A Sri Lankan Journalist Eagerly Toes the Line

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Correction Appended

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- He calls himself the Rush Limbaugh of Sri Lanka, "except I'm not as obnoxious." His critics say he should be hanged from a lamppost.

Rajpal Abeynayake, 50, is the editor in chief of The Daily News, the country's largest English-language daily newspaper, which is wholly owned by the government. He is also the host of a morning radio program, and the two platforms make him the most influential English-language journalist in Sri Lanka.

His position atop Sri Lanka's journalistic firmament has been assured in part because those who have criticized the government in recent years have been killed, intimidated or forced into exile.

Such a fate is difficult to imagine for Mr. Abeynayake, a gushing admirer of Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defense minister. But leading a government news media organ can be a precarious job; his predecessor at The Daily News lasted only two years.

Mr. Abeynayake will soon pass his first anniversary as editor in chief, and he expects to have many more.

"I think, if I may say so, that they're comfortable with me," he said, referring to the governing Rajapaksa clan.

The Daily News is delivered free in Colombo's high-end hotels, and its uncritical boosterism may surprise many of those coming to Sri Lanka next month as part of a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government. But Mr. Abeynayake is unapologetic about violating what many see as a basic norm of journalism: giving both sides of a story.

"We have a media that is far freer than that in the U.S., U.K. or the rest of the Western world," he said in one of the many black-is-white statements he made in an hourlong interview. "Take the invasion of Iraq. Can you tell me whether the U.S. media was against it, including your newspaper?"

The reason Sri Lanka needs state-owned and state-dominated news media, he said, is that otherwise the government's views would be ignored.

"A coterie of privately owned media could bring down the government by manipulating the news," he said, "and that doesn't do justice to those who elected them."

Mr. Abeynayake cites Noam Chomsky and the government shutdown in the United States to defend Sri Lanka's press restrictions. Many Web sites that are critical of the government are blocked in the country, and Al Jazeera's recent coverage of elections in the country's restive northern provinces was pulled from television channels.

"You cannot allow the freedom of the wild ass," he said, referring to the animal. "And if media are manipulated to serve as the instrument of others' agendas -- like imperialists or multinational corporations -- you need to counter that."

Nineteen journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Among them was Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor in chief of The Sunday Leader, who was shot in 2009 by men on motorcycles who surrounded his car and forced him to stop. The police have no suspects in the case, which followed a series of other attacks.

Lal Wickrematunge, the editor's brother, said in an interview that the Rajapaksa government was behind his brother's death. The government has denied complicity.

Last month, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, a co-editor of The Sunday Leader, fled Sri Lanka after numerous death threats and a two-hour home invasion, during which the intruders carefully went through her files and held a knife to the throat of her 10-year-old daughter.

"The police keep saying it's a robbery," Ms. Abeywickrema said in a telephone interview, "but what robbers would go through my files and documents for more than two hours?"

Many journalists who continue to work in Sri Lanka say that a culture of intimidation prevents anyone from writing articles that are overly critical of the Rajapaksa family or the military.

"You really cannot question them," said Dilrukshi Handunnetti, the senior deputy editor of Ceylon Today. "It's just not allowed. You are expected to stay forever grateful that they delivered us from war." Ms. Handunnetti described Sri Lankan journalism, including her own newspaper, as "a collective lame duck."

Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists said attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka had declined in recent years, but "the threat level is still remarkably high."

"I think there was enough bad international publicity about the killings and assaults on individuals and media facilities that the preferred tactic has become intimidation," he said.

The killings mostly occurred during the long civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers, a vicious insurgent group. The Rajapaksas ended the war in 2009 in a brutal wave of killing that cost the lives of about 40,000 people, many of them civilians, according to international human rights organizations.

Despite the atrocities, the Rajapaksas remain popular in Sri Lanka because they decisively ended a civil war that had destabilized the country for decades. Mr. Abeynayake dismissed the international estimates of the war casualties, and he said many of the journalists killed were spies for the Tamil Tigers.

"These were terrorists using journalism as a cover," he said. "Terrorists get killed by governments, and, yes, that's O.K."

Mr. Abeynayake, whose father was a civil servant, was born in Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, and attended St. Thomas' College, a private Anglican school on Colombo's outskirts that is one of the country's most prestigious educational institutions. He studied engineering at the University of Missouri for two years before returning home to become a journalist. He has a brother who lives in Texas and works for Dell. He is unmarried.

His first stint as the editor of a government-owned newspaper, The Sunday Observer, ended in 2005 after just eight months when he wrote an editorial mildly disagreeing with President Rajapaksa.

"At the time, I wasn't sure how they'd turn out," Mr. Abeynayake said of the Rajapaksa government. "I was skeptical that these people could deliver. I wasn't very comfortable with them in 2005. Now, I'm very comfortable."

Mr. Abeynayake noted that no Sri Lankan journalist had been killed since 2009, and he said those who had fled the country were either working as agents of the countries they fled to or were looking for free tickets out.

"They are economic migrants," he said, "just like these people who get on boats to Australia."

Mr. Abeynayake said that he and others at government-owned publications were no more constrained in their work than those at privately owned newspapers.

"All journalists to a very great extent are forced to toe a certain line," he said. "In the end, you gravitate to a place where the management views are in consonance with yours. And I have gravitated to that place."

He is keenly aware that his journalistic counterparts in the United States and elsewhere do not view his editorship and writings with favor. But that is because, he said, he has chosen to remain a loyal citizen of Sri Lanka.

"I will never win an award in the United States," he said. "But if I went to the embassy and asked for asylum, everyone would love me."

Correction: October 19, 2013, Saturday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Lasantha Wickrematunge's manner of death. He was shot, not beaten.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 20, 2013 2:01 PM


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