Photo courtesy of The Guardian

The recent war was officially over by the time I came to Sri Lanka a few years ago but it was a country still recovering from protracted violence. Lasantha Wickrematunge was made known to me via the yearly commemorations that took place by his graveside, in keeping with the Sri Lankan cultural tradition of honoring the memory of a family’s departed loved ones, by remembering them annually on the date of their death anniversary as well as their birthdays.

I noted that journalists in their 30s and 40s seemed to write and speak of him a decade after his death and more with great respect. And that all of those who did so were, in my opinion, among the best writers of journalism in Sri Lanka today: the young editors and deputy editors of some of the most significant contemporary digital media platforms, many of whom had spent some time working at The Leader.

Citizens of this country have been through a turbulent several decades. Those living here throughout terror attacks, civil unrest, fuel shortages and global pandemics have developed various coping mechanisms, including normalising violence, adjusting to chaos, building resilience – and strenuously focusing on the positives like “what doesn’t break you makes you stronger”.

The title of Raine Wickrematunge’s book on Lasantha’s life and work, Unbowed and Unafraid, invokes the famous poem Invictus, and praises the courage of a warrior campaigning for truth and justice against terrible odds. The author in recent interviews states that her intention in writing the book, which is a revised edition of the book which was first written ten years ago, is to “gift her former husband’s remarkable story to the world, to inspire people, and especially new generations of journalists”. This book, with its bold and beautiful banner of a title, the personal motto of Lasantha himself, is thus a significant part of the legacy and lasting impact of the life of the man whose work is its subject.

When an individual actively engages in public life, and particularly in discussions and critiques of political issues, their words and their opinions become influential. Lasantha’s work in a series of print papers written under the pseudonym Suranimala in particular seems to have created a new kind of space in the journalistic life of the country, showcasing the kind of bold and critical, provocative writing which presaged the freedom of speech exercised by bloggers. But without any of the protections.

Most journalists writing in national newspapers have to be clipped and circumspect and be careful to toe the line. Those who do not can certainly be called defiant and courageous. But they can also be called stubborn and reckless, particularly when they persist in their undertaking, in full knowledge of the consequences.

In considering the character and legacy of the man as presented in this book, I think of the poem Invictus but I also think of the last lines of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To Strive, To Seek, To Find, And Not To Yield”.

This idealistic verse was a favourite poem of my late father’s and many of those of his generation, which was two decades earlier than Lasantha’s. But they are the words of a man looking back on the courageous acts of his youth. That older generation – with its full measure of vivid and colourful personalities – is now fading away and the values by which they lived of honour, dignity and ethical integrity have been brutally eroded and displaced. Decency of the kind the older generation knew has been overthrown.

Lasantha Wickrematunge was 51 when he died in the last months of the recent civil war. This man, over a long and respected career, clearly spoke out against what he felt was changing the country for the worse: the policies, and the people who enacted those policies. The phrase “speaking truth to power” is often heard these days, usually in episodes of US television shows, and is a buzz phrase on social media, but Invictus is not a game and the real life consequences are devastating, because temporal power universally resides in individuals who do not want their authority to be questioned.

And the kind of questioning put forward by investigative journalists – as part of a theoretically globally accepted part of the process of democracy – is not anywhere in the world today tolerated in practice. Not in boardrooms, not at AGMs, not in local, regional or national councils, not in classrooms or lecture theatres; not in any arena where public status or professional acclaim depends on personal reputation. Scrutiny without fear or favour undermines the authority of those who are subjected to it.

Such an encounter changes trajectories of individuals and countries.

“The strength of a person’s spirit
would then be measured
by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate,
or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil

That dilution, disguise, sweetening, muting and falsifying is now an everyday global occurrence. We live in a world today where every story has two sides and facts are shouted down as fake news, where the solid ground created by objectivity is assumed to be riven by bias and where we, the consumers of information, are ourselves tainted by cynicism. The hardened and armoured responses to tragedy which we see on social media, the gallows humour and the macabre jesting are the results of collective long term trauma, an ordeal without end, endured by the people still living.

The picture of everyday life in Colombo and the snapshot of the mise en scene of young Sri Lankans in that time period that emerges from the author’s personal narrative is very detailed and rich in sensory recall. The Colombo of today, nearly 15 years after Lasantha was compelled to cease writing, is in contrast almost unrecognizable to expatriates returning from decades abroad, to find so much botoxed, bulldozed and glossed over.

The book is clearly and simply written. But this very absence of flourish and adornment prompts some complex contrasts and juxtapositions in the mind of the reader. People, unlike billboard posters, cardboard cutouts and caricatures, are not simple, one dimensional or even two dimensional entities. They have complex intentions for what they do, and often paradoxical motivations operating concurrently and sometimes unconsciously.

In an interview with the current editor of the Leader, Easwaran Ratnam, Raine Wickrematunge states that from his start at The SUN newspaper as a sub editor, and subsequently at the news desk, Lasantha was pushing limits with management, who asked him to take a week’s leave, after which he immediately began writing for The Island, where his investigative journalistic talents were recognised and celebrated. “Every day he was breaking a new story – a big story – and that was the lead,” Raine said. He co-founded The Leader in 1994, aged in his mid thirties.

