09 January 2014

Remembering Lasantha*

Lasantha Wickrematunge was clearly among the most colourful media personalities of his generation. He was in fact so colourful in his typically uni-colour-political way that he was more than a media person. The test of fast-colour, however, is a post-death thing and as much as many would want him to paint ‘The After’ he left behind, it really didn’t happen. That itself is an indicator of impact.

He was not only the Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Leader, he WAS the Sunday Leader and clearly much loved by his staff. I’ve even heard of people who worked under him considering him as a father figure. It was however not for fathering or leadership that he was best known. Lasantha was political but less in an ideological sense than as a party man, and this is true of his time with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and with the United National Party. He wore colour and symbol with pride and without apology; that his newspaper consequently acquired party branding is another matter altogether.

He was clearly fearless whenever he attacked individual or collective, party or institution. He knew how to get a story, how to gather facts and how to lay it all out so that there was a greater likelihood of realizing the objective that spurred him. He was among the best investigative journalists the country has seen in the last two decades. It is tragic that he consistently allowed political allegiances (to party and to individuals within parties) inform editorial direction. There were numerous times when this selectivity detracted from his overall journalistic skill, especially when he toned down or even stopped critique altogether when a particular individual switched political loyalties.

In his defence, however, it must be kept in mind that Lasantha was not one of those journalists who feign neutrality but are in reality diehard foot soldiers for this or that political party. Unfortunately, this particular fixation forced him to fashion and refashion editorial policy in according to ideological, political and policy shifts of the UNP. He went ‘soft’ during the time Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister, with hardly a word of criticism leveled against the Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE. He was rabidly anti-government after the SLFP-led UPFA came to power and especially after Mahinda Rajapaksa became President.

I met him once in 1984, i.e. a few weeks after the Sunday Leader was launched, to submit an article but my better memories are of his performance in Geneva during the Government-LTTE talks in February 2006. Attending a media conference called by Rohitha Bogollagama, who led the Government delegation, Lasantha was only interested in seeking to establish that the very fact of ‘talking’ was an endorsement of UNP policy, i.e. negotiations with the LTTE.

Events proved that unlike in the Ranil-LTTE talks, the Government did not end up co-signing Balasingham’s agenda but used the moment to maneuver to positions of advantage, on the ground and in the political debate. The Government had no illusions about the LTTE and events showed that nothing was lost when the inevitable that Lasantha was never ready to entertain happened, the resumption of hostilities courtesy LTTE belligerence and intractability. In fact when it all came back to guns, bullets, bombs and suicide attacks, it was that very CFA that proved to have helped the LTTE most. Lasantha was a day-to-day political activist and was not too worried about ‘later-fallout’. He operated on the dictum ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and this is perhaps why he gave Anton Balasingham a thumbs-up signal just before talks began in Celigny, Switzerland. I was there, I saw it and I wrote about it and Lasantha never countered.

That kind of misplaced loyalty which put party before nation and people was never Lasantha’s preserve, however. There are many who were blue and red in colour who did worse and whose failings on this account were not compensated for by the kind f journalism that Lasantha was capable of. Speaking strictly for myself, it is sad that Lasantha, who had all the attributes to be larger than party chose to be framed by such loyalties. It is in fact this party-fixation that rendered ineffective even the legitimate criticisms he leveled at his political opponents. Divested of colour and embellishment, he did come up with a lot of stories that the public needed to know. Unfortunately, he was too politically tainted to be taken notice of by sections of the readership that were not politically inclined either way. As such his missives did little more than titillate the like-minded and offer temporary relief to the politically depressed.

Nothing of this made Lasantha deserve the death he suffered. Indeed, if any of this was fault enough to be punished by murder then there would be a long list of journalists and others on someone’s list of targets. When he was murdered three years ago, naturally the accusing finger was directed at the Government and especially those he had attacked venomously. It was only later that it came to be known that Lasantha, for all his fierce attacks on the Government, remained a close friend of the President. Lasantha was political and it was natural for his murder to lend itself into quick transformation into political capital. Even today the incident is used as case-in-point by those who claim there’s a war on media freedom. No one has been found guilty, though, and even making allowance for the fact that murder-clues do not materialize with finger-snap (it took 2 years to find a suspect in the attempt to assassinate the Defence Secretary, after all), the unresolved nature of the investigation will continue to haunt the Government.

Lasantha was not the only journalist who can be said to have irked people in high places. While I would count out spies for foreign countries and cheerleaders for terrorists among those of our tribe who suffered threats and bodily harm, people like Keith Noyhr and Upali Tennekoon were never accused of being thus integrity-deficient. They were moreover not even like Lasanths in that they didn’t turn newspapers into party rags. They were both attacked and the attackers in both cases are yet to be apprehended and brought before the law. The longer it takes to find out what really happened the greater the likelihood of blame being directed at the Government, even if such finger-pointing is unwarranted.

Lasantha and I exchanged pleasantries in Geneva. We didn’t see eye to eye obviously. He was high-profile back then and I was new to newspapers. I doubt he knew of me, but I certainly read his paper. I kept notes. I wouldn’t run a paper the way he did but then again I doubt I ever could. He was one of a kind. Even though all things considered he bit himself much more than he bit others, he entertained, he gave some zip to the media industry and splashed a lot of colour too. It is a pity that we have to talk about what he could have achieved, less because he’s no more than because of who he was. Perhaps this is why he is now largely forgotten (while Ajith Samaranayake is not, for example). Still, I think we are poorer as a tribe for his absence.

*This was written 2 years ago on the 3rd anniversary of his assassination.



Gil Abey said...

Was Lasanther "A Caesar" presiding in an assembly of journalists, was there a Brutus amongst them? Did he soar above at a higher pitch? , Were there those who wanted to clip his wings? or was it "Et Tu Brutus?" at the end! As Marc anthony said "I am not here to praise Caeser" For me Lasantha as you so rightfully say was an exemplary journalist his talent was incomparable,his convictions were human and admirable, his failings if any were likewise human! I rather would like to see a man of convictions than a man who would display someone else's convictions for personal benefit or glory! Wasantha was a man of principle someone who fearlessly fought for what he thought was right! Thank you Malinda for this fine article !