Sunday Leader’s editor defends controversial Fonseka interview

Editor of Sri Lanka’s English weekly, Sunday Leader, who carried the controversial December 13 interview with the commander turned politician Sarath Fonseka, added a new dimension today with her insistence that she had quoted the retired General `perfectly accurately’.

In a detailed report under the title `Her Story’, the Editor of the paper Frederica Jansz said, “The article which, perfectly accurately, quoted the General as saying he had heard that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had given an illegal order asking Brigadier Shavendra Silva (later promoted General) to not accomodate surrendering LTTE cadres, became more than a news story.

It became a political phenomenon and the allegations, denials, retractions and recriminations that followed are history.

“However it is a history that has come to be grossly distorted. As all the various parties caught in the story’s fallout struggled to save face, what began as a piece of journalism accusing the government of a serious war crime would become, through lies and deception, a coup for the Rajapaksa administration.

“Ultimately the campaign to vilify and distort the article and discredit me has now reached a point where I feel, I must comment and present what I believe to be an accurate version of the events leading to and following its publication”, Ms. Jansz said.

The long explanation by Ms. Jansz came as the former Army Chief did a Volta face and maintained that his comments were wrongly interpreted by the government within 24 hours after the December 13 Sunday Leader hit the stands. The next issue of Sunday Leader carried a clarification from the Presidential contender.

Besides, on December 19, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had demanded rupees one billion in damages from the weekly if it fails to apologise for publishing two allegedly defamatory articles.

In a letter to the Publisher and Editor of the weekly, a lawyer acting on behalf of Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa pointed out that a District Court had already restrained the publication from publishing such news in two earlier cases.

In an interview to the weekly, Gen. (retired) Sarath Fonseka, former Army chief and contender in the January 26 presidential poll, had said Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had instructed a ground commander in the battle zone during the last phase of the Eelam War IV to shoot all LTTE leaders who came out to surrender to the military. But the next day, the General went back on his comments.

In the interview, the General had contended that he had no information communicated to him in the final days of the war regarding three key LTTE leaders had opted to surrender to the military.

“Fonseka charged that communications were instead confined to the LTTE leaders, Norway, various foreign parties, Basil Rajapaksa, Member of Parliament and the powerful senior adviser to the President, and such information was never conveyed to him as he supervised the final stages of the war,” the weekly reported.

On the basis of the December 13 controversial interview, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Phillip Alston, has asked Colombo to explain the circumstances of the death of three senior LTTE cadres and their families in the final stages of military operations to defeat the LTTE in May this year.

The controversy triggered by the interview and the subsequent denial was considered as closed at least till the January 26 Presidential poll after the President Rajapaksa last week sent the December 18 letter of Philip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extra- judicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions seeking an explanation from the government, to a committee appointed to study and report on the October 21 U.S. Department of State Report on “incidents during the recent conflict in Sri Lanka”. Mr. Alston’s letter referred to charges made (subsequently withdrawn) by the former Army Chief, Sarath Fonseka, against Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on the sequence of events in the last phase of Eelam War IV (May 16 to 19).

Ms. Jansz in her explanatory note said that after the presidential election was formally declared, The Sunday Leader’s management made a decision that the paper would at an editorial level broadly throw its weight behind Sarath Fonseka’s campaign.

“The Rajapaksa administration, by filing multiple law suits against this paper and failing to take real action in the ongoing investigation into Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, left The Sunday Leader’s management with no alternative.

“Facing devastating court cases, The Leader had no option but to back Fonseka and despite my personal reservations I sympathised with the management’s position and agreed to devote a large amount of page space to the General’s campaign.

As part of our effort to give publicity to Sarath Fonseka’s campaign, I requested on Monday, December 7 an interview with the General.

“The interview was intended to both give the reading public a better idea of the General as a person and allow him to put forward his views regarding his campaign and major policy issues. The interview proceeded as a series of questions and answers on major topics and issues and a transcript of the interview by Raknish Wijewardene appeared in The Sunday Leader of December 13, 2009.

“However towards the end of the interview we began to discuss the ethnic conflict and the role Fonseka had played in the war. I then asked him one final question. In relation to claims made both internationally and locally that LTTE surrendees carrying white flags had, instead of being accommodated, been killed.

“I asked the General what really happened. In that context Fonseka made the allegation that would later appear in the newspapers. He claimed he had heard that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered any surrendering LTTE cadres to be shot, and related the story of Pulidevan and Nadesan’s surrender.

“When Sarath Fonseka made this allegation I reacted as any journalist would. A presidential candidate and decorated war hero was accusing the incumbent President’s brother of ordering the death of unarmed surrendering LTTE leaders and their families. That was simply an extraordinary story and I knew immediately that this would be the paper’s headline for the week”, she wrote.

“Realising the impact such striking allegations would have, at 9.45 a.m. before the paper went to print on Saturday I once gain contacted Sarath Fonseka.

During a twenty minute phone conversation the General reiterated that he stood by the allegation. At that point I asked him who the journalist was who had told him about the supposedly illegal order given by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to Shavendra Silva. Fonseka gave me the journalist’s name but asked that I not name him “for reasons for his own personal security.” A request I obliged. Fonseka then said that he was willing to go on record with his claim and he assured me he would not back down. Only with that assurance did we go to print”, she went on.

Writing on the fallout, the Editor complained, “It was only as the government’s denunciation campaign intensified with TV, radio, and internet sites declaring the former war hero a traitor that Fonseka’s advisors Mangala Samaraweera, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Vijitha Herath in particular advised him to retract part of the story.

“At a meeting with the Chairman of The Sunday Leader, Lal Wickrematunge on Monday, December 14, senior UNP leaders together with Samaraweera and the JVP insisted that a retraction was necessary as the story had damaged Fonseka’s reputation as a patriot. It was requested that The Leader retract those parts of the article mentioning Shavendra Silva. The argument being that by criticising the army, Fonseka was betraying his own comrades and losing public support. However as a journalist and as someone who is committed to the truth I refused to publish a fraudulent retraction”.

Ms. Jansz further wrote, “Accused of betraying the army and conspiring to involve the international community in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, at a hastily convened press conference at his offices at Reid Avenue, the General addressed the matter of The Sunday Leader story.

Under immense pressure at this briefing and unable to flatly deny what he knew to be the truth, the General waffled and issued what was neither a clarification nor a retraction. However over the following days his advisors and supporters would insist that Fonseka had denied the story.

“The move from clarification to retraction and denial proved to be a disaster. By backing down the politically inexperienced Fonseka ultimately played completely into the hands of the government. He immediately came across as indecisive and weak. No one believed his half-hearted denials and his credibility suffered considerable damage”.

The Editor says that Fonseka’s garbled and gradual retraction destroyed his credibility, and also squashed any hope of an impartial investigation into the alleged massacre.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 3:10:12 PM |

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