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Press Freedom

“Censorship by Murder Will Not Silence Truth”

“The clichés that govern the world of the words of the prophets and preachers and may be the saviors; Are lost to my peering blind eye in the dark.” – Richard de Zoysa

Thousands of suspected marxist youth were 'disappeared' in the late 1980s and never seen again. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

NEW YORK, Feb 19 2013 (IPS) - It was almost four o’clock in the morning on Feb. 18, 1990, when Dr. Manorani Saravanamuththu pulled into the driveway of No. 42 Castle Street, an old Portuguese-style home located in a suburb of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

“They’ve taken Richard,” she said, when her niece and her husband opened the door. “The Black Cats have taken him.”

The young couple needed no further explanation. Both were intimately aware of the plain-clothes death squads that drove around in black jeeps, arresting, abducting, abusing and assassinating at will.

Their quarry – members or suspected sympathisers of the left-wing People’s Liberation Front (the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna or JVP) – were usually poor university students, whose bodies would either be found the next day, burning in rubber tires atop piles of other corpses, or would never be seen again.

If you have no answer except to meet indiscriminate killings with equally brutal reprisals…you will build up a monster no one will be able to control.

And although this period in the country’s history was even then referred to as the ‘bheeshana kalaya’, or the reign of terror, no one expected that one of its victims would be Richard de Zoysa: the progeny of two powerful Colombo families, star of the English-language stage, a well-known newscaster and bureau chief of the Rome-based Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, whose dispatches on Sri Lanka throughout the 1980s earned him a reputation at home and abroad as an exceptionally prolific writer.

The days following de Zoysa’s abduction were – for his family, his comrades and, especially, for the government of then-President Ranasinge Premadasa of the ruling United National Party (UNP), which was engaged in what has been described as a war to “root out” the JVP – marked by utter uncertainty.

Day and night, phones rang: desperate calls to police stations and influential lawyers, urgent offers of asylum and amnesty from abroad, incessant requests for government statements from international media, all essentially asking the same question: where is he?

On the third day after de Zoysa had been bundled into a jeep by six armed men (one of whom his mother would identify as a high-ranking police officer in the president’s detail), wearing nothing but a sarong around his waist, a fisherman bobbing about on the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Moratuwa, a seaside suburb south of Colombo, hauled a floating corpse into his narrow boat and rowed it ashore.

Why remember?

On the morning of de Zoysa’s 23rd death anniversary, Al Jazeera reported the discovery of a mass grave containing over 150 bodies in the central Sri Lankan town of Matale. Though many theories about the skeletal remains have been put forward, a team of evacuation experts noted that "... Evidence of decapitation, dismemberment and concealment…indicate that crimes were committed…”

That Matale was once a hotbed of left-wing militant activity has not escaped the JVP, who claim the grave could well contain the remains of their supporters.

Not for nothing was this piece of lost history exhumed on the day de Zoysa was earmarked for a similar fate. And though that particular reign of terror has been tucked into history’s folds, one group in Sri Lanka today remains as vulnerable as ever: 19 journalists have been killed in the last two decades, several ‘disappeared’ and still more critically injured in the line of duty.

And although bullet wounds and three days in salt water had eaten away at the handsome 30-year-old, his mother, called in by a magistrate defying government orders to “dispose” of bodies without due process, recognised him.

The news sparked a massive public outcry among Colombo’s elite: louder, even, than the collective fury over the roughly 40,000 deaths that had preceded de Zoysa’s in that black decade.

Just days after the funeral, the media received a directive from the government: no more mention of Richard de Zoysa — not in print, not in pictures, not on the radio. If murder would not suffice to silence him, then censorship would have to be the next best thing.

A life in writing

Though speculation about the reasons behind de Zoysa’s murder ran a wide gamut – from his artistic involvement in theatre to his sexual involvement with members of the JVP — IPS has maintained that de Zoysa’s greatest contribution was in the field of journalism, awarding him, posthumously, its annual International Achievement Award “for his news accounts of the killings of students by death squads (in Sri Lanka).”

In fact, de Zoysa was corresponding for IPS during possibly one of the most complex moments in Sri Lankan history – a time of total war on more than one front.

According to de Zoysa’s report entitled “Pride Stalks Beneath a Full Moon”, published on the IPS wire on May 22, 1989, “Pride stalks Sri Lanka today, in a variety of guises. There is the racial pride of the Sinhalese, who make up 70 percent of the island’s 17 million people (mostly Buddhist), as well as the pride of the 1.4 million-strong Tamil minority.

“There is also the pride of two fierce militant groups, one Sinhalese and one Tamil; the pride of two armies, one Sri Lankan and one Indian; and the political pride of their governments in Colombo and New Delhi.”

He was referring first and foremost to the thousands of youth in the south and centre of the country who had joined a Marxist insurgency that preached “nationalist revolution for Sri Lanka’s largely-Buddhist Sinhalese peasantry”.

History of Impunity

“The impunity with which journalists are killed in Sri Lanka has a long history,” Bob Dietz, Asia Programme Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told IPS.

