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How do you report your own editor’s murder?

12 January 2022 04:55 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The visual details of this moment are really fuzzy. The only recollection I have is that of a pixelated room. In contrast, I remember the exact words that were spoken. 
It was the morning of January 8, 2009. The war was reaching its final four months, Kilinochchi had come under government control just six days before. Only a few handpicked journalists were allowed to cover the war beyond Medawachchiya and I did not fall into that category. My home office was quiet, it usually is during the morning ritual to figure out details of a story happening 200km away from me. Then the phone rang. 


It was Buddhika Weerasinghe, who was working with Reuters as a photographer. “Check on Lasantha,” he said. His tone was such, immediately, I knew this was serious. I called Lasantha’s number, there was no answer. Then things began to unravel at light speed. 


I was at the Kalubowila Hospital, may be 30 minutes later. I have no recollection how I got there. I drove. It was crowded with dozens of familiar and even more strange faces standing outside the accident ward, anxiety etched all over most of their faces. Buddhika was also there. From someone inside the hospital, we heard that Lasantha’s chances were slim. 

"How do you report your own editor’s murder? How do you do this in the aftermath of the crime? How do you do this 13 years after the crime? How do you put to words, your editor lying motionless in a coffin, while those around it plotted the next political move?"

I was walking about aimlessly, trying to compute what was happening. I had left the Sunday Leader, a month and a half before. I left because after a decade of working there, I felt for the first time, I was being curbed in my reporting. There were no hands-on attempts at censoring, but, each week, I was getting into nasty back and forths over what I was reporting on the war. It was frustrating and I had decided to move on. 


The next thing I remember is I am with Ganesh, my office colleague. He is holding a bag full of Lasantha’s clothes and his black shoes. I remember this, because I have pictures of them. I then found myself at the Leader office. My desk was still there as I had left it. The poster of the half-burnt Leader press I had put up at the back of my desk was still there. Memories of the last attack on the Leader. I was in familiar territory. 


My colleagues were trying to put the paper together. Some of them had returned to the office from the hospital because deadlines were looming. I have another picture, this one of Mandana Ismail Abeyawickrema in front of the door to Lasantha’s office, holding her phone in one hand and her forehead in the other, breaking down. I don’t remember how I took that picture. That was the phone call that informed the Leader that Lasantha was gone. 
Suddenly there was no one at the office. I was alone. The grey and white office cubicles looked larger than usual; the open-plan office loomed like a tunnel to me. I opened the door to Lasantha’s office, it was quiet. There was a stack of paper on the table. He was old school; he wrote his column by hand. There was a glass of water. All in place for Suranimala to do his thing. He never would, ever again. 


Thursdays and Fridays were manic at the Leader. Because the paper went to press way earlier than its rivals and also because only two news pages were open for change on Saturday, writers were hard pressed to get content that would hold. This Thursday it was empty and silent, I wanted to run away from that place. 
Our lived histories form us and mould us. Those years spent at the Leader made me into who I am today. I had a ringside seat for years from which I observed how Lasantha worked. I was never part of his gang, but while I worked there, I was close enough to see the good and the bad. The ringside assistant to a priced boxer. 
Lasantha was a flawed genius. As Deanne Uyangoda wrote on Twitter, “we critiqued and revered (Lasantha) as we did so many others in the naive belief that they would always be around.”

"I had a ringside seat for years from which I observed how Lasantha worked. I was never part of his gang, but while I worked there, I was close enough to see the good and the bad. The ringside assistant to a priced boxer"

It took the better part of five years for me to really come to terms with his absence. Like when he was alive, I have had a ringside seat witnessing how his legacy has been used and abused. This happened right from the time he was in hospital and has continued. His name and his heinous murder have become display items to further political and personal ambitions. Depending on the tide, these beneficiaries have stayed silent or raised their voice. 
How do you report your own editor’s murder? How do you do this in the aftermath of the crime? How do you do this 13 years after the crime? How do you put to words, your editor lying motionless in a coffin, while those around it plotted the next political move? 


I got scared, sad and angry. For a while I stayed away from the story, till I could deal effectively with my own emotional reactions to it. I have also tried to be honest to the man I knew. Who despite his own partisan brand of journalism, never, ever encouraged or bullied me into toeing his line or those of his chosen camp. 
He allowed me to be truthful and unbiased. I was young and impressionable, around me I saw others imitating a style of journalism that used a thin veneer of independent journalism to push through partisan reporting day in day out. 


Lasantha was never the empathetic storyteller, he was more the desensitised political column writer, superbly networked and with the argumentative style of an ace lawyer. I am anything but that. 
Lasantha did not teach me this, but he gave me the freedom to tell stories of others factually but with feelings and emotions. I am the son of the storyteller, Lasantha took a chance on. And I am eternally grateful. 
Place him in journalism today, with all his faults, the huge void he has left is clear. In today’s clickbait-ridden narcissistic media culture, he would have been the perfect in your face antidote. 
Rest in peace, Suranimala, one day, the truth will prevail. 

The writer is a journalism researcher and a writer. 
He can be contacted on 
amantha.perera@cqumail.com

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