Excellence in exile

Poddala

Battered and bleeding, journalist Poddala Jayantha lay on his hospital bed when we visited him on June 2, 2009. He was lucky to be alive after being brutally assaulted by a group of unidentified assailants just the previous day.

This was a terrible time for the Sri Lankan media.  Personally, I was struggling to recover from the shock of losing my former editor Lasantha Wickrematunge to the tyranny of the powerful. I was not alone. It was shared grief in a year that recorded a series of violent acts against journalists and media workers. 2009 was annus horibilis for Sri Lankan journalism.

Perhaps for clinical analysts, the attack on Poddala was simply one in a series, though a conspicuous one.  There was a difference.

Wickrematunge’s life was simply snuffed out, J.S. Tissainayagam was arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) together with his colleagues.  The then Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon was knifed and the then Editor of Sudaroli N. Vithyatharan abducted and later released.

Instead of killing Poddala, the attackers chose to let him live with his broken bones and a spirit they thought by then cracked. Poddala was to serve as a living reminder of the price for dissent, a warning so clear.

His eyes filled with pain, Poddala that day simply held my hands and muttered “sometimes I wonder why we struggle so much for people who betray us and defeat our causes. Yet I still believe that ideals cannot be compromised”. As his courageous journalism and integrity receive international recognition today, I recall the determination in his voice that day.

Poddala was a fiery investigative journalist who pursued the higher ideals in public-spirited journalism. As a journalist, he pushed himself, fellow journalists and activists as well as the limitations imposed by the State-run newspaper where a culture of subservience prevailed.

The stature he earned as a respected journalist and a media activist brought him not just fame but very powerful enemies. On June 1 2009, he was brutally assaulted.  That incident altered his life completely and drove him away from his country and from journalism towards a life of an exiled scribe.

Today, November 12 is a significant day for him.  The prestigious Integrity Award 2010 was conferred upon him today by Transparency International at a glittering ceremony in Bangkok.

An unmistakable parallel springs to my mind.  Exactly a decade ago, it was another dissenting Sri Lankan journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge who won the first Integrity Award. There could be other parallels that spring to mind too. Yet it should not dishearten anyone that Lasantha was made to prematurely lie in a grave and that Poddala suffers from permanent damage to his limbs.

Of course, Lasantha worked in the English language and was a successful editor and a journalist of international repute. Poddala on the other hand worked in the local Sinahala language within the terrible confines of a State-run editorial as desk editor.

That is also why Poddala’s contribution to journalism is significant. The excuse hovering on the lips of most State media practitioners is that self-censorship is the norm and how impossible it is to fight it.  Poddala’s example clearly demonstrates that one can in fact fight it. He demonstrated that excellence in journalism was possible within State media institutions, the appalling internal politics notwithstanding.

Admittedly, we belong to a duplicitous and divided media community. This has aided politicians to divide journalists into various camps and to play one colleague against another. Poddala was well aware of this ugly reality.  He knew that as much as we demand accountability from others, that the industry is infested by those who sell opinions for a bottle of spirits, foreign trips or expensive gifts.  It was Poddala who promoted the concept of an integrity pledge for journalists and campaigned for a policy on gifts.

And what prompted him to demand accountability through his writing with such zeal?  Poddala openly spoke of his humble beginnings and how much every rupee mattered to his own family and to the poor people in his village. It made him demand that every rupee meant for public spending be spent on that purpose and be accounted for.  For him, pioneering causes, promoting ethics and selflessly committing himself to media activism came naturally.  For Poddala, journalism was a way of life, not a livelihood.

With the escalation of violence against journalists, dozens of committed journalists were forced out of Sri Lanka in a bid to save their lives. There were also those who used the opportunity to flee Sri Lanka claiming imaginary threats.

Poddala in my opinion made a miscalculation. He went away for a short while after the brutal murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge and returned soon afterwards.  Many others, who left with him, chose not to return, sensing possible violence against them in the event of a quick return.

When I telephoned Poddala to share the joyous news of him being the Integrity Award winner 2010, his voice cracked: “I just wish I could work with you all again, wish I could write again and live in Sri Lanka again.”  I do know that Poddala still harbours hopes of returning home, to the industry he lived for and continues to love.

An award may not make a difference to his exiled existence today. Exiled journalists do not have too many choices or opportunities to grow. Circumstances have denied Poddala the opportunity to travel to Bangkok and receive his award. Yet, it will serve him as a reminder that the world is not blind to those who lead by example and the integrity he has demonstrated merits respect and recognition.

