Ilangamuwa: A Journalist’s Tale of Politics and Pressures in Lanka

Q and A with Salem News, courtesy of the latter

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is an ambitious young journalist purged by the government for his conviction to uphold freedom of speech and independence of media in the island nation. He was taunted by the agents of the government and its secret service for fearlessly managing the Sri Lanka Guardian that is continuing to expose several sensitive news that is causing major irritation to the government.

The very first point in the nine points mission statement of the Sri Lanka Guardian says it all: ‘Adhere to the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity, giving no priority to commercial or political considerations over professional ones’. With that strong commitment, the Sri Lanka Guardian is fearlessly striving even after being officially banned by the President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government. In his first-ever interview with the media, Nilantha Ilangamuwa, the editor and founder of the Sri Lanka Guardian, a well-known online newspaper on Sri Lanka, visualized the regime that is governing Sri Lanka. He says the government will have to find its way out of its hypocritical politics and he feels that there would be an awakening of masses against the very foundation of bad governance embedded in the habitual political life of lies and crony vulgarism. He claims that these are the despicable core values of the government to stay in power.

In this interview, he talks about his profession, experience and his understanding of inherent problems in the country.

SN: – What made you to go into media?

NI: -Well, several reasons influenced me to become a journalist. I was born in the central hill country, where one could see more of the darkness of the country, than in other parts.

Most of the people in the village do farming and this was what my parents were doing. As a child during the late 80’s, I witnessed the bloody JVP riots during which many youths were assaulted, killed and their possessions looted. I still remember going with my parents and friends to see half burnt dead bodies lying here and there on the roads in our village.

Some of our neighbors were also killed in the riots. I would say most of those victims were innocent civilians who did not have any political engagement at all. Many in fear, sought refuge and came to our house too. Our house was located further away from the main road.

They came to us for their protection and spent days and nights at our house in the dark. The whole village was shocked by the massacre. All that the villagers wanted was peaceful life. But the politicians and their henchmen played their dirty role with the lives of the innocent people– it was back then, but unfortunately this campaign is even continuing now in a subtle way. You can call it a systematic state terrorism that is consuming the lives of the people.

Almost everyone in our village was fed-up with the way politicians were conducting themselves.

I left the village for higher education, during which period, I acquired good understanding of the ethnic crisis progressing in the country.

As the president of the student union, with the guidance of my school headmaster, I organized an event to interact with the inmates of a rehabilitation camp for the LTTE suspects based in Bindunuwawa and Bandarawela, where hundreds of us and the LTTE suspects spent a whole day together.

It was first time in our school history that we had this kind of experience. We all gained a lot from it and the LTTE suspects and some of LTTE cadres who had surrendered to the Army prepared foods for the students, performed dramas and played cricket with us. I recall, a former LTTE rebel Chandrasekaran. I was the commentator of the day’s events.

It was for the very first time in my life, I spoke to a LTTE rebel, who seemed to have had a very good understanding of the problem that we all were facing. He talked fluently in Sinhala and told me that the rehabilitation process would not work unless the government is in a position to solve problems associated with the essential needs of the ordinary masses.

‘I don’t think, this rehabilitation process will work’ even the army colonel (as he referred to him who was of in-charge of the camp) had said. Chandrasekaran said ‘ ‘Sir’ is a very good hearted man with good understanding of intricacies of the problem’.

‘I joined the LTTE at my own will and fought with the only objective to get parity of states with the majority. It is true that we ordinary people whether Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslims, don’t have any problems with each other, but these politicians are using us for their own benefits. When I am released from this camp, I will go home and spend some time peacefully and then will join the LTTE’ he said.

He made these comments whilst we were having our meal together. His views and the other LTTE suspect’s friendly attitude inspired us, and most of the students talked about them very positively.

Few years later, we heard the news that there was a massacre at the Bindunuwawa detention camp in which more than 20 LTTE suspects were slaughtered by the Sinhalese extremists motivated by the racist politicians.

This was the time when I started to work as a journalist. I still remember one report headlined ‘human flesh for Lions’ in the media. Sadly, this is the pathetic side of our beautiful country where these extremists dictate the lives of our people.

These two core incidents influenced me very much in addition to my personal interest to be a journalist – for example the urge to write, the will to know and to be known and to be heard by other people in my society; a desire to influence the good in my society and the thirst for knowledge, etc. were some of the personal reasons that guided me to become a journalist.

However, my family members were unhappy from the beginning that I was leaning towards journalism. My mother said to me: ‘being a journalist you will do nothing to help the society but it is an unnecessary risk to your life. At crucial times there will be no one to help you and they will point the finger at you’.

