Bennet Rupasinghe at first telephoned the then Inspector-General of Police, Jayantha Wickremaratne and told him of the incident. Bennet also informed Jayantha’s wife Kalyanie and advised her to rush to the Police station and make a formal complaint. She went with a lawyer cum journalist KW Janaranjana and another journalist Jayasiri Jayasekera to the Mirihana Police station and lodged a complaint. In her complaint she stated that Bennet Rupasinghe had informed her of the abduction.
Meanwhile, a badly battered Poddala Jayantha was dumped into a muddy pit by the roadside near the IDH hospital. An injured Jayantha kept shouting for help saying he was a married man with a child. But the culture of fear that prevailed in Sri Lanka prevented anyone from coming to his help. A bleeding Jayantha with blood and mud on his rumpled and torn clothes hobbled on the road for a while and finally hailed a three-wheeler to go to hospital.
Intensive Care Unit
He was warded at the Intensive care unit at the Colombo National Hospital. After surgery he was transferred to a paying ward at the hospital. The abductors had blindfolded and beaten Jayantha with iron rods and wooden poles accusing him of being a traitor to the country. At one point the abductors had crushed three of his fingers with a wooden block saying he would not be allowed to write with his hand again. Jayantha had fainted at one stage. His leg and ankle were broken. In addition he suffered many injuries on the face, head, arms, legs and chest.
In a further bid to humiliate Jayantha the cowardly abductors had shaved off parts of his beard and some of the hair on his head. The white van cowards had forced the hair down Jayantha’s throat making him swallow it. Years later Poddala Jayantha was to describe his ordeal in an interview to our sister paper the “Daily Financial Times” thus:
They dropped me on the floor and started assaulting me while the van was moving fast. They took a wooden log and kept it under my left leg and hit it with another wooden log to break the ankle
“It was a narrow road and a white van was parked there. I never thought it was waiting for me. When I was passing the van, two men jumped from the van and dragged me in while another three who followed me pushed me into the van, which only had a backseat. They dropped me on the floor and started assaulting me while the van was moving fast. They took a wooden log and kept it under my left leg and hit it with another wooden log to break the ankle”.
“With severe pain, I fell unconscious. After assaulting my unconscious body for some time, they had burnt my other leg with a cigarette lighter so I would regain consciousness to give me their last warning. While my body was in pain and burning I heard them threatening me not to appear on television channels against the Government and if I did so in future they would kill me like a dog next time”.
“There were six strong men like those who were in the military. Then they had cut my hair and beard and stuffed them into my mouth. When I gained consciousness after I was dropped on the roadside, I couldn’t shout for help as hair was clogged in my throat. I had a struggle to take the hair out as my hands were tied. I couldn’t stand up because both my legs were damaged. Somehow I managed to pull some of the hair out of my mouth and shouted for help”.
At about the same time that Poddala Jayantha was being abducted and assaulted on June 1, 2009 , a delegation of journalist association representatives was having discussions with the then President Mahinda Rajapakse on problems faced by the media.The meeting had been arranged by the then FMM convener Chulwansa Sri Lal. Poddala Jayantha had refused to meet the President as part of the delegation saying it was pointless. Prasanna Fonseka of the SLWJA had attended the meeting instead of Jayantha. Among others present at the discussion were the “Ravaya” editor Victor Ivan and senior journalist Waruna Karunatilleke.The meeting was held to discuss the safety of journalists in Sri Lanka. There was concern about the campaign to malign some journalists on state media as being paid agents of the LTTE.
‘Media Institution Friction’
While discussions were on, news of Poddala Jayantha’s abduction was conveyed to the then Transport minister Dullas Alahapperuma .When Alahapperuma informed Mahinda Rajapaksa of the incident a nonchalant Rajapaksa responded that he did not want to get involved in friction among media institutions. The cryptic comment about alleged “media institution friction” by Mahinda assumed greater significance due to subsequent developments.
What happened then was that in a bizarre twist the Mirihana Police had gone in search of veteran journalist Bennet Rupasinghe instead of searching for the White van abductors. Rupasinghe was arrested at 8.00 pm on June 1 night and detained at the Police station for 18 hours till 2.00 pm on June 2. He was interrogated for hours about alleged discrepancies between his version of the abduction and the complaint made by Mr. Jayantha’s spouse.
