Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa responded nastily to a question from The Sunday Leader, an editor says. (AFP/Ishara S.Kodikara)
Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa responded nastily to a question from The Sunday Leader, an editor says. (AFP/Ishara S.Kodikara)

Sri Lankan editor needs backup after minister’s tirade

As far as Frederica Jansz is concerned, “The Sri Lankan media have been completely cowed into submission by this regime with the exception of The Sunday Leader. It is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s biggest success story next to winning the war.”

Jansz is the Leader‘s editor who, over the weekend, had the temerity to call up the president’s brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and ask him “to clarify and find out if he was aware that the management at SriLankan Airlines had taken a decision to change a wide bodied A340 scheduled to fly to Zurich on Friday July 13, to a smaller A330. The change was to be made so that a SriLankan Airline pilot, who is dating a niece of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, could personally fly the aircraft that would carry a ‘puppy dog’ for Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa from  Zurich,” to quote the Leader‘s lead.

The question apparently did not go down well with the defense secretary. Jansz reported his lengthy, abusive response fully in the Leader, and you can read it at “Gota Goes Berserk.” Beware: It’s a verbatim account filled with the obscenities Jansz says the minister heaped on her. (CPJ emailed and called the defense ministry seeking Rajapaksa’s side of the story; the email went unanswered. On the phone, after I identified myself to someone and asked to speak to the minister, that someone hung up. Subsequent calls went unanswered).

This is more than a juicy story of a government official behaving badly. It is a first-hand account of something that many Sri Lankan journalists speak of privately, but few make public out of fear of retribution. CPJ research shows that threats–some delivered over the phone, some by text, some by word of mouth, some by firebomb or claymore mine, others by gangs of thugs wielding pipes and clubs–are a fact of life for many Sri Lankan journalists.

CPJ first wrote about Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2007 (see “Government moves to re-enact criminal defamation law“). In May 2009, he ordered a Channel Four team deported back to Britain. “Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the second most powerful man in Sri Lanka, next to the president. He enjoys complete immunity coupled with the trappings of power equivalent to holding executive office,” Jansz told CPJ.

In January of this year, Sonali Samarasinghe, the widow of slain Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, mentioned him in her statement marking the third anniversary of her husband’s death, “Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions have metastasized into something dangerous“–a headline which, for me, captures succinctly the state of Sri Lanka. Samarasinghe suggested Gotabaya Rajapaksa is part of the larger problem behind the “murders, abductions and assaults [that] are not random acts or accidental killings. These are acts of violence that have become emblematic of the current leadership, the erosion of society, and the impunity with which the regime now operates.”

In that statement, Samarasinghe called on the international community “to urge Sri Lanka’s government to hold a proper independent investigation into Lasantha’s murder.” CPJ has repeated that call many times in the cases of many other threats, attacks, arsons, and beatings directed at journalists and media organizations. After years of denials and legal obstruction, we have come not to expect action from the Sri Lankan government, but we try to get external peers–diplomats and the United Nations, mainly–to engage the government in a way that brings some sort of relief to the media community.

Jansz inherited the Leader‘s editorial position after Wickramatunga was killed by eight men on four motorcycles during morning rush hour on a busy Colombo road a few hundred yards from a military checkpoint. Despite interminable hearings, no prosecution has ever been launched in the case.  (CPJ’s 2009 investigation of that murder can be found at “Failure to Investigate.”) In her email communication with CPJ Monday, Jansz said “I fully expect some repercussion following yesterday’s publication, but in what form remains to be seen.”

CPJ is in touch with several diplomatic missions in Colombo. They should step into this situation before it gets worse.