“The death of Richard de Zoysa has all but faded, as have the deaths of so many others in Sri Lanka. But even five years after his death, his murder was still being bandied about as an example of what could happen to journalists who cross powerful politicians.

“In late May 1995, President Chandrika Kumaratunga issued a pointed threat to the press at the opening of the National Information Center: ‘We will not kill them [journalists] and drop them by air to the sea beaches,’ she said, alluding to the 1990 murder of the IPS correspondent Richard de Zoysa.

“But she warned reporters to be ‘responsible’ in covering the war and threatened that her government would otherwise take ‘serious action to see that responsibility is implemented’.”

The second group of militants, located in the north and east of the tiny island, were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist organisation comprised of rebels drawn from the country’s minority Tamil population, demanding independence and a “homeland” for the Tamil people.

Thus the Sri Lankan army, as de Zoysa would report in great detail, was fighting two wars: dispatching soldiers into the “economically-underprivileged southern belt” to crush the JVP and terrorise any possible recruits, while simultaneously ordering troops to the northern jungles to do battle with the seasoned guerillas of the LTTE.

Meanwhile, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), pressed into service by former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was tasked with dragging the Tigers to the Indian-backed negotiating table to agree on a devolution plan outlined in the 1987 Indo-Lankan accords.

According to de Zoysa’s monthly features, the peace deal itself split the island still further: with the JVP and the shadowy organisation suspected of being its armed wing (known as the Patriotic People’s Movement or DJV) “implacably opposed to Tamil separatism or anything remotely approaching it”; while the LTTE held out for full separation against a tide of Tamil political parties pushing closer to an official agreement with the government for regional autonomy.

On Dec. 21, 1988, de Zoysa sketched a vivid picture of the delicate “triangle of power” that then governed the island, predicting, “(If) Premadasa, a shrewd self-taught professional politician, wants his presidency to get off the ground, he will have to deal swiftly with two men who, like him, have simple origins – Tamil Tiger guerilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and JVP supremo Rohana Wijeweera.

“The actions of this trio,” de Zoysa noted, “will determine Sri Lanka’s immediate future – as well as the fate, in life or death terms, of the country’s 16.4 million people.”

His writings elegantly pieced together the bits of this war-torn story, bringing in a range of voices from government insiders to children in JVP-strongholds who, as a result of curfews and a climate of terror, stayed home from school and played at violent revolution instead.

In this way, he exemplified the IPS ethos of raising the “voice of the voiceless” at a time when testimony in all its forms – whether written, whispered or even insinuated – was deemed worthy of death at the hands of any number of armed parties.

He picked his way across the corpse-strewn island, stopping at coastal towns like Tangalle, 110 miles south of Colombo, to speak with fishermen like Ranjith, put out of work by a thinning flow of tourists; and mothers like Siriyawathi who had traveled hours from her remote village to file a complaint that her brother — “an electrician, not a militant”, she assured De Zoysa – had been blindfolded and led away by the police, not seen or heard of since.

He spent many hours in this town, at the headquarters of the Human Rights and Legal Aid Organisation where Mahinda Rajapakse – then a little known lawyer and secretary of the rights group, now president of the country, wielding an unprecedented degree of power – met with one bereaved woman after another, all begging for news of their ‘disappeared’ sons, husbands, nephews.

“This kind of work is called humanitarian but ultimately makes one inhuman,” de Zoysa quoted Rajapakse as saying back in 1988. “From the time I open my door there are these women weeping and wailing. Eventually one gets desensitised and just concentrates on offering practical advice.”

In uncovering little-known stories, and prying snippets of information from those worst affected but least visible in times of conflict, de Zoysa put his finger on the grisly point the government hoped most would go unremarked: that the late 1980s marked a turning point in military strategy, away from the Tamil “other” in the north and onto the Sinhalese “brother” in the south.

With unwavering accuracy, de Zoysa uncovered how the draconian anti-terror laws – implemented through arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and murder — that had once been used to crush the Tamil rebellion, quickly became the favoured means of stamping out the JVP, a sleight of hand that did not go unnoticed among the Sinhalese peasantry.

His journalism has been described as activism, but a reading of his collected writings for IPS reveals that these stories had no agenda: rather, they are the work of one who wades into murky and murderous waters to fish out the flotsam of stories found floating there.

And while he fitted together the jigsaw of the present, he also – perhaps unwittingly – prophesied the future: his last dispatch for IPS, entitled “Sri Lanka: Nearing a Human Rights Apocalypse”, contained none of the stoic analysis that had hitherto characterised his reports.

Rather, the story flew hastily across a series of killings, with passing reference to “bodies smoldering on public roadways” and the death squads that came knocking “with a licence to kill”, adding that, in the past month, over 1,000 youth had fallen victim to such assassinations.

He ended by echoing the words of former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who told Parliament shortly before his death, “(If) you have no answer except to meet indiscriminate killings with equally brutal reprisals…you will build up a monster no one will be able to control.”

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