Bennet Rupasinghe said during interrogation that he had been informing people of the incident with the approval of Mr. Senadheera. The Police then telephoned Sandaruwan Senadheera the editor-in-chief and publisher of Lanka e-news and asked him to come to the Police station. When Senadheera arrived there on June 2, his statement was also recorded. Both journalists were produced before the Nugegoda Chief Magistrate Vasantha Jinadasa by the Police special investigation unit.
Police informed the magistrate that both journalists were key suspects in the case as they had been the first to inform Poddala Jayantha’s wife of the incident. Lawyers Vidura P. Manchanayake and Manjula Pathiraja who appeared for the two journalists submitted that the journalists had had nothing to do with the incident but upon hearing of the abduction of Poddala Jayantha, informed his wife and advised her to lodge a complaint with the Police.
Police also said that Rupasinghe and Senadheera had informed IGP Jayantha Wickremaratne, Media minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, the Director of Information Anusha Pelpita and Presidential adviser on Public Affairs, Kumarasiri Hettige about the incident. As such the Police wanted both Journalists to be remanded pending further investigations. But the chief magistrate who put off the case for August 3 declined to remand them. They were released on personal bail of Rs.500,000 each and ordered to report to the Police every Sunday.
Background To Abduction
Several media rights organizations and human rights institutions condemned the abduction and attack.In order to understand the background to the abduction and attack on Poddala Jayantha a brief excursion into some of the related events of the past is necessary.
The bearded Poddala Jayantha was a popular figure among journalists as an ardent campaigner for media rights.He was at the forefront of media demonstrations and also issued several statements critical of the Government despite being a Lake House employee.According to journalists at Lake House both Jayantha and Sanath Balasuriya the then president of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) were journalists holding left of centre views.Both had supported Mahinda Rajapakse during Presidential elections of Nov 2005. However as office-bearers of SLWJA both had been later critical of the government for trying to curb and suppress the media.
Despite working at the Government controlled Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd (Lake House) both had courageously stood up for the rights of media personnel regardless of irritation caused to the Rajapaksa regime. In association with other media rights organizations, the SLWJA had been staging demonstrations and building up public awareness of media suppression. They had issued statements critical of the govt whenever the situation warranted it. When journalists were abducted, arrested or attacked. Sanath and Jayantha had rushed to their defence in whatever capacity possible.They attended courts when journalists were charged.
When the thuggish Parliamentarian Mervyn Silva and heroin dealer “Kudu” Lal had invaded “Rupavahini” premises the employees there had erupted and held both as captives’. Both Sanath and Jayantha had rushed to the State TV premises and persuaded employees to release Mervyn and “Kudu”. Thereafter a number of Rupavahini employees were attacked with knives and razor blades on different occasions by Mervyn’s goondas. No one was arrested.
In early January 2008, a gang of thugs in a white van went to the Boralesgamuwa area where Jayantha was living then with the intention of abducting him. But alert residents had protested vehemently compelling the white van cowards to retreat ignominiously. Later villagers held a Bodhi pooja to invoke blessings and protection for Poddala Jayantha. Thereafter safe houses for both Sanath and Jayantha were set up.
Keith Noyahr Incident
On May 22, 2008 Keith Noyahr, Associate Editor and defence columnist of “The Nation” newspaper was abducted by men in civilian clothing. He was assaulted and tortured at a secret location. Prompt action spearheaded by Krishantha Cooray the former Chief Executive Officer of “Rivira media corp” compelled the abductors to release a severely injured Noyahr with a warning that he should stop writing for ever. Cooray who used his wide-ranging contacts to launch a world-wide agitation for the release of Noyahr was himself under threat later and was forced to relocate to a foreign country.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa went on a tirade against Sanath and Jayantha saying that as Lake House employees they could not go against the Government. He charged that they were working against Army commander Sarath Fonseka
In the aftermath of the Keith Noyahr incident five media rights organizations held a public demonstration on May 23, 2008 condemning it and demanding government action to bring the abductors to justice. They were Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), Federation of media employees trade union (FMETU) Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF),Sri Lanka Tamil Journalists Alliance (SLTJA) and the Free Media Movement (FMM). It was well known then that the then FMM convener Sunanda Deshapriya, and SLWJA stalwarts Sanath Balasuriya and Poddala Jayantha were the livewires behind the protest demonstration.
