Veteran Editor recalls his young reporter Lasantha | Sunday Observer

Veteran Editor recalls his young reporter Lasantha

6 January, 2019

Remembering Lasantha Wickrematunge for his knack of ferreting out news and attention to detail, his first boss in journalism Vijitha Yapa sat across his working table from me to unravel his fondest memories of the slain editor of The Sunday Leader.

“Lasantha had friends in many spheres and in all layers, but you could not call them friends in a sense as when it came to a piece of news, it wouldn’t matter if it was connected to a friend. He would still write it,” Yapa says.

During his time at the Island as a young journalist, when Vijitha Yapa was the editor, Lasantha had returned to office with a story relating to a diplomat’s son who was supposedly involved with the LTTE.

“I immediately told him that we need to get the story confirmed by several sources. And he spoke to Lalith Athulathmudali and got it confirmed. The same issue had been discussed between former President J.R. Jayewardene and his Secretary Manikdiwela. However, after the publication, the diplomat sued us on behalf of his son. The case was dismissed at the very outset,” he said.

Speaking of the inception of the famous column ‘Suranimala’, that appeared years later in The Sunday Leader in Lasantha’s own fly-on-the-wall style, Yapa says that one day Lasantha had expressed his wish to write a column. Although Lasantha Wicrematunge never joined the Sunday Times or worked for the paper officially, he was in the practice of sharing stories with them.

Yapa, recollected that he was willing to take Lasantha up on his proposition, and asked him to bring a first draft.

“What he brought to me was a ‘bombshell’. It was very good. He had access to so much information not available to many others,” he said.

Lasantha requested that the fact that he was the writer of the column should be kept a secret. And he had also decided to use the pseudonym ‘Suranimala’ for the column.

In his autobiography, “Then they came for me”, its author and first wife of Lasantha, Raine Wickrematunge explains how they came up with the name.

“I remember the two of us (Raine and Lasantha) sitting in bed in our sunny condominium, putting our heads together and tossing names. I can’t say we were all that innovative….. after brainstorming for a little while I suggested ‘Suranimala’, one of the ten giant Swashbucklers,” she says explaining the birth of the name Suranimala.

“Lasantha would bring the hand-written document, to her at Classen Place, my home and my wife who is a trained Secretary would type it out and I would take it to the Sunday Times office at about 3 o’clock,” Yapa recalls early editions of the Suranimala column.

There was, at that time, a lot of intrigue as to who was writing it. The columnist, as well as the editor, therefore maintained confidentiality. It was only at a later stage that editor Yapa learned that Lasantha was working as a Secretary to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and was therefore privy to a lot of information which was not available to others.

For instance, once there was a story in the column with regard to former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in which he described in great detail how President Premadasa used a blue pen to sign a document. That Sunday K H Wijeydasa, secretary to the President phoned Mr Yapa and demands to know who gave the information.

“I said I’m sorry I can’t tell you that. And he asked how it was described greatly in detail about a pen that was used to sign by the President. I still refused to reveal anything. So, that was one of the reasons why President Premadasa became very annoyed with me,” Yapa said.

“Not once have I had to carry a correction on any story that he has worked on,” recalled the veteran Editor about his young reporter Lasantha Wickrematunge.

Once, however the column carried a story that after President Premadasa took office the question of forming the Cabinet arose and, Premadasa had asked Sirisena Cooray to help him to form his Cabinet to which Cooray had replied, ‘I don’t want to cut anyone’s throat’ and had taken a helicopter and gone to see Mahinda Wijeysekara, who was the custodian at the Devi Nuwara temple.

This report created a big fuss.

A furious President Premadasa had blamed the paper saying that it was trying to divide him and his good friend. Cooray was also annoyed and sent a correction/ reply. “We didn’t say that the story never occurred but carried the clarification sent by Sirisena Cooray,” Yapa said.

Subsequently, Lasantha had good enough reasons to believe that he was being hunted. So, arrangements were made through the Australian High Commission for him to leave Sri Lanka for some time.

After he left, the paper realised the need to continue with ‘Suranimala’. The editor and Lalith Allahakkoon, current Editor in Chief of the Daily News continued with the column.

“This was a great mystery to President Premadasa, as by then it was out that Lasantha was behind the column ‘Suranimala’” says Yapa.

Once Lasantha returned home from Australia he continued to write the column.

He then took the column with him to The Sunday Leader, when he started the paper with the permission of Yapa, “After I had left the Sunday Times, he phoned me and said that he was going to start a paper and wanted my permission to continue with the column, Suranimala,”.

“He had an impish sense of humour and he had his own ways,” Yapa recollects.

Over the course of his life as a journalist, Yapa says Lasantha made a lot of enemies and ruffled a lot of feathers. “He was a true journalist who basically told the truth irrespective of who was in the story, he said.

The threats picked up momentum. There was the incident where Lasantha and Raine were stopped while they were travelling in their car and threatened and there was another incident where his house was bombed. But he never flinched. He continued to be straightforward and report.

“In hindsight, I think he should have exercised caution in certain instances,” Yapa told the Sunday Observer, as the media community began to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Lasantha’s brutal slaying.

“Exposing the truth is an important factor, but one needs to be careful in the way in which you do it. You can have your freedom, but you have to be careful in when you say things,” Yapa laments acknowledging the country’s loss.