However, I always dreamt to be an independent writer with good command of the languages. This gave me the innermost strength to become a professional journalist.

As human beings, we may be unable to find people who are one hundred percent perfect and mistakes are always possible. It’s true that journalism in reality is not the journalism that we learnt in the university. It is far from it. But there are some dedicated persons in the world who genuinely seek to expresses their true hearts into words to share their real experiences. Assassinated Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunge is one of them. His inspiring extraordinary article from his grave was published three days after he was assassinated by the government goons in Colombo. The letter said it all about the status of Sri Lanka.

SN:. Let us know the Newspapers that you have served before becoming an independent web-publisher.

NI:. I started writing when I was 18 years old. A year after I came out of school, I published the Monthly Magazine called Siwdesa. I was one of the main contributors to the Magazine and my mentor was Sandun Gunasinghe, who is the son of late Dayasena Gunasinghe, who was the founder and chief editor of Divaina, a weekly edition. Let me talk a bit about this.

Sandun had deep understanding of journalism, but later he was away from the field due to some personal reasons and the bitter experiences he had experienced in his work. During that time, he shared his father’s experiences with me and told me about how colleagues of the same paper had indulged in foul play.

Once he told me about an editorial written by his father, that was critical of the President J R Jayawardhane’s unethical politics. One of the deputy editors, translated that editorial into English and gave it to President JRJ who could not read Sinhala.

A close ally of the President visited him with the article and the translation and told him that the writer is against the President and that he must do something immediately to deal with the write up. The trouble makers are the pathetic predators in this profession. It was one of main reasons that influenced the late Gunasighe to say goodbye to that paper and start the magazine Siwdesa where I started my journalism. Late Gunasinghe was a real hero of Sri Lankan journalism, even though not many today talk about his service.

It is very common in our culture that people with acclaim are not appreciated whilst the corrupts thrive are mushrooming all over. Late Gunasinghe never accepted any benefits from the state to mitigate his writings. He was a born an independent and lived as an independent and died with self esteem too. I recall that his house was half constructed, when he and his family were facing troubles. At that time high level ministers offered him large sums, but he never accepted them.

After my work at Siwdesa, I moved to Divaina, which is a sister paper of the Island published by the Upali Newspapers Group. I worked there for few years and contributed a lot, but suddenly there was an internal conflict in management. One group that had extreme views, tried to kick the editor out. I too got caught in the debacle and was accused as an agent of foreign intelligence agencies helping the separatists.

But I never supported the separatists or separatism. I was one of those who strongly criticized the LTTE’s violent attacks on civilians. I was never against Tamil people that was what some writers misinterpreted.

I know many writers who wrote what the politicians wanted them to project. I still remember one of the deputy editors of the newspaper who was always proud of the maverick Minister Marvyn Silva saying that, “every month I receive essential stuffs from the Minister’.

However, after Divaina, I worked with Mawbima, (which was later banned by the Government) and the Sunday Standard. The Sunday Standard was the first paper where I started my journalism in English. Hanna Ibrahim was my first editor, and she gave me all the encouragement to develop my skills. My entering into English medium brought troubles with some of my colleagues who wrote bad about me and expressed strong criticisms.

SN: Please provide us the names of the websites you have run and why some of them were abandoned.

NI: Before I started the Sri Lanka Guardian, I used to write for few web sites. In August 2007, I started the Sri Lanka Guardian as a result of the banning of our existing newspapers by the Government saying that we are helping the LTTE. As far as I know, we never helped the LTTE, but there were articles that were from Tamil people. Back then, we had the slogan – ‘Our Journalism is not only for the South but even beyond that of Omanthei check point.’ Omanthei was the border post for the government and the Tamil Tigers.

The reason why Sri Lanka Guardian was banned was simple. It was because the government thinks that the Sri Lanka Guardian and few other websites can cause harm to the public opinion about the government. It is true that we were criticising the Government and its allies because in a democracy we have the fundamental right to do so.

We are not subjects of an autocratic King, but are citizens of the country contributing to the advancement of our people who pay taxes out of their hard earned income.

The government seems to believe that these websites that are character assassinating the ministers and their leaders and the officialdom that provides unaccountable service to the masters.

What is wrong in the character assassination when the very same eccentrics in the government who point their fingers at us publicly character assassinate themselves. Whether these men have good “character” to promote is another matter. If they are really concerned, they must first abandon the state run newspapers before they attack the websites as they are the ones originating the news about these dubious characters.

Banning the websites like ours is simply a paranoia that is pervading the massive intelligence service of the government.

SN: What are the core values or principles of the SLG? Who are your contributors?

