Former General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA) Poddala Jayantha recently lodged a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), requesting an investigation into his abduction and torture in June, 2009. Journalist Poddala Jayantha began his journalism career in 1989 as a freelance journalist at Ravaya. Later, he joined Lake House and was working as an investigative journalist at the time when he was abducted in a white van and tortured. Later in 2010, he had fled the country and is currently living in the USA under the status of a refugee. In an interview with the Dailymirror , Jayantha said he could have survived unharmed if he toed the government line, and as he did not do so, he had to pay the price.
Following are the excerpts of the interview:
Q Why did it take this long for you to act against your abduction and assault?
After the government change, I had visited the country twice in 2015 and 2016. The lack of confidence in the previous government made all my attempts futile to come back to the country and demand prosecution against offenders of my attack. It is obviously pointless to expect justice for me from the government which is responsible for the attack.
Just after the change of government in 2015, I submitted a complaint to the IGP. Later, I was informed that the President had appointed a committee to identify aggrieved journalists of assaults and threats, and to compensate them. It was not what I expected. I wrote to the government, reiterating that offenders of these attacks on journalists like me should be brought to book.
However, the President had again appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee, comprising Ministers Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Mangala Samaraweera and Gayantha Karunathilaka to grant measures of relief to media persons who were subjected to harassment and oppression during the previous regime. Then, I sent a letter to the Director-General of Information, Dr. Ranga Kalansuriya, who is also the Secretary to the Cabinet Sub-Committee.
As suspects involved in the senior journalist Keith Noyahr abduction were arrested, I sent another letter to the IGP via speed post, requesting him to probe whether Keith Noyahr’s suspects had any involvement in my abduction case too. Two months later, the Mirihana SSP had emailed me, asking for the number of the white van involved in my abduction.
I feared about the fact that this government too was trying to wash their hands off the harassment cases of journalists by granting compensation without ordering a probe into the cases. I wanted justice to be meted out, leaving an example to the future so that it would help to halt such crimes being committed in the future.
How fair is it to pay compensations from public money to aggrieved parties of crimes committed by politicians? How can someone measure the financial value of journalists who were subjected to oppression? For an example, how can the government decide a certain amount to be paid as compensation for the loss of former journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge? What I request from the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government is the appointment of a presidential commission with full powers to conduct a broad investigation into the acts of journalist killings, abductions, threats and all types of attacks on media institutions. A social discussion also should be created regarding the mistreatment of journalists.
Q At whom are you levelling charges of your abduction and assault?
I am not directly saying a name of a particular person as the mastermind of the attack on me. Yet, I have fair doubts about former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Q On which basis are you charging him?
Eight months before my abduction, Gotabaya Rajapaksa summoned me and the President of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) Sanath Balasuriya after we carried out a demonstration against the assault on Noyahr. He clearly posed threats on the two of us saying it was unacceptable to criticize the armed forces while working in State-run newspapers. He wanted to tell us that anyone other than the leaders of the armed forces can be criticized.
We have been protesting against violence against the media for a long time. During the meeting, Rajapaksa raised concerns against our campaigns. It was not the first time that the Defence Secretary had threatened journalists.
There is no doubt, my abduction and assault were ordered by the Rajapaksa government. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is responsible as it happened during his rule.
Q Journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda was tagged as a traitor and an LTTE supporter. Were there such charges against you too?
I could have survived unharmed by the Rajapaksa rule if I toed the government line. It was the price that I had to pay for standing against their system.
If there was any charge against me or Prageeth, they could have taken action as per the prevailing laws in the country. There are law enforcement agencies. No one has the power and legal right to assault or kill some person even if that person is guilty for something.
Culprits are moving away from the rule of law and continue to roam free. I don’t want to get benefits from Sri Lanka
Television and radio channels were used to brand us as LTTE supporters. But, all that we said was not to harm civilians during the war in vain. The government had by then created an environment full of baseless allegations against us, so that there would be reasons to justify our attack and make the people say that we deserved such punishment.
I began my career in journalism in 1989 as a freelance journalist at Ravaya. Later, I joined the government run newspaper Silumina. I get very upset when someone tries to call me a traitor. Much of this reaction reflects the fact that I have used my pen for a corruption-free Sri Lanka, by revealing the misdeeds of politicians. I had a target in my career to help to bring the country to a better level. Those who point fingers at me can at anytime find what I have written and then they may decide whether I had harmful intentions towards my country.
If I were a traitor, I would never write about public money corruption cases which ultimately caused the oppression to my profession and my life. Only I know how difficult it was to write against the misdeeds of the government while working in a government-run newspaper.
My mother was a tea-plucker and my father a rubber tapper. I come from a very poor family in Poddala, Galle. I obtained free education from my country and started working as a journalist. I know how people at grass-root level feel as I was one. I have never had intentions to betray my country for money.
QThe way you were abducted and assaulted in 2009 was already reported by the media. It must be traumatic to even recall what happened that day.
I came to a safe house because of the first attempt to abduct me in 2008 failed. The safe house was bought for me by the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) from their Safety Fund. Frankly, I don’t like someone asking me about the abduction incident. Every time I recall that day, I still feel the experience and feel the fear.
I am suffering throughout my entire life. At times I felt the abductors should have killed me on the spot without giving me such unbearable pain. I am still unable to control myself when I remember the incident. Counseling too was not helpful for me. Despite the fact that I am living far away from Sri Lanka, I am still afraid of white vans. Only the victim knows how he feels. Abducting and torturing is deliberate crime in the world because such victims spend the rest of their lives with so much pain, which sometimes makes them feel like killing themselves to get rid of it. After all, I am fighting now against injustice.
