Remembering Richard, a multifaceted personality | Sunday Observer

Remembering Richard, a multifaceted personality

17 February, 2019

At three in the morning on February 18 1990, Arjuna Ranawana, a news producer for Rupavahini woke up to a call at his residence. Wondering as to who it could be, he answered the phone to hear Kenneth Honter’s voice at the other end.

“What is Richard’s address,” he asked and Ranawana said that he didn’t in fact know of an address but gave directions. The line was then disconnected. Ranawana was baffled as to what was going on when he got a second call just 10 minutes later.

It was Honter agian. Explaining what had happened Honter told Ranawana that the police had come to his residence asking for Richard’s address and to warn Richard immediately of it.

“Richard was living with his mother and a domestic at that time. Unfortunately he didn’t have a telephone at his residence. I immediately called his neighbour and asked him to pass the message, but we were too late by then,” Ranawana recollected the fateful day that Richard de Soyza, a much loved journalist, actor and rights activist disappeared. The police team headed by former SSP Ronnie Gunasinghe who took directions at the Honter residence didn’t get the directions correctly. The team mistakenly surrounded and raided another house before getting to the de Soyza residence.

“He was taken in his sarong and wasn’t even allowed to take his spectacles,” Ranawana said.

It would have taken a few hours, not even a day, for everything to conclude and for the news to start making rounds that Richard de Soyza’s body had washed ashore at the Moratuwa beach.

Identify the body

Ranawana, was one of those who was asked to come to identify the body. Immediately after, he lodged a complaint with the Welikada police.

Recalling fond memories of his friend, colleague and his son’s god father Ranawana, presently a senior journalist, said that de Soyza was a multifaceted brilliant man. De Soyza was a debater in school and had won several prizes for best actor at Inter-school Shakespeare competitions.

Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a dear friend and relative of Richard de Soyza remembers him as a large-hearted human being who cared about suffering.

“He was a very charismatic and wonderful person. At the end of the day he was a very caring person,” he said agreeing that de Soyza was a person who had “Defined himself very much against the establishment of the day.”

De Soyza was also involved in the Psy Ops Operation with the Army against the LTTE. He had a bit of a checkered career and wanted to become a doctor before finally deciding to taking to journalism, said Saravanamuttu.

“He was a brilliant guy who had an excellent memory. Ultimately he stood by his journalism and acting careers. He and I spent a lot of time just talking. In the seventies you could walk around the city of Colombo without any hindrance whatsoever. We would walk for miles and miles just talking about people to issues and international politics.

Those were the days I cherish the most because we got to know each other extremely well,” Saravanamuttu reminisced.

There had been instances where the motorbike owned by de Soyza was borrowed and not returned. He would just opt to walk instead.

According to Ranawana, Richard was taken to the Kalutara Bridge and shot below the chin before being thrown into the water.

Fleeing the country

“At that time there were threats against journalists. I was not aware of any instances where I was personally threatened. However, my family and I took the precaution of fleeing the country with the help of my then employer, who looked after us for months and we were like refugees,” Ranawana said.

Citing similar incidents of the era, Ranawana said that a BBC correspondent who was residing at a hotel in Colombo found one day when he returned from work that his room had been ransacked. He immediately went to his embassy and the ambassador himself drove him to the airport.

The trend of intimidating journalists is not something new. Richard de Soyza’s was not the first incident of this nature and surely was not the last.

But what seems to be the drift is that all these incidents remain unresolved.

“It is absolutely shocking. You speak to people and some have a general idea about actually who was responsible for all of it and the culture of impunity that is being protected and perpetuated.

We, therefore, cease to be a country where the law is supreme and become a country ruled by the whims and fancies of our rulers,” Dr Saravanamuttu said. Richard de Soyza’s mother before her demise said that she was at least lucky to see her son’s body.

“The attacks on journalists, killings and abductions show that if we are a democratic country we would resolve our differences through debate not by abductions and killings. When people’s rights are violated and ignored with impunity you then set in a trend of structural governance which is entirely dependent on one person’s whims and fancies.

“You need to get that information out to get other countries to act on them to save these people. Governments do horrible things to its people. So where do we go when that happens? We have to go outside,” Dr Sarawanamuttu said reiterating the importance of the need for stories to be told irrespective of how sour it may be.

In remembering the charismatic story teller on his 29th death anniversary which falls tomorrow (18) we remain a country where intimidation, killing and abductions of journalists are kept at bay, unresolved.