  • sampath

    What probably heightens Poddala’s pain is that he along with other media activists campaigned for Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005. They even went to the extent of publishing a campaign paper under the name ‘Mahinda’. The same was seen in the 2010 elections with (so called) liberal artistes and journalists rallying around Fonseka. When will we ever learn…?

  • Dilkusha

    Intergrity Award! Does seem like one has to sacrifice life and limb or both to receive this award. Wish it wasn’t so. Congratulations on receiving the award and thanks for having the courage to risk all to make us the public more aware.

  • http://www.groundviews.org/2010/11/12/excellence-in-exile/ Asitha

    When the 4th estate (journalists) assume the role of marauding mercenaries on innocent, law abiding citizens in key national and international positions, assassinating their victims’ character thereby bringing disrepute and anguish not only on the accused person/s but also on those innocents in his family also, the victims and/or their associates will resort to seeking the services of the 5th estate (the underground) to ensure that justice be done and just not “seen to be done through a complaint to a Press Commission or a belated Right to Reply” .

    This is because the existing Sri Lankan penal code does not incorporate “defamation as a criminal offence”. When these mercenaries openly declare themselves to be “unbound and unafraid” the message given to the outside world is that they are beyond the (restrictions of) law and simply do not care about who gets hurt as long as they execute the contracts of their paymasters.
    Paradoxically there is the 5th estate (the underground mafia) also prevalent in Sri Lanka (just like in other countries) which believes in the motto of “unbound and unafraid”. They are also beyond the law and do not care about their victims as long as they bare paid handsomely for their contracts.
    What has happened ever since the laws of defamation were deleted from the Sri Lankan penal code, the 4th estate went into overdrive and began open defamation of the Good as well as the Bad and Ugly. The result has been a war of attrition between between the 4th and the 5th estate who are both hired mercenaries. Unfortunately the 4th estate heaps accusations of direct or indirect involvement of the ruling government when they (and everybody else) well know that it is not true. In Sri Lankan society of recent times, everybody knows that money guides everything and therefore if one seeks justice it is best to talk to the nearest trishaw stand people than seeking help from the MP or the official judiciary.

    Lasantha Wickramathunge may well be living today if the reins of “criminal defamation” held him “bound by a code of ethics and afraid of the criminal law”. Those who repealed the law of criminal defamation by journalists must be held answerable to the loss of his life and the demise of the mercenary journalists who had to flee the country. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is a well worn statement. In the case of the Sri Lankan 4th estate “power sans accountability” leading to an absolute psychopathic belief of “unbound and unafraid” has created its own nemesis in a similar reaction of the 5th estate. That classic western film “Magnificent Seven” depicts this stark reality.
    Such is the philosophy of Yin-Yang of natural justice anywhere in the world historically or futuristically.

  • Agnos

    Asitha,

    My memory is that Lasantha’s motto was “unbowed and unafraid” not “unbound and unafraid.” [Edited out] people like you who justify assassinations as a means to silence journalists are the curse of Sri Lanka.

  • http://defenceanalytics.blogspot.com/ Deshapaluwa

    Poddala has been awarded the integrity award by Transparency international. Its befitting.

    A similar award was given to Mr. Mano Ganeshan by US ambassador to Sri Lanka. Ganeshan was a front line speaker at the LTTE rallies, a group classified as one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world by FBI along with HAMAS Hezbollah and al Qaeda. What kind of an award will USA send to a speaker in rallies of the latter three groups? Supposedly nothing short of a visit by a predator drone. Such is the hypocrisy of such international awards.

    Poddala had an ideology and he used his journalistic privileges to steer governments towards his ideology.

    A letter he co-authored titled “Mahinda” published during the 2005 election is a good example, it is everything that Mahinda Rajapaksha is not, it defines Rajapaksha as a liberal progressive and attempts to steer Rajapaksha towards that viewpoint.

    When he failed he used his journalistic privileges to the political disadvantage of Mahinda Rajapaksha administration.

    All governments are corrupt, and its the same government officials who continue even when the ruling political party changes.

    How many exposes has he done on the previous governments, which aligned with is ideological view point?

    Why did his exposes on government corruption rapidly increase with surge of war and when the LTTE seems to be vulnerable?

    Is it heresy to ask those questions?

    It is clear that Poddala used his journalism for his ideological interests but not for the benefit of the people.