NI: Well, as I told you earlier, the Sri Lanka Guardian was started in August 2007 after the newspapers I worked for were banned by the government. There was threat on other papers too, not to recruit those journalists who had worked for the banned newspaper company that I worked for. I had no choice and started the Sri Lanka Guardian, with a group of friends, most of them were based outside Sri Lanka. I personally invited some well-known writers and analysts to contribute to our website. Our basic principle is to open the gate for voiceless people and facilitate the freedom to express their views, feelings and thoughts without any fear. Sri Lanka Guardian is an open forum and accommodates diverse views even if they offend the government, groups or individuals so long as they are just, fair and truthful.

Today, the Sri Lanka Guardian has many contributors from several countries and there is no need to mention all by their names.

SN: You are an exiled journalist. What made you to leave the country? Will you or can you return to Sri Lanka now or in the future.

NI: The intelligence service attached to the Military of Defense started to follow me for a while. They arrested and interrogated me in the notorious fourth floor cell in Colombo for over 6-7 hours. Following that, an order was given by a top military man to take necessary action against me.

Without proper reasons and based on gossips, the government took this decision against me. The gossip was that a government pampered the gutter media based in Helsinki run by a notorious money launderer who accused me of links with the Indian Intelligence Service- Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). According to the news, I am a RAW agent because I published articles of former high profile RAW officials in the Sri Lanka Guardian. This was the cause for the intelligence to take action against me.

I didn’t and don’t have any agenda as accused by the government. If at all, it is the nefarious Helsinki gutter editor who had an agenda. He meets the President when the President visits the West and the government provide him with five star facilities to engage with him and to receive advise. This controversial man was part of the jumbo team of campaigners of Sri Lanka at the UNHCR session in Geneva.

These types of association with the unscrupulous persons are rotting Sri Lanka. They are been used to prop up charges against individuals and I am a victim of this degrading conduct. These are done at a heavy cost to the victims, whist ensuring the reprehensible agent’s safes are always loaded with laundered funds to provide the government with their despicable service.

I still remember, as an independent reporter when I went to Jaffna to report on the ongoing war. This irritated a top military official who became suspicious of my presence. Later, I came to know that they kept a distance from me because they had received calls from Colombo warning of my involvement with the RAW.

When I reached Muhamalai, where hundreds of soldiers were killed by the Tamil Tigers once, one of the commanding officers who got to know me realized that I did not have any links as others had claimed. But the campaign of caricaturing me as a RAW agent extended further and many other writers followed the scandal generated by the Helsinki opportunist.

My safety in Sri Lanka became precarious and there was ample evidence that the Government will target me. It was the main reason why I left the country with the help of Mr. Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission. If I’m an agent of the RAW, then why should AHRC help me?

If I had remained in Sri Lanka, by now I would been six feet below the ground or my body destroyed without any trace of evidence. If not for Mr. Basil Fernando my fate would have been in the hand of the government’s death squad.

The day that the government pampered Helsinki website started to attacked me by saying that I am an agent of the RAW, I phoned the Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksha and I asked for his advice and assistance.

I was surprised when he said, ‘Nothing will happen if you make a complaint to the police. Only thing you must do is to attack them back. It must be tit for tat response’. I was astonished to hear his comment. If this had happened in a responsible democracy, the response would have been to protect me. Gotabaya holding green card of USA should have shown maturity in his handling my call.

The current situation is precarious for the exiled journalists to return to Sri Lanka. The government does not like any form of opposition. Killing the chicken to scare the monkey is a proverb that projects the government’s attitude.

The President’s policy is clearly– ‘if you’re not with us you’re a traitor of the Nation’. This speaks volume of the mindset of the government. The very basis of trust needed for good governance has been torpedoed in Sri Lanka. There is worry that the autocratic rule will go further to reflect regimes like that of Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Bokossa of Africa.

SN: Why did GoSL ban the Sri Lanka Guardian? Are you affected by this decision?

NI: The Sri Lanka Guardian was banned because of its outspoken stand and as a result of government sympathetic dubious and intolerant worms in the media like the one operating from Helsinki dictating terms. Soon after the ban, we published an editorial quoting an Assyrian proverb: ‘I need not fear my enemies because the most they can do is attack me. I need not fear my friends because the most they can do is to betray me. But I have much to fear from people who are indifferent.’

The response on the ban is mixed. The readership from outside Sri Lanka has grown whilst readers in Sri Lanka has been denied access. Even the dedicated readers from Sri Lanka are accessing Sri Lanka Guardian via proxy web links. What we published is reproduced in many websites that are not affected by the ban. According to statistics more than five hundred thousand people were accessing our site a month before the ban and after the ban readership went down dramatically and we are seeing steady increase now but not of the scale experienced before.

