Groundviews

Uthayan in Jaffna: All the news that’s fit to print, and then some

JAFFNA. “Even though the war is over and the guns are silent…it doesn’t change a thing. We still face threats. We are still feeling the fear,” said 35 year old Thevanayagam Premananth, the editor of Uthayan newspapers. We talked in his office, part of the compound that had once been the torture chambers of the Tamil Tigers. A mug with “Happy birthday to the best editor in the world” printed on it rested on top of some old newspapers. Certainly Prem was one of the bravest. Last year Reporters Without Border recognised Uthayan’s commitment to freedom of expression with its Freedom Prize.

Today, Prem has just six news journalists working for him. All of them are in their twenties. “We don’t have a single journalist over forty,” Prem told me as he led me to the staff room and introduced me to Thadsa, his newest recruit. Prem faced a difficult task. He needed compelling, critical stories to fill the pages of his newspaper, but he couldn’t put his young reporters in harm’s way. “They have the guns. We have only pens,” said Prem as he talked about the military presence in Jaffna, the climate of fear, and the self-censorship that even Uthayan, with its reputation for bold stories, were sometimes forced to practise.

Thadsa had just completed a “political story”, the kind of article her parents feared the most. It was a story about Tamils who had joined the army. Thadsa had interviewed fresh recruits at the Palaly Air Base. Often Thadsa avoids telling her parents what she was working on until close to the publication date. That way they don’t worry and she still gets to write the story. When her father had seen this particular article he had been upset. Even the neighbours wanted to know why she took on such a controversial topic, especially at her age. For them, it was better for more experienced journalists to tackle political issues. However, at Uthayan there weren’t any.

Thadsa doesn’t tell her parents every detail about incidents that happen at the office. “A few weeks ago the army surrounded the office,” she told me. This was a reference to the fifth anniversary of the end of the war when the military prevented staff from entering Uthayan. “I didn’t tell my parents about that,” she smiled. I understood this. I was often sparing with detail with my parents on what I was working on. She took the view, as I did, that they would just worry unnecessarily.

Uthayan has faced many struggles in the past. Two workers were killed during an armed attack in 2005, there have been numerous attacks on journalists, and last year, the printing press was torched. Ten serious assaults on staff have taken place since 2011. Police guards stand watch at the gates but have offered little protection against the growing list of attacks on Uthayan.

I took a tour of the compound. It had been many years since I last visited. My connection to Uthayan’s journalists started with a short film I made in 2011. Paper, a film commissioned by Groundviews for its Moving Images project, was a portrait on how the newspaper overcame restrictions on newsprint and yet still managed to get the news to the people of Jaffna.

In the printing room there was a sense of urgency. The men hurried around the noisy machines as they rattled out the colour pages for the coming weekend’s supplement. One man in his fifties came over to me. “You were here before,” he said, wiping the ink from his hands and the sweat from his brow. We shook hands. It was good to see a familiar face. Suthakaran had worked in the printing section for the last fifteen years. Apart from the stalwarts in their eighties, it’s rare for someone to work here for that long. There was a high turnover of staff. Pressure from families meant that not many people stayed very long.

Sri Lanka may be the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, but what many forget is that it is also perilous for the people manning the printing presses, for the administrative staff, and even the paper boy. They may not be writers, but their knowledge and skill were essential in the conveyor belt that begins with a thought and ends up in the pages of newspapers in Jaffna readers’ hands. Without printers, or staff to work the machines, or people to deliver the papers, it follows that newspapers cannot be read. A simple logic exploited by those trying to stifle the newspaper’s freedom.

Journalists are attacked. The printing presses are burned. But resilience and a commitment to freedom of expression continues at Uthayan.

This time around, I wanted to make a film about the next generation of journalists that had joined the ranks. Why do young people like Thadsa take such risks? How to they deal with the family pressure to find a safer job? My film followed Thadsa for a week as she reported on a story about the disappearance of another Uthayan journalist, Nimalarajah, seven years ago.

What struck me was the age of the characters in Thadsa’s story. There was the octogenarian Mrs Subramanium, who had worked at Uthayan and witnessed the worst attacks. The elderly Mr Thangarajah, the only man in the building who spoke Sinhala and to whom journalists turned to when they needed to contact the army or the police. The former news editor Mr Kuganathan, in his sixties, who was himself a victim of a terrible attack and which led him to seek refuge in Switzerland. What the old guard had been through, their resilience, was inspiring the next generation of journalists. It was wonderful to observe and I captured this in my film. “Uthayan’s journalists have no fear,” Thadsa told me once during filming. “Only it can report the truth”.

At the end of our week together, a final scene unfolded between Thadsa and her father as he read her latest article in the Sunday papers. Thadsa’s father was clearly torn between the joy he felt for his talented and driven daughter, and the fear of any parent over the safety of a child. These were not your usual dangers. In a poignant moment, Thadsa’s father noticed that the article highlighted how journalists from the south had also faced attacks, been murdered or gone missing. It struck me that, despite her age and inexperience, Thadsa had the maturity to connect with Sinhalese journalists on the other side of the island. “They also write like this?”

The documentary News from Jaffna was commissioned by Al Jazeera English under its Viewfinder Asia programme and first broadcast on 29 September 2014.