Q You had fled to India after the shooting of former Journalist Lasantha Wickremetunge. By that time, why did you want to return under the same government?
The campaign launched by us against Lasantha’s murder was so effective that the organisers including me received threatening calls which led us to leave the country for a while. We stayed in Bangalore for three weeks. Others migrated to European countries. I decided to come back to Sri Lanka because of some work I had, on behalf of the SLWJA as its General Secretary. The date for the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the SLWJA office had been fixed before. It was our dream to build an office for the SLWJA. There was a donor who gave us around 1 million rupees. In the meantime, I was abducted.
Q Even after eight months of your attack, you stayed in the country. In 2010, you fled to USA. Did the dollars matter to you to leave Sri Lanka?
There were some journalists who took advantage of such opportunities. I am not one of them.
Firstly, I wanted to stay until the opening of our office. Secondly, I had not wanted to flee. I thought the attack was over and such things would not happen again. I stayed at home for six months, walking with the support of crutches.
However, the threats were not over. After the SLWJA office opening, I received threatening calls again. Those calls gave me an alarming feeling that I would not get another chance to save my life if such a thing ever happened again. Despite Ambassadors from various countries having told me to leave the country long before, only after such calls, did I decide to leave.
Don’t wash your hands off by appointing committees and ordering compensation for victims of crimes.
However, it was not only the American Embassy that asked me to leave the country. The embassies of UK, Switzerland and several other European countries suggested I should come to their countries as a political asylum seeker, due to the threats on my life. Other countries were ready to give me a visa, but asked me to apply for political asylum later. It was only the USA that proposed to bring me to their country even as a refugee. It would have been very difficult for me to be bothered with the applying process of a political asylum seeker due to my disability, if I had chosen some other country.
Q Your family members must have faced many difficulties because of these consequences.
Yes. My daughter was in grade seven at the time I was attacked as a traitor and an LTTE agent. She faced many difficulties in the school because even teachers had asked the media reports about me from my 12-year-old daughter. After complaining to the principal, he had instructed teachers to be mindful regarding this matter. My daughter had to face many mental problems. Now, she is 20 and in the third year of BA in Engineering. Just because of the government change, I can’t bring her back to Sri Lanka and abandon her. I may decide to settle in Sri Lanka. Economically, it is better to stay in the USA. But, I prefer to stay here. When I return after my daughter completes her higher education, I will start journalism again.
Q How was your life in the USA? What did you do there?
Many websites had reported that I was having a comfortable life abroad. It was wrong. I still struggle to live. I will never be able to get rid of that trauma.
When talking about my life there, I did a job because I was supposed to. In a European country, you will be looked after until you settle down. Yet, the situation in the USA was different. I was not given money to live. In spite of my physical difficulty, I did small jobs for daily wages. As per the grant as a refugee, I was provided a house and all other basic facilities. I also got medical insurance. All the refugees who had come from other countries were treated in the same manner. Now I’m a permanent resident of the USA.
Q Do you see a change between the previous government and the current one?
The majority of Sri Lankans who voted for the change should be credited. The voters wanted a government without corruption and crimes.
Q You must have heard about the unprecedented loss incurred due to the Treasury bond scandal of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
Yes. I am not in the view that this government was the best. It is not as good as people expected it to be. But, we should be able to see positive features of this government and admire them. Compared to the previous government, I appreciate some decisions made by this government. Despite some shortcomings to be addressed, the Right to Information Act is also a very good move.
I see the journey of this government is too slow. The process of taking legal action against politicians and powerful characters has not changed apparently. Subjectively, there is a positive change in the freedom of expression. I am not in a position to give a certificate to the government. Who knows whether this government would replace the white van?
Q If someone alleges that you have come here with a personal agenda or someone else’s agenda after many years seeking action against your assault?
Apart from being a voice for the voiceless, I didn’t have any other agendas. I am not bound to anyone. Even though I was sheltered by the USA, I am not such a person who can be controlled by another hand. I still have guts to say no to those who try to use me for their agendas. I have received such proposals. I have no issue about living as a poor man, but I have never sold my conscience and my character for temporary benefits.
QWhat do you want from the current government?
Lasantha Wickrematunga was gunned down. Taraki Sivaram is dead. We don’t know what happened to Prageeth. But, I am alive. I could survive luckily from the deadly attack. It is my duty to stand for all the victimized journalists and fight until justice is meted out. Those responsible for all these crimes have never been brought to justice. Culprits are moving away from the rule of law and continue to roam free. I don’t want to get benefits from Sri Lanka. All that I demand is legal action against those who were behind these crimes. Even after such crimes have been committed, we have to go behind law enforcement agencies and beg of them to do their job.
Q How was the support from journalists here for your fight for justice?
I was very happy to see journalists who had come outside the CID to speak with me. A number media institutions already called me and extended their support. I confirmed that I would come back to Sri Lanka after completion of my daughter’s higher studies.
I want to say one more thing. Now, the Rajapaksa supporters are staging another drama. They are talking about the existing media freedom.
There is no doubt, my abduction and assault were ordered by the Rajapaksa government. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is responsible as it happened during his ruling.
Those who committed national crimes don’t even have a right to speak about media freedom. I ask the government not to wash your hands off by appointing committees and ordering compensation for victims of crimes. Only a very few people in the Armed Forces are involved in several misdeeds. Therefore, we can’t put the blame on the entire Army. Those who gave orders should be punished. Being in the Army can’t be used as an excuse to evade the law.
Pix by Ishanka Sunimal
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