Unbowed and unafraid: New website in memory of Lasantha Wickrematunge

lasantha-posthumous

A new website – Unbowed and Unafraid – to be officially launched on 8th May, aims to continue the spirit of investigative journalism of the slain Editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

The website was announced at the World Press Freedom Day conference in Doha, Qatar. Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge’s statement upon accepting the World Press Freedom Prize 2009 award, posthumously given to Lasantha, noted that:

What then, of Lasantha’s murder? Within hours of his assassination, President Rajapakse promised a full inquiry and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice. Of course, no such thing has happened. Almost  four months have passed, and all we have seen is a cover up. There has been no meaningful investigation, no trace of the vehicles used in the assassination, no call for information on the murder weapon, and even the cause of death has been deliberately smudged so as to derail a future investigation.

At a time when no other newspaper in Sri Lanka would publish Sonali’s letter to the Inspector General of Police, I did on Groundviews. Both the acceptance speech (that you can read here in full) and the letter to the IGP point to very serious challenges facing freedom of expression and media freedom in Sri Lanka. It is indubitable that the Rajapakse regime, with great success, has stifled dissent in the country and in its place, instilled anxiety and fear.

There is a great irony here too. Lasantha in life did not leverage, to any degree, the power of the web and Internet in the practice of his journalism or the Leader’s dissemination of news. The Sunday Leader website remains archaic and is possibly the worst amongst all traditional English newspaper websites in Sri Lanka. Invesigative and indepedent journalism in Sri Lanka is still hostage to a broadcast and broadsheet model, which is clearly unworkable given the Rajapakse regime’s dispensation. This is where new individual voices of dissent, new architectures of dissent on the web and citizen journalists are play an increasingly important and influential role – packing a punch much greater than their limited readership on the web.

Whatever the Rejapakse regime says to the contrary, media freedom in Sri Lanka is a distant aspiration today, not a reality. It will get worse. This is why there must be more focussed interest in and support of new media initiatives that can support both traditional journalists and citizen journalists to report as Lasantha did – unbowed and unafraid.

Sunday Leader and Psiphon win Freedom of Expression awards, but in UAE you can’t access one

foe-awards

After reporting that it was shortlisted in late March, I’m happy to see that the Sunday Leader has won the journalism award in the 2009 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award. The Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression awards honour those who have made outstanding contributions to the promoting of free expression. As I noted in my previous post, the award is richly deserved.

Also interesting is that Psiphon won the Economist New Media award at the same ceremony. An mp3 of how Psiphon explain how he helps people around the world to avoid censorship and surveillance can be download here, featuring Nart Villeneuve.

psiphon-in-uae

A ready example of why there is still such significant variance between and within countries over the freedom of expression, in print, in broadcast and online.

Online dissent and the future of extremism in Sri Lanka

“… Thus while the government is trying to position Singapore as a Media Hub for the fast-growing new media technology and development, home grown talent often face harsh official harassment. Singapore’s netizens are moving to redefine the terms of the island state’s political discourse – whether the government welcome them or not”.

Kalinga Seneviratne, Asia Media Report 2009

Kalinga’s sentiments are resonant in Sri Lanka as well, in this our official year of ICT and English. Over the course of 2009 alone, I have been informed of and visited over two dozen websites and web based social networking initiatives that highlight facets of the war and humanitarian concerns in Sri Lanka. They are all very well designed and most of them are compelling narratives that, at first, do not at all appear to be what they essentially are – partial narratives serving parochial ends. A select few are show signs of emerging as effective platforms for engaging the unlike-minded online. For example, a few readers may know Pissu Poona, an anonymous identity on Facebook – one of the world’s best known and most used online social networks – that has befriended nearly 200 individuals at the time of writing and regularly points to content on the web that critiques and analyses the Sri Lankan conflict. Pissu Poona is a site for some interesting debate and as a post which generated a lot of responses noted,

“just a reminder that this space is our space for debate and discussion. it is to challenge you (and me) to think about issues and perhaps question our own beliefs and prejudices. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our communities are polarized now more than ever and unless and until the dialogue is started again the mistrust and suspicion will continue to grow. Pissu Poona is an attempt to re-initiate the dialogue that war has cost us.”

On the other hand, as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleke recently noted,

“Pro-Tiger Tamil students, mainly from Canadian campuses are walking from Toronto to Chicago in order to get on the Oprah Winfrey show. Now that’s a pretty neat gimmick. They have a well designed website. The Sinhala students who have the sophistication to pull something like this off are uninvolved in the struggle because they are alienated by the elements that tend to dominate equivalent networks, while those who are heavily involved in the “patriotic” struggle do not make the most Oprah-friendly material.”