Going further, to the obsessed government, Sri Lanka Guardian is guilty of publishing articles upholding the fundamental democratic value of freedom of speech. Sri Lanka Guardian is the voice of the oppressed and an outspoken media on issues that the state wishes to suppress. It gives opportunities to wide range of views, including that of the opposing. This is what the government wants us to compromise and become a poodle media like those surviving under its control.

The legal idiom: ‘You are innocent until proved guilty’ has no meaning in Sri Lanka, as one is made guilty and punished before charges are even framed. We were fascinated to read the news of the government, that the banned web media should contact the Information Ministry to have a chat to remove the ban. Sri Lanka Guardian will not enter into any pleas when sword of the Damocles is held on its head.

SN GoSL says it wants some discipline the media. Why can’t you abide by this?

NL: What Sri Lanka needs is media freedom where news is reported freely and responsibly and opinions expressed without fear. In order to maintain accountable media there must be mechanisms to deal with complaints and a responsible legal system to deal with claims. The control of media from the biased politicians must be shifted to an independent authority and judiciary too must be made independent from the politicians to make fair decisions.

When the government agenda is motivated to control the media to reflect only its voice, the voice of Sri Lanka Guardian has become a thorn in the flesh to face heavy sanctions.

SN: Have you applied for registration with the GoSL? If not why?

NI: No, we have not applied and may not apply under present circumstances. The banning of some media is an agenda to silence the independent web media.

The government’s approach on this is pathetic. It rushed and introduced the ban following local and international pressures from its supporters. To this date, we have not received any official notification of the ban. They banned the websites based on a pending law. What this pending law is? It is clearly, a bull in the china shop situation- destroying the very foundation of democracy for selfish reasons.

Our registration with the domain company binds us and we follow the publication laws. You can’t open even free email service without registration or signing an agreement.

SN: What is your readership prior to the ban and now?

NI: Until last October, we had more than five hundred thousand readers per month, which works out to be over twenty thousand per day. But at the end of November last year following the ban, around three hundred thousand access were registered. But it is progressively increasing.

SN: Is SLG reaching Sri Lanka? If not, do you have alternative strategies?

NI: The readers cannot access the Sri Lanka Guardian in Sri Lanka after the ban. But they can access through proxy websites. We are however maintaining free email service for our readers through which they can receive all the updates of the SLG daily. We are also using social networks and micro blogging sites to reach Sri Lanka. In the future, we are planning to technically expand our website to reach Sri Lanka in a much bigger scale.

SN: There is a claim that you have link with the TMVP, the de facto faction of the LTTE which was led by Karuna Amman, who is a Minister in the present government. What do you have to say on this?

NI As a journalist, I have contacts not only with TMVP but also with wide range of links. Without contacts how can you manage a news-site? I was the first journalist to interview Karuna after the formation of the TMVP and after he came to Colombo, following his imprisonment in London.

I met him several times at his office in Narahenpita, Colombo. He also called me frequently. We had many discussions, but nothing beyond journalism and all the time I spoke to him about the national issues.

At one point he was in deadly conflict with Pillayan as a result of the Helsinki money laundering journalist’s campaign, who fermented a wedge between both. I have written to TMVP officials about recruitment of child soldiers by the group, and about poverty in the eastern province.

With Karuna joining the government, his intentions too changed. He joined hands with the government intelligence service and caused problems for me personally and the SLG.

SN: What do you wish to say to the GoSL?

NI The Sinhala saying ‘don’t try to play your fiddle to a deaf elephant’ is my advice to the Sri Lanka government. In my life, I voted only once and it was during 2005 presidential election. We were inspired to vote for President Rajapaksa, even though knowing about his very many worrying problems in his political career including that of the murder in Beliatta and exclusively patronising his southern base Hambanthota. Many people have good thoughts about the President. Perhaps they still believe he will restore rule of law in the country.

War against the LTTE was an important factor. I was always saying people from all walks of life must be stakeholders in the effort. But at the end, the President and his family members took advantage of the war effort and used it to undermine the peoples’ rights. Both Tamil and Sinhlaese as well as Muslims, became easy pawn to the power hungry Rajapakse & Co., and Mahinda is trying to portray him as the greatest leader Sri Lanka had by defeating the Tamils like the historical Dutugemunu.

What we have to realize is that terrorism is the product of failures of the state. The Government killed the terrorism three years ago, but the deep rooted disease is still festering.

Medication for the disease is not just devolution or giving police some power or dealing with the land power to selected institutions but it must be restoring rule of law for the entire country and devolving powers without any hidden agendas.