Shortly after this demonstration the then defence secretary and Presidential sibling Gotabaya Rajapaksa summoned Balasuriya and Jayantha to his office. Also present was ex-chairman of Lake House, Bandula Padmakumara and former Media center for National security director Lakshman Hulugalle. Gotabaya Rajapaksa went on a tirade against Sanath and Jayantha saying that as Lake House employees they could not go against the Government. Gota also charged that they were working against Army commander Sarath Fonseka and the Army. There was a heated exchange of views.
At one point the Journalists said, “Just because a war is being waged, if some wrongs are being committed by the military under that guise, it has to be exposed. There is no need to hide behind the guise of war”. The Defence Secretary retorted, “Don’t you understand what I am trying to say? If you don’t agree and continue with what you are doing, what has to happen to you will happen. Laws will be introduced to restrict reporting on the conduct of military or on Commanders of the Armed Forces. The military will campaign for such laws. We can see whether the voice of the military is stronger than the campaign of the journalists.
The Journalists then said, “You are making a serious threat on our lives”. Gotabaya Rajapaksa replied, “No, No. I am not doing it. I am definitely not threatening your lives. I am not. It will happen from where it happens. Our services are appreciated by 99 per cent of the people. They love the Army Commander (Sarath Fonseka) and the Army. Those who love us do what is required. We cannot help that.”
Letter To Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Angered by the then Defence Secretary’s attempt to intimidate the Lake House Journalists in the presence of their boss Padmakumara, the five media organizations that organized the Noyahr incident demonstration sent a joint protest letter to Lt. Col (Retired). Gotabhaya Rajapakse.The letter stated:
“We are extremely disappointed and very concerned to discover that you summoned and reprimanded Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha, President and General Secretary of Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association ( SLWJA), over the protest campaign organized by our five media organizations against the abduction and inhuman assault on The Nation journalist Keith Noyahr.”
“We held this protest campaign peacefully and under the freedom of expression enshrined in our Constitution. The aim of our protest was to demand that the government initiated an open and impartial investigation into the abduction and assault of Keith Noyahr and brought the culprits to book. We openly stated that if the government did not apprehend the culprits and attempted to impair and impede the investigation, we hold it responsible for this heinous crime”.
The Letter went on to say:“We are outraged by your thinly veiled repeatedly expressed threat that the lives of Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha would be in grave danger should they continue to defend the right to independent reportage critical of the military and the regime. Clearly, it is a problem that you see no problem in such odious expression. At a time when the President and his government seek to assure us that all is well with the protection and fullest enjoyment of fundamental rights in Sri Lanka, your behaviour-and not for the first time-is a significant marker of the ground reality and the challenges facing free media and human rights”.
Subsequently the issue was raised by journalists at the defence matters press briefing held by the then Cabinet spokesman and minister Keheliya Rambukwella. Former MCNS director Hulugalle also present was asked specifically about the incident.He denied that Gotabhaya Rajapakse had threatened the journalists and had only sought a clarification. Hulugalle maintained that as Lake House employees both had no right to engage in anti-govt activity.
When asked whether journalists had no rights to engage in politics if they wanted to, Rambukwella replied as employees of Lake house they had no right. Asked as to why this was not emphasized when Sanath and Jayantha campaigned for Mahinda during Presidential polls, Keheliya came out with a characteristic “vihiluwa” “They were summoned to be thanked for that”.
Slaying Of Lasantha Wickrematunge
The next major development in this saga of journalists being targeted was the cowardly assassination of “Sunday Leader” editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on Jan 8th 2009. The journalist fraternity protested vehemently against the killing. This resulted in a spate of death threats against journalist activists. When threats against journalists increased in the aftermath of the brutal slaying of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a large number of journalists left the Country.
Poddala Jayantha had also been one of the scribes who fled abroad for safety. They first went to India. While several journalists went to the west from India, Poddala opted to return to Lanka. He returned to Sri Lanka after some weeks and was living in Nugegoda temporarily. The main reason for Jayantha to return despite the danger was to give leadership to the SLWJA and to ensure that the project to construct an office building for the SLWJA proceeded smoothly.
Poddala Jayantha was the first of those who fled abroad in January 2009 to return to Sri Lanka. This return was seen as an act of defiance. The cowardly bullies are happy when people flee for safety. Events that preceded the abduction clearly indicated that Poddala Jayantha was singled out to be the victim of a state sponsored witch hunt to target independent journalists refusing to bow down before the ruling regime .
