In the early hours of Saturday 24th of August, the ‘Sunday Leader’s Associate Editor Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema woke up to find a group of armed men in her bedroom. As one threatened her at knife point demanding valuables, the rest browsed through her files and documents. But within hours, tipped off by her journalist husband, the police stormed the house which resulted in the death of an assailant while the rest were taken into custody. Despite their swift action, the police were quick to label the attack as an ordinary case of burglary even before any conclusive investigation was conducted. Among other things, the ‘extraordinary interest’ showed by the so-called burglars in examining the documents belonging to the journalists were conveniently overlooked while the question why a gang of burglars spent over two hours in her house remain still unanswered.
But the next day, the state own Independent Television Network (ITN) which quoted the usual ‘intelligence sources’ said in its’ prime time news bulletin, that “….there is a conspiracy behind the incident as some media associations and politicians urgently described the incident as an attack on media freedom.”
It further stressed that the “legal experts are of the view that this sudden development indicates a conspiracy behind the incident”.
Two weeks after, having hardly recovered from the trauma, Mandana remains convinced that she needs to continue. When asked about the risks of practising investigative journalism in a country where many have paid the ultimate price, ‘we cannot give up’ she says.
“It is not safe for journalists who seek to report the truth by exposing corruption, fraud and other wrongs. But there are journalists in the country who have“not sold their souls” and are determined to continue to fight the good battle”.
In an exclusive interview with JDS, Mandana elaborated on her ordeal and what prospects lie ahead.
Q: There are conflicting claims made by the authorities regarding what really happened at your residence on the 24th of August. What has been repeatedly emphasised is that it was just an ordinary case of burglary. Any comments on that?
A: Yes, there are many statements being made about the incident and certain sections of the media have also published various conflicting reports. What I have to say is that the incident was called a ‘robbery’ just an hour or two after the suspects were apprehended and before the conclusion of the preliminary investigations. However, there are several doubts in my mind, which I have also told the police and recorded in my statement as well.
There were a series of incidents that took place in the past few weeks. The incident on August 24th is therefore difficult to be taken as an isolated incident. First I was advised earlier in August to be mindful of my work (my role as a journalist, President of the Sri Lanka Journalists’ Trade Union (SLJTU) and connections with the opposition political parties as well as the diplomatic community) because “people” are unhappy. A week after this discussion a Sinhala weekly newspaper published a defence column referring to me in innuendo along with two other media personalities as having secret discussions with a foreign mission in Colombo to prepare a report to be given to the UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay during her visit to Sri Lanka. A few days later, on August 22nd, a dead cat was left at my door step at night. The following night, on August 23rd one of the rear tires of my husband, Romesh Abeywickrema’s vehicle was slashed.
On August 24th morning five armed persons broke into my house and spent over two and half hours searching for goods, threatening my parents, daughter and myself and even went through the files in chest of drawers in my room. Also the police found a grenade near the back wall of my house believed to have been dropped by the assailants when they were running away. As mentioned by the Leader of the Opposition in parliament on the 2nd, an identification of the suspects has not yet been held. Also, the police had released to the media a list of the goods recovered from the suspects who had broken into my house even before I had identified the jewellery and categorising them as gold and non-gold jewellery. As a result, certain sections of the media published false reports on the amount of gold jewellery recovered from the “robbery.”
The police have up to now failed to release to the media the proper list of jewellery after my mother and I identified them. A majority of the jewellery that were “robbed” by these so-called professional robbers are costume jewellery. The amount of gold jewellery is far less than the figures issued earlier by the police. There have also been conflicting statements by the police and military spokespersons. The police spokesperson was initially quoted in the media as saying there were no army personnel or army deserters among the suspects. Later, the military spokesperson was quoted in the media as saying that there were two army deserters among the suspects and one of them was declared a deserter just two days prior to the break-in on August 22nd.
I think when you take all these issues into account; it would be difficult for any person to believe without an iota of doubt that the August 24th incident is an ordinary robbery.
Q: In your version of the story, you have clearly mentioned that the intruders went through files and documents while talking to someone on the phone. What do you suspect?
A: Yes. After entering my room and ransacking the wardrobes, I was asked by the assailants what was in the chest of drawers in the room. I said files and documents. I was then asked if I was sure it contained files and documents. I said yes. They asked me to open it. When I said I did not have the key since it belonged to my husband, one of the assailants assaulted me. I said they could break open the chest of drawers and see for themselves. They then broke the chest of drawers and took out the drawers and unloaded the files on to the bed. They then went through the files one by one. While they were ransacking my room, one of the assailants received a telephone call on his mobile phone. He then went to a corner of the room and answered the call. Even when I asked one of the assailants hours later as to why they were not leaving after taking whatever they want, he asked another assailant, “Ask what’s to be done now?” I have told all these to the police. All I can say is that these actions of the assailants have left several questions that need to be answered.
Q: It seems that the background details of the assailants have been held back by the authorities despite the fact that most of them now remain in police custody. Has any attempt been made to dig deeper?
A: There does not seem to be any visible attempt being made to dig deeper. I have not received any update on the investigation from the police. I had not received any progress about the investigation since I identified the jewellery last Thursday.
Q: It appears that many – including mainstream media – are willing to buy the ‘official version’ while you keep fighting a lone battle. Why there seems to be a lack of interest to investigate further? Is it fear or political bias?
A: I feel that it is a bit of both. The fear I think is because they too fear of having to fight a lone battle like me if found to be on the “wrong side” simply for carrying out your work according to your conscience. The crimes committed by me are having stood for justice and fair play and report the truth. Another reason I see is that most print and electronic media institutions are now owned by persons with direct or indirect affiliations to the government. In such a scenario, media owners would much rather adopt an attitude similar to “an ostrich hiding its head in sand” in order to be seen in a favourable light where the government is concerned and also help them carry out their businesses without facing any undue pressures. Apart from threats, intimidation and physical harm to media personnel; all these are new additions to the manner in which the media is suppressed in the country.
Q: Do you feel safe to continue your work as a journalist?
A: It is not safe for journalists who believe in being a voice for the voiceless and seek to report the truth by exposing corruption, fraud and other wrongs that take place in the country. The incidents faced by me in the past few weeks have clearly shown that journalists who follow principled journalism are facing danger. They are considered irritants. Nevertheless, we cannot give up. The last paragraph of the editorial published on The Sunday Leader issue of January 11, 2009 (following Lasantha’s death on January 8, 2009) states, “If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.” A statement I think should be kept in mind by the few journalists in the country who have despite immense difficulties “not sold their souls” and are determines to continue to fight the good battle.