(Text of message delivered at Lasantha Wickrematunge’s Grave, Borella on 8 January 2024)
Fifteen years is a long time. A very long time to wait for justice and closure.
Just now we spoke about keeping memories alive. Memories stay strong and our memories have made this gathering possible.
But why are we here? What do we remember about Lasantha that makes us visit his grave? Is it to weep at his grave? What is it that we remember of him and celebrate about him? Please take a moment to reflect on our reasons for being here.
I think we do not want to forget. And there is much we do not wish to forget.
I come from Lasantha’s empowering editorial. There is much in my life that has changed for the better due to his guidance.
The anti-corruption reporting is a humble tribute to this great man. Lasantha was extra ordinary. He was an endearing human being, a trail blazer, a brilliant journalist, lawyer, and a humanist. He contained multitudes. He was also a man who had the courage to propose and mainstream an alternate media narrative, unpopular with those in power but a vivid reflection of the times.
We often speak of hate narratives and regularly discuss dangerous speech and its multiple impacts on people and entire communities. Raisa spoke about how journalists in the North and how their legacies are hardly remembered. She spoke of all the other journalists in Sri Lanka, waiting for justice and closure. She was correct. Journalists who were killed, assaulted, maimed, and driven out. We remember all of them.
But let me remind this gathering that no other southern editorial has experienced hate and violence the way we have. We are a case study. Bombs have been hurled. There had been arson attacks, raids, frivolous litigation, and general harassment. The ultimate was to have The Sunday Leader’s editor eliminated. That is the price this southern newsroom paid.
But why were we targeted? Why was Lasantha singled out? The hate narratives were created and powered by the rulers at the time. And long before hate and dangerous speech became a key topic of discussion, journalists at the Leader and their editor were dealing with daily doses of hate and abuse.
I would now like to read a quote from a long interview given by Lasantha in October 2008, months before his assassination, for a report on the status of media in Sri Lanka which I compiled for the Asia Media Forum.
I quote: “There is a dangerous matser narrative created. Unfortunately, the media too plays a role in promoting racism and in polarising people. It is the heroism of some at the expense of some others that we promote. In promoting hate, some journalists are as complicit as some politicians. This calls for a review of how we practice our craft and why we have chosen to practice it? Should we not tell stories of all people, of their angst, their suffering, the things that irk, the things that hurt, their quests for justice?” Unquote.
Lasantha made a choice, and this was not to tell the story only from the perspective of the victor. There was space for the vanquished and the survivor.
In storytelling, he championed public-spirted journalism and ensured the content was analytical, insightful, and humane. It is that last word ‘humane” that often goes missing in much of the storytelling. In presenting an alternate narrative – quite unpopular with some sections – Lasantha put people at the centre of storytelling. He kept the nation well-informed.
There is also a lot of talk about being a patriot. It is Lasantha’s take on this much-abused word ‘patriotism’ that made me reflect. This word should ideally unite, but in Sri Lanka, it if often used to divide. Lasantha unpacked it differently.
There is patriotism that s blind and meek, endorsing acts and omissions of those with power, or drunk with power. And then there is a fiery form of patriotism that does not let you rest; that denies you sleep. The kind that asks questions, demands responses and cares to speak truth to power. That is the brand of patriotism Lasantha subscribed to.
The stories we told were questioned regularly. There were angry responses to how we told those stories. We were often trashed. Our storytelling was ridiculed, motives were assigned and the content condemned. There was frivolous litigation. Ours was labelled as ‘yellow journalism.’
Over the years, those very same stories have gained public value. The stories have turned red, become stark, stood out as symbols of truth. These ‘yellow’ stories forewarned the tragedy this country was destined to go through. These stories eventually were recognised among the few true accounts of the failure of governance in Sri Lanka. They reflected the systemic issues that eventually made this beautiful country collapse – and caused public outrage.
It is perhaps fate, that 13 years after Lasantha’s gruesome murder, the same stories were turned into effective slogans by angry citizens who commenced protests to demand accountability, an end to corruption and family rule. The Leader was raising these issues 15 years ago, and way before that.
In my view, Lasantha’s was the embodiment of a journalistic ‘Aragalaya.’ He did it way before people began accepting nepotism and corruption to be a deadly mix. Lasantha on the other hand, has done everything possible to warn this nation. Risking his life, he told stories that others would not dare tell.
Let me conclude by reading a portion form my testimony before the People’s Tribunal in May 2022. It will serve all of us as a reminder of what Lasantha raged against.
Here’s The Sunday Leader’s own diagnostic card for this nation. It’s 15 years old but holds true, even today. It shows without a trace of doubt that Lasantha’s was the long and sustained Aragalaya and the newspaper was an early warning system coupled with a call to action.
• Early identification of an authoritarian regime in the making
• Normalisation and mainstreaming of nepotism to create a family brand.
• Rapid concentration of powers on a single family
• Family control over public coffers
• Strategic weakening of public institutions, the public service, and politicisation, and militarisation of society
• Resistance to power sharing
• Lack of commitment to protect the dignity and rights of all people.
I hope these words cause you pain. I hope they make you reflect on our own actions and apathy.
15 years is a long time – to anticipate closure. To find criminal justice delivered to a man who spoke on behalf of all of us, whether we stood with him or not.
Impunity takes many forms. The absence of violence does not mean impunity has ended. Impunity is also the delays and derailments of justice. It is also about people who do not care. It is about what we tolerate, ignore, and allow to be normalised.
Here lies an innocent man, killed for his work. For speaking truth to power. His killers roam free.
He would not want us to weep at his grave.
He would want to reach from his grave and ask you to break that deafening silence; to stand up for what is right, to fight tyranny and injustice, to end to corruption. He would want us to draw from his rebellious spirit, find inspiration, and own our citizenship. Is it too much to ask?
We all deserve a better country now destroyed beyond redemption by our politicians. We all deserve better. Why should we forget? Let us not forget. Let us keep reminding ourselves of the injustices done, the crimes committed!
Be outraged. Do that one small thing to improve things. Let us break the silence of apathy and inaction. Let us not forget.