    It becomes glaringly clear by him aligning with Lankanewsweb.com, a political hack job run with complete secrecy of the owners, believed to be assisted by an opposition politician in Sri Lanka. Lankanewsweb is famous for its utterly false, wild accusations of Gotabaya Rajapaksha buying Apollo Hospital and Basil Rajapaksha buying Swarnawahini TV station, and carried out vile attacks with false accusations against journalists like Manoj Abedeera of Divaina news paper and Iqbal Athas of Sunday Times.

    What is the integrity of a man , who writes to a political hack job of a web site, run by a group in secrecy, supposedly controlled by an opposition party politician, openly supports the United National Party, publishes utter lies about government officials and carries out vile attacks against fellow journalists?

    Poddala was an office barer of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists association, and NGO funded by other NGOs and foreign governments NGOs. SLWJA does not want to reveal their donor to the SL public instead want to keep it in secrecy.

    SLWJA is in the cabal of Sri Lankan NGOs who try to steer Sri Lanka towards a liberal ideology. A small group of people control all these NGOs, many are officials of many NGOs, and draw salaries from them.

    NGOs are the most corrupt institutes in Sri Lanka, C.A. Chandraprema of the Island exposed how money is being used for personal benefit of NGO officials in transparency international Sri Lanka, the watch dog agency that is supposed to watch over corruption in Sri Lanka. The Editor of Ravaya Victor Ivan exposed how this tightly bound group of NGO officials misuse their funds and prevelages as NGO officials to achive their personal goals.

    The head of Transparency International Sri Lanka J.C. Weliamuna is not a neutral man, he is the attorney for the Editor of Lanka Irida Chandana Sirimalwatta, the unofficial newspaper of Marxist political party JVP.

    And what is the response by the amnesty international head office on those allegations? They promote Mr. Weliamuna. Reminiscent of Mr. J.R Jayawardana promoting IP Udugampola after the Gatambe Temple Fiasco.

    Such is the hypocrisy in NGOs and INGOs

    It is natural for Poddala’s friends in Transparency International Sri Lanka to nominate him to this award, so he can write a favorable review on them, or help them with their “liberal cause”, or with their personal ambitions.

    Poddala’s integrity is not towards truth, but towards his ideology, he has proven that however vile the path that he would have to take to achieve his ideological ambitions he will take it.

    And the NGOs and INGOs operating in Sri Lanka and their funding governments have repeatedly shown that however naked and ugly the path they would have to take to steer Sri Lanka to a liberal , pro separatist government, they would take it.

    The Island newspaper reported that US government attempted to evacuate Prabakaran during the final phases of the war, they didn’t get to him, but they got to Poddala.

  • longus

    Asitha

    The jounalists in Sri Lanka lack the proper academic qualifications that are required to become journalists in developed countries. This could be one reason for their apparent inability in finding the professional touch in the job they do. Most of them can be bought for a meal or a bottle of Scotch, or somthing more expensive. They are in fact paid by various political parties-as Fredrica Janz told the courts that the UNP paid money to her newspaper to support Sarath Fonseka- in order for them to dance to their tune and distort the facts.

    Yet, it is no justification on government sponsored attacks on journalists. If the government is using the 5th estata-the underground- it is doubly wrong. This could only happen when the exercising of the law of the country is stiffled by political interference, which shows the pathetic depths the democracy has plunged.

    The ‘Criminal Defamation’ act is not the solution. It’s a disgrace to the freedom of expression. It should be a process of continuous litigation against the journalists who publish fabricated lies. On the other hand whatever Lasantha W’tunga said in his ragsheet would have become irrelevant garbage when the conclusion of the war proved he was wrong. Nobody would have to kill him ; he would have become the laughing stock if he lived.How many people are bothered about hundred and one conspiracy theories and incredible stories published by the Western tabloid press?

    By trying to shut the journalists up, the government has started on a path of self-delution which will bring about their own downfall, by leading themselves into brlieving that “everything on fine with the people” and “they believe our lies”!

  • Chee Lanka

    Poddala Jayantha was a complete misfit at Lake House, and that is why he had to be assigned to their Mihira newspaper meant for children. He could not perform the role expected of a Silumina journalist, which is to write endless praise of the king and company.

    But the attack on Poddala was orchestrated by himself, just like Lasantha shot himself to death and Sirasa TV set itself on fire. The innocent government should not be held responsible for these acts of self destruction by desparate individuals. They are misfits and failures in our Land Like No Other and are thus looking for a way out.

    Long live the King! Down with Poddalas of this land.