Given that the peaceful negotiation of conflict and amplification of critical dissent on and through the web is an area of significant personal interest, I found Dayan’s encapsulation of the current growth spurt of web based pro-LTTE advocacy very interesting. Ironically however, for the pedestrian apparatchiks of the Rajapakse regime as much as the trade unionist fighting for her rights, the human rights defender, the traditional journalist and the Tamil nationalist vehemently opposed to the LTTE yet unequivocally committed to the equal treatment of all Tamil peoples – the web poses a real challenge.  Equally and for all of these types, the web is alien terrain. Its unfamiliarity breeds hubris, which in turn leads to the gross under estimation of the web’s potential for transforming polity and society, for better or worse.

Read the full article in my Sunday Leader column today.

Citizen journalism on Groundviews and Vikalpa’s YouTube channel interrogates assassination of Lasantha Wickremetunge

Lasantha

The Editor in Chief of the Sunday Leader and one of Sri Lanka’s best known journalists Lasantha Wickremetunge was murdered on 8th January 2009 en route to work. He was beaten and shot repeatedly and succumbed to his injuries in hospital. The first post on Groundviews on the assassination can be read here.

Lasantha was 50 at the time of his assassination. No group to date has claimed responsibility. In a tremendously powerful and moving editorial published posthumously the Sunday after he was killed, Lasantha notes that “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

For its part, the Rajapakse administration points to a mysterious armed force hell bent on discrediting the government. It has done what it does best – expressed outrage, ordered a full investigation and appointed a committee to investigate the attacks. Yet it conveniently forgets, inter alia, that the Cabinet subcommittee to look into the grievances of journalists set up in June 2008 is largely forgotten today. No one knows whether it exists, how to reach it, what it does, or came up with as recommendations to protect journalists. Journalist J.S. Tissanaiyagam still languishes in jail on the most ludicrous charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government is silent on his plight and on-going case, despite widespread local and international condemnation and calls for his release.

Well over eleven thousand came to Groundviews from 8th to 13th January alone to read and actively engage with content published on Lasantha’s assassination and what it portends for independent media and democracy in Sri Lanka.

Amongst regular voices was the former President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who wrote in to the site in response to a comment left by Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. You can follow this conversation here. This was the first comment by the former President on Lasantha’s murder featured in any local and international media.

Also significant was the thrust and parry of debate between Indi Samarajiva, Sri Lanka’s best known and perhaps most read blogger (and architect of the country’s leading blog aggregation site Kottu) and Dayan Jayatilleke. Follow the conversation thread through to its interesting denouement here.

Groundviews was also honoured to receive strong protests in verse from award-winning and internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan poets. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, winner of the Gratiaen Prize in 2007, Malinda Seneviratne and Indran Amirthanayagam wrote strong poems against violence and Lasantha’s assassination. They were joined by Cry Lanka, an anonymous poet. Most recently, Francesca wrote in from the US. Born in Sri Lanka, Francesca was moved to write about Lasantha’s killing from the point of view of someone from the diaspora. Her poem is here.

Several others wrote in expressing their disgust, shock, sadness and concern. Lionel Bopage, a former General Secretary of the JVP states that,

These assassinations and the repressive culture being imposed upon the Sri Lankan society, culminating with the killing of Mr Wickramatunga, should provide the impetus to stimulate all political forces and individuals in Sri Lanka and overseas, who are committed to protecting the human and democratic rights of its people, to come together and oppose this state of fascism.

Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage, who teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya, suggests an alternative proposal for our consideration when he notes that,

Attack on Sirasa and killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga have made me convinced once again my earlier proposal that any protest and opposition to the present government should be a part of a bigger political exercise aiming at naming a non-party peoples’ candidate with minimum transitional program that include the change of the constitution in order to make the state more accommodative, power-dispersed and the politicians more accountable through built-in checks and balances.

Groundviews also featured several videos on Lasantha’s assassination taken from the Vikalpa YouTube video channel. These videos include interviews with civil society, coverage of his funeral as well as the first hours after he was admitted to the Kalubowila hospital.

As a mark of protest and respect Groundviews changed its homepage on the day of Lasantha’s burial to black, featuring links to key articles on his murder.

Groundviews on Lasantha

This site exists to demonstrate that it is possible, using web media strategies, to create spaces for voices at risk to be heard and archived for posterity. In a small but significant way, the original content and conversations on Lasantha’s assassination on this site rigorously interrogated issues of culpability, impunity, democratic governance, media freedom and violence.

At the end of the day, Lasantha’s dead and gone. Yet through these evolving and vital conversations on the web and Internet, he will continue to inspire us.

Sanjana Hattotuwa
Editor
Groundviews