Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dying for the truth in Sri Lanka

By Richard Lindell |ABC News

While the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka appear willing to give up some democratic rights to the government that ended the civil war, others aren't. And for those activists and members of the media getting the truth out can be a deadly business. Activists and reporters continue to disappear, and dissenting voices are silenced in a climate of fear and intimidation.

Elizabeth Jackson: In a rare opportunity, correspondent Richard Lindell was recently granted a visa to Sri Lanka.

There he saw first hand a government intent on intimidation and a population cowered into submission. That includes the country's journalists. Richard Lindell spoke to Frederica Jansz, the editor of Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader.

Fredrica Jansz: We have been attacked nine times, we are 18-years-old and our presses have been burnt down twice. And of course we paid the ultimate price when our founder, editor-in-chief Lasanthe Wickrematunge, was murdered in January 2009.

Even after that murder, I myself continue to receive death threats. So yes it's a huge challenge to remain independent.

And more recently we even had the president himself calling my chairman and the owner of the newspaper and yelling at him, literally yelling, for a front page news item that we had carried exposing that he had siphoned off a billion rupees into a private account from a Chinese grant.

Richard Lindell: What you've just talked about seems to back the Reporters Without Borders report that says journalists, even now three years after the war, continue to be attacked, beaten, harassed and labelled as traitors if they speak up against the government.

Fredrica Jansz: Oh yes. And at the Sunday Leader that is a term that has been, we have been consistently called just that, traitors. Again by the defence secretary himself on the Defence Ministry website where he labelled not only us but also our lawyers, who were appearing for us in court cases, as traitors and terrorists.

Richard Lindell: Given the considerable personal risk, why do you continue to do it?

Fredrica Jansz: I believe in what I am doing. Someone has to do it. And I believe that at the Sunday Leader we have contributed somewhat to make some change, even if it is in the way people think in this country, and that by itself is a huge step.

Richard Lindell: When I read the Sri Lankan media it appears that the government is winning the propaganda war. Most of the media coverage is very favourable to the government. It does address the issues of the day but very much from the government's standpoint.

Fredrica Jansz: It is indeed. It's pathetic really, the current situation where the media is concerned in this country. Everybody - yes the government has been extremely successful in forcing the media into submission.

Richard Lindell: What about the general population, the readers, the viewers, do they buy what they're watching? Do they really think this is a fair and accurate depiction of what's going on in Sri Lanka?

Fredrica Jansz: I don't think readers actually think that it's a fair and accurate. Having said that, civil society in Sri Lanka is lethargic and dormant. So unfortunately, even with a newspaper like ours, we can only write it as it is, but there is nobody out there in terms of a civil society organisation or even the main opposition party to take forward those issues.

Richard Lindell: In the final editorial written by the former editor, Lasanthe Wickrematunge, he asked whether the readers, whether the general population, deserved the sacrifices Sri Lankan journalists were making and implored people not to take that commitment for granted. Do you think people, do you think the general population does care enough today?

Fredrica Jansz: No. I don't think so. And yes I agree with those words. We are taken for granted and we seem to be lone crusaders out there and that really is the tragedy for society here in Sri Lanka today.

Richard Lindell: So again I need to ask you the question, why do you continue to do it if most of the population really doesn't seem to be engaging in the issues, in the fight against the politics and the policies of the government?

Fredrica Jansz: Because I, as a newspaper editor, if I lose hope then I shouldn't be sitting here or doing what I'm doing. I still have hope that I can make that change.

Elizabeth Jackson: That's Frederica Jansz the editor of Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader and she was speaking to our South Asia correspondent Richard Lindell.

© ABC News

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