He is described as irreverent, enjoying the swirl of controversy created by his writing, as a prankster, as a fun loving and optimistic, engaging personality. Self belief and confidence are very attractive qualities. My personal impression is that he started to get carried away by his own fame, the way Tik Tok stars and YouTubers do today.

He was ahead of his time; his work was going viral in the print era before technology made the publication and distribution of the writing of people (unlike Lasantha, without any qualifications to call themselves journalists) accessible to anyone with a computer and a social media platform. He wrote in the print media of the national newspapers as if he was free to say whatever he wished and was answerable to none.

He thus trailblazed into dangerous territory. Gifted writers often get carried away by their zeal and their ego as their fame and influence increase. Lasantha seems to me to have been a pioneer in that sort of populist writing, at a specific time in the history of this country. And like many pioneers, he had inadequate protections to back him up as he ventured forth. But he did not stop. The momentum generated by his personality and his sense of mission carried him past the limits which would have kept him alive and safe.

After reading the book, I can well believe that Lasantha was genuinely motivated by a love of his country. With that love went indignation which expressed itself in criticism of what in his opinion was adversely affecting the country. But he must also have fully enjoyed the exhilaration of writing as he did in an unfettered and challenging way, of having his words become quoted and influential, of knowing that his opinions were being read and sincerely believing that the naming and shaming he was continually doing in his work would result in a better future for the country, as well as making him a public figure who knew he was at the top of the hit list.

Journalists who dig deep are necessary for a democracy, to inform the voting population of the way they are being governed and uphold their right to know and assess the actions of those by whom they are governed. The way the exercise of such rights is received by those in power is a measure of several things: the openness and accountability of those in power, their actual demonstrated commitment to human rights and free expression; whether under their aegis power is truly implemented to benefit an elite minority or a majority to whom the elected government holds itself answerable; whether electoral promises are fulfilled in action; and whether those implementing such action are self serving or honouring the citizenry as a whole. These political assessments can only be fully made after the fact. And it is unfortunately difficult in the meantime to learn anything accurate from the agenda driven narratives that politicians use all over the world and that the media figures who support and promote them put forward.

At this juncture of the ongoing recovery from the economic crises of 2022, it is important that Sri Lanka think positively and present a bright face to the future. Tourism has recently started to regain lost ground after the heavy challenges of pandemic restrictions and public confidence appears to be returning, overall. But Sri Lanka has lost a lot of good people in common with many countries after long years of war due to accidents and acts of God and illness and wilful cruelty and negligence and reprisal and misadventure. Many of these losses have not been felt publicly but only mourned privately by the families of the deceased and those of the disappeared.

Now we as a society count the cost in human value of these losses as thousands of people line up to leave the country to seek safe domicile and viable employment abroad, protesting by their absence what they feel cannot be changed in their lifetime.

After reading this book, having never met its subject or his family, I find myself wondering what life could have been had this larger than life character lived longer and was alive today in the current context in Sri Lanka. If we could meet him in the present day at launches of books and meetings and AGMs of long established societies, see him lunching or having a cup of tea (no alcohol!) with colleagues at favourite haunts, interact with him in real time in the comments threads on Twitter and Facebook, see him being interviewed by international news channels and hear him speak at panel discussions at literary festivals when the topic was related to media and journalism. We could have tuned into his discussions during the pandemic, via podcasts and FB and IG live streaming.

Imagine if Lasantha Wickrematunge had been alive in 2022 during the protests in Colombo, taking part in candle light vigils on the roads and covering the events as they took place. Imagine if his countenance today was not only two dimensional on a poster or a placard on Galle Face Green but able to be seen in person at the numerous events which take place in Colombo each revolving season. Imagine if he had not died.

“I was still in a daze as I watched from the car hundreds of people dressed in white walking along the decorated road towards the funeral house. I was touched to see that most of these were ordinary people: wizened old ladies, mothers and children carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun, men of all ages talking to each other, shaking their heads as if in disbelief. Most of these were people who had never known Lasantha personally, but who had come to love and admire him through his newspaper and television work, and were now trudging the miles to pay their last respects to a hero of their times. At that moment, I felt so much gratitude for all these people. I imagined how moved Lasantha would have been to know that he had inspired so many people from all walks of life. I realized then that it wasn’t all the VIPs, the bigwigs, the corpulent politicians in their fancy cars, the fat cat businessmen that Lasantha died for. It was for these everyday people, forever fooled, always oppressed, the weary and voiceless, that Lasantha fought and died for.” From Unbowed and Unafraid.

Imagine if you will that this funeral scene had never taken place and that we now occupied a different reality, a parallel universe, in which protest itself was not felt to be necessary; a world in which there were no crises, no shortages and no loss.

This book presents to us a significant individual, and puts the professional life and work of the man in the context of his personal and family life. As such, it is an important part of the big picture of modern Sri Lanka. Dignus Est Intrare.