This piece was written by a young British student who conducted a gap year placement with a Sri Lankan broadsheet some time ago. Little has changed since.
“What you have to remember is that journalism is a crusade.” This comment, offered to me in my final days with my newspaper by a senior member of editorial staff, is an uneasy truth for Sri Lankan journalists. The war in Sri Lanka is not over and the journalists I met are still fighting.
I worked with journalists who are forced to write under pseudonyms, regularly receive threats and knowingly sacrifice their lives for a story. Sri Lanka is a country stained by its turbulent history, and it is not political apathy but the inherent threat to personal and family safety, that secures the president Mahinda Rajapaksa his unbridled power.
There was a physical and psychological divide in the office I worked. An elder generation of war fatigued males and a fresh dynasty of young journalists who were still studying at University. One young journalist was balancing their job time between two university degrees. These younger voices don’t always get a hearing.
As a journalist if you cross the line you risk never getting back behind it. An editor’s loyalty to their staff and conscience makes criticism a complex and delicate balancing act. It was widely accepted that the political system was in disarray. Not one journalist I spoke to denied this truth, but the risk of abduction and abuse often outweighs the merits of telling a story that doesn’t want to be heard.
The young team on the paper told me they were unlikely to continue in the industry after university. New careers were being sought and secured during the months I spent in that office. Journalism is not the cut throat competitive industry it is here. Veterans of the industry implored me to tell my country of their profession’s persecution.
One political reporter I sat next to in the office was cosy with certain members of parliament. I was told that MPs were all fully aware of the illegitimacy of their Government, but that the President has a file on each member of his Cabinet, containing information that would strip them of their position if they spoke out. There exists a system of mutual cooperation between members of Parliament and certain journalists. Self-preservation and promotion take precedence.
Members of staff on the newspaper had repeatedly received death threats, harassment and phone calls. One confessed he had his hair torn out by government troops. I talked to the colleagues of outspoken journalists who had been shot and killed on their way to work. I met with journalists who had risked their lives smuggling information to the UN, aid agencies or the international press during the war. Uncomfortable questions put journalists’ lives in uncomfortable positions.
As an idealist and as an aspiring journalist, I initially struggled to understand why there were journalists who refused to speak out. What I had failed to grasp was that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans were tired and exhausted by war. If there is food on your table and your family is safe it’s invariably easier to let the President do what he wants. Those journalists that do speak are quickly suppressed or simply seem to slip off the agenda. In Sri Lanka it is fear and fatigue that continue to silence dissent.