It was early April 2002. I was nothing more than an upstart at The Sunday Leader.
The not-so-new kid in the news desk, many considered too brash for his own good. I was trying my darndest to make a name as a journalist after bouncing from several jobs including one at the Foreign Ministry.
Thankfully I was working with an editor who was brasher than me. Lasantha Wickrematunge was not your typical editor; he was not even your typical star journalist. He was, put simply, Lasantha Wickrematunge.
Back to April 2002, the then UNF government and the LTTE had signed a peace deal and the A9, never fully accessible in the preceding 15 years, was set to open. LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran was also planning to hold a presser. I was desperate to get to both.
"He was one of the first editors in Sri Lanka, who gave importance to the coverage of humanitarian strife. I don’t think Lasantha really understood that story, but he was too good an editor to miss out on good journalism"
There were several impediments. The costs – this at least could be eased by pooling resources with others. The biggest problem was, I was down the pecking order at the Leader. There were several others above
me in seniority.
I approached the news editor to figure out whether anyone was going up North. He was not very enthusiastic, not at the prospect of reporting, nor, much more so, at the idea of sending me.
Deflated I sulked back to my desk. Then to make matters worse, I got a call from a good friend who said he was on his way to North. He said he would wait for me in Vavuniya for a day. That was it, my desperation got the better of me. I approached Lasantha.
When I asked him whether I could go on behalf of the Leader, he gave this mischievous look and I knew I was on my way. Not only did he send a relative novice, but he gave me a vehicle, unlimited fuel, a driver and money for the assignment. I had my big gig.
"He felt that his visibility and his connections, some of which were self-contradictory, were his best defences."
So much has been written of Lasantha, his politics and his tragic career. This is not any such attempt. This is a kind of a personal eulogy. To someone who was instrumental in changing my career and lifepath. Someone who inspired me, still inspires me, not by a larger than life image, rather through his own fallibilities and courage alike.
It is also a tale of when the brashest of brashest backs you.
Funding travels in Sri Lanka is not the first or the last time Lasantha helped me. I travelled all across the island making a habit of reporting from the ground and not from a
He was one of the first editors in Sri Lanka, who gave importance to the coverage of humanitarian strife. I don’t think Lasantha really understood that story, but he was too good an editor to miss out on good journalism.
When I received my first fellowship to the East West Centre, the offer came with a condition that I must buy my ticket. I could not afford it. I told Lasantha about this, he asked for 30 mins and stepped in, the Leader sponsored the ticket and there were no conditions!
On so many occasions he had my back.
"I look at Lasantha as someone who took chance on a clueless kid. Gave him opportunities that no one else did and believed in him when no one else, including the kid himself"
Once when there was a serious threat against me, I confided in Lasantha that I was scared. He told me that everyone thought that I had done the reporting at his behest and that before me, he would be the target.
He felt that his visibility and his connections, some of which were self-contradictory, were his best defences.
Towards the last days of his short life, we had parted ways. I had decided that I did not want to take the same route as he had, to end up as an editor. What he had decided was his next move, I did not know.
I look at Lasantha as someone who took chance on a clueless kid. Gave him opportunities that no one else did and believed in him when no one else, including the kid himself, did not.
When the brashest of them all backs you, you ride the tailwinds high.
The author is a journalism researcher and a journalist. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org