For that, the President must prove he is honest and sincere and will go beyond his vote bank to become a statesman. You can’t solve long term problems by ducking and diving. Good governance practices must progressively come into the administration of the government.

To achieve this, constitutional changes must be brought in to ensure defined, independent, responsible and accountable divisions of powers between executive, legislative and judicial mechanisms and devolvement of powers for the people to participate in their affairs, thus facilitating a short to long term plan to address the grievances of the minorities. Anti-minority sentiments in the state bureaucracy must be weaned out and broadminded officialdom must play its due role to create better governance in the country.

Further, state interference in the freedom of speech must be brought to end together with the closure of impunity enjoyed by the state and its agents that is undermining the people’s right to live and liberty.

I had a long conversation with Lal Wickramatunge (the brother of assassinated Lasantha Wickramatunga of the Sunday Leader) about a report published by the Sri Lanka Guardian. He told me that his dead fathers’ ashes that was brought from abroad, was mishandled and thrown away by the officials at the Colombo airport.

This country belongs to all of us but what the President seems to be thinking that it only belongs to his family and friends. In order to give an image that he is the peoples man, he portrays himself down to earth in front of the people.

SN: What do you wish to say to the people in Sri Lanka and the world at large about your predicament and also about your wishes?

NI: Mahinda is not a Mahatma. He is only extending the established historical hate agenda of the nation much more boisterously. Due to his narrow minded attitude we are unable to praise our real heroes. In the past, we did not have the courage to come forward against injustice and when few did come forward they were killed. It will take time for the people to realise the situation they are in as a result of failing in good governance. Mahinda’s foolishness will not be tolerated forever and the people will respond in kind and it is not too far away.

President Rajapaksha is an extension of the old breed of hate politics. He is thinking that the world is still in the 70s and 80s. If he continue to extend his hegemonic heroic policies, only the time will make him a discredited villain.

People are now coming forward and seeking justice. How far Mahinda & Co., will tolerate this changing trend when they are getting cornered in many fronts is a real worry and if it escalates further, his regime may unleash spate of calculated violence against the people like what happened in 1915 ( Gampola) , 1956 ( Galoya), 1958, 1977 and 1983.

Intolerance to injustice could be an alternative though. That could be the creation of a real opposition. Such an opposition will lead to balance of power. Balance of power could lead to the creation of principles for good governance. Good governance will help change the present state of social disorder to social order. This may lead to the creation of the basic institutions that today do not exist in the country. But, the present regime is deliberately engaged in sabotaging every possibility of such a dream becoming true. The government of Sri Lanka is engaged in the systematic elimination of everything and everyone who is intolerant to injustice.

See what has happened to this President. His own commissions of inquiries, promises to provide justice and his rantings to find a durable political resolution acceptable to all the people have been proved a façade. He was able to use his authoritative card of defeating the LTTE all these while. But finally got caught on the implementation of LLRC report. His manipulations did not work internationally and the matter has now reached the UN forum.

International awareness of his deceptive practices is the reflection of the frustration that is prevailing in Sri Lanka which the President is trying to undermine by the traditional emotive and hate mongering politics.

LLRC must be the starter to bring about good governance in Sri Lanka. Mahinda will be made to implement it and if he fails, Sri Lanka will continue to face pressures from the international community. In the event of not responding to the UNHRC resolution, Sri Lanka will enter into the next phase when the UN effort will impose an international inquiry. If this too is undermined, the matter will certainly reach the Security Council. Sri Lanka cannot take comfort that China and Russia will help preventing a Security Council resolution. Sudan is a good example when friendly Russia and China abstained on the vote against the resolution.

If Sri Lanka antagonizes India to prop up China, it will put Sri Lanka into greater peril. If India decides to take decisive steps against Sri Lanka to exert its regional authority, China will find it hard to interactively support Mahinda. The situation will become worse when India is backed by the West and it has the clout to influence Russia.

Sri Lanka is starting to face the indirect sanctions as a result of aids not filtering through from the West and due to US sanctions against Iran. If Sri Lanka attempts to undermine the carrot and stick policy of the international community and play deceptive games to enjoy the carrots only, it is expected to face serious consequences in the international field.

Mahinda has made the biggest mistake by exposing his siblings and relatives in the partnership business of administering Sri Lanka in a scale unprecedented in the history of Sri Lanka. This could lead to serious consequences when his family members collectively participate in the failures and the end result could be of any ones guess.

Finally, I can only tell my brethrens back home that unless they wide open their eyes and respond to the country’s leadership beyond the parochial prejudices, Mahinda administration will only lead them to peril.

SN: Thank you Nilantha.

NI: Good to be with you.

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