We can do no better than repeat what one of our columnists wrote just after Lasantha Wickrematunga’s brutal assassination - "There are some mad dogs on the loose and it is the job of the president to catch them and lock up their masters.’’ Friday’s brutal attack on Upali Tennekoon, a senior journalist who is now editing the Rivira newspaper founded by the Richard Pieris Group of Companies and sold some months ago to new interests believed close to the power wielders, hard on the heels of the Wickrematunga killing and the torching of the MTV/MBC television station, has sent a chill down the collective spine of not only the media industry but all freedom loving people of this country.
Given the modus operandi of the Tennekoon attack, it appears that unlike in the case of Wickrematunga the goons had no kill orders. If they had wanted to bump off the editor, it could have been as successfully accomplished as in the previous instance. Obviously, the orders were to rough him up and that has been done. But who gave those orders and for what reason? These are the questions begging for answers. Yesterday’s Daily News splashed the attack on Tennakoon giving it the treatment it did not choose to give the Wickrematunga assassination. Readers were informed that the Rivira newspaper ``has a political orientation sympathetic to the government and is supportive of the humanitarian operations conducted by the security forces in the Vanni;’’ who can be blamed for adding (in their minds) the words "unlike Wickrematunga and MTV/MBC.’’ That is the obvious connotation.
The Daily News report also noted that directors of the Rivira Publications (actually Rivira Media Corporation) included among others Nilanka Rajapaksa and Prasanna Wickremasuriya. As the colloquialism goes, knowing people would know who these gentlemen are. As far as we are concerned the Richard Pieris boss, Dr. Sena Yaddehige, remains Chairman of Rivira Media Corporation although Richard Pieris has sold out. Tennekoon was editor of the Divaina, the Sinhala daily published by Upali Newspapers who was later recruited by the Maharajah Organization to found a Sinhala newspapers (which did not come to pass). During the Ranil Wickremesinghe prime ministry, Tennekoon, a former president of the Editors Guild, worked for a World Bank funded project by courtesy of Milinda Moragoda before he was headhunted by Rivira. Given this background, if we may borrow the language of yesterday’s Daily News, it could also be said that he had an ``political orientation’’ sympathetic to the UNP once upon a time. But all this is irrelevant. What stands out is that Tennekoon was beaten up. Why?
When Keith Noyahr, deputy editor of the Nation, the English Sunday coming out of the Rivira stable was abducted and tortured, functionaries of the government, to their eternal shame, publicly and privately said that these may be incidents connected to obtaining visas to live abroad. Despite the many investigation teams appointed and the government’s promise that all its bloodhounds will be unleashed to get to the bottom of that atrocity, nothing has happened. Noyahr who left the country has refused to co-operate with the investigation, the high and the mighty say. Why this is so will be clear even to a baby who, as the Sinhala saying goes, still has the smell of his mother’s milk in his mouth. The victim is understandably afraid after the trauma he suffered, afraid for himself and his family. He obviously knows very well that no investigation will proceed along the direction he could point to. So Keith Noyahr keeps his peace.
Other journalists who have been vocal about attacks on their tribe and threats to media freedom have left the country. Whether they were or are at risk is a matter of opinion but given the savagery that has been unleashed by whoever, nobody can fault those who have fled for getting out of harm’s way. Foreign support for the safety of media personnel facilitated some of those perceived at risk to leave the country. In fact there was foreign support for a safe house in Colombo where several journalists, believed to have been vulnerable, were accommodated. Some of those who left the country have returned while others continue to remain abroad. The problem the government faces today is the public perception of a lack of political will to get to the bottom of these cases. A patronage cocooned police does not enjoy the public confidence that they will do their jobs and follow all leads wherever the trail leads them. The government’s continued foot-dragging about implementing the 17th Amendment to ensure independence of those occupying sensitive office does not help enthuse public confidence. So promises are made and statements are issued, but the state of play remains exactly where it was.
Journalists, like politicians, sometimes defect. An article in this issue points towards some telling examples. It was only after he was assassinated that it was revealed that Lasantha Wickrematunga maintained a cordial relationship with President Rajapaksa whatever the two may have publicly said about each other. There are some who have dubbed the Sunday Leader editor as a double agent as a result of this revelation. If that is so, then what do they say of the president? Nobody can dispute that the military successes of the armed forces, distinct from the government basking in reflected glory, is warmly welcomed by the vast majority of the people. It is to the eternal credit of President Rajapaksa that after Mavil Aru, he threw everything that the Sri Lankan State could muster against the LTTE. He was undeterred by intense foreign pressure and the natural desire for peace both at home and abroad because he well understood that either a separate state is conceded to Prabhakaran or the LTTE must be defeated. There was no halfway house. Even at tremendous cost, he chose the right option.
But a long and brutal war and methods adopted to prosecute it has bred all kinds of other ills including a climate of impunity that some elements seem to believe is theirs forever. When Mr. Dinesh Gunawardene jibed in parliament the other day that the opposition was headed for the Guinness Book of Records, he invited the obvious response that Sri Lanka had already qualified for an entry on account of the killing and other attacks on media personnel and institutions. This, unfortunately, is sad but true. The only way in which those in power can absolve themselves is to catch the perpetrators and it is necessary that the political will to do so is demonstrated now, immediately, pronto.