Poddala Jayantha and others of his ilk were accused of being agents of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Initially the then Army commander Sarath Fonseka alleged that evidence had been unearthed against Sinhala journalists helping the LTTE. He even said that media rights demonstrations at Lipton’s circus roundabout were bankrolled by the tigers.This was followed by a media interview of the then IGP Jayantha Wickremaratne who reiterated the Army commander’s accusation.
Image Flashed Across TV Screens
The Inspector General of police accused unnamed journalists of obtaining money from the LTTE under the guise of campaigning for media freedom in Sri Lanka.State controlled TV net work ITN showed visuals of Poddala Jayantha on its segment called “After News” while the accusation was being aired.The bearded Poddala Jayantha’s image flashed across TV screens as references to treacherous journalists getting money from the LTTE were made.
On 22nd May an editorial of the state controlled Sinhala language daily “Dinamina” called for stoning and expulsion of so called professional journalists who grew beards and took money from tigers.Since Poddala Jayantha was well-known for his beard, there was no doubt about the intended target. It was indeed sadly illustrative of the prevailing media situation that the paper for which Poddala Jayantha worked for more than 15 years should denigrate him this way.As a result of this vilification campaign , Poddala Jayantha’s only daughter was humiliated at school. She refused to attend school .
The weeks preceding the white -vanning of Jayantha saw continued attacks on “unnamed journalists” who had campaigned for media freedom and justice for abducted and killed journalists in Sri Lanka. They were called traitors by various politicians and pro - state and state controlled media. One newspaper wrote an editorial calling for the death penalty to be imposed on Sinhala journalists who betrayed the Country by taking money from the LTTE.The then Media ministers Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena added to the confusion by stating different points of view at press conferences about the so called list of media practitioners who got hand-outs from the LTTE.The scene therefore was being set for the abduction and assault of Poddala Jayantha.
When Jayantha was in hospital the former US envoy Robert O’Blake visited him and offered asylum in the US. Jayantha thanked him but declined the offer saying he did not want to leave Lanka. After 29 days of hospitalization, Jayantha returned home but had to take medical treatment continually. One of the first things he did was to participate at the ceremonial opening of the SLWJA building. It was a happy day for Jayantha.
However Poddala Jayantha’s persecution continued. There were telephone calls threatening him with death.Finally there came a stage where he felt that he and his family had to leave Sri Lanka. Poddala Jayantha in the “Daily FT” interview stated as follows - “With the SLWJA opening, I got more threats asking whether we opened the office to do more work against the Government. They had once come in search of my family. I felt that I should go hiding as they would destroy my family and me. I knew that there wouldn’t be a chance for me. I was afraid to go to the clinic to get medicine for my fractured and tortured legs and wounds”.
It was in this situation therefore that Poddala Jayantha sought refuge in the USA with his family in December 2009. In 2012 a demonstration was held at Kiribathgoda against the UN Human Rights Council. Speaking at the meeting was the then Minister of Public Relations Mervyn Silva . The “Rajapaksa Rottweiler” warned that he will break the limbs of some journalists, who have gone abroad and made various statements against the country, if they dare to set foot in the country.“I’m the one who chased one of those journalists ‘PoddalaJayantha’ out of this country.
I will break the limbs of all these journalists, in public if they dare to set foot in the country” Mervyn Silva warned.
Life has not been a bed of roses for Poddala Jayantha in the US. He could not practise his beloved journalism due to linguistic difficulties. Jayantha did many different jobs to make ends meet. However his interest and concern for Sri Lanka and his fellow journalists in the Island has not ceased. The letter sent to the cabinet sub- committee illustrates this clearly.
When a person like Poddala Jayantha who has undergone harrowing experiences including a white van abduction calls for a Presidential commission to probe the attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka, the request has a genuineness about it which a responsible Govt cannot ignore.
One certainly hopes that the Sirisena - Wickremesinghe Govt which takes pride in calling itself a “Good Governance Govt” would appoint a specific commission of inquiry to probe all the anti - journalist acts that took place between 2005 and 2015. However the widening hiatus between pledge and performance of the current regime makes one doubt whether Poddala Jayanta and other Journalist victims would ever get the justice they yearn for.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org