Sinhala editor honoured by Tamil journalists in Jaffna

Tamil journalists in northern Sri Lanka, in an exceptional gesture, paid homage to a Sinhala journalist who died two decades ago.

The Jaffna Press Club (JPC) celebrated the life of Gamini Navaratne alongside Tamil veteran journalist A J Canagaratna who ran the Saturday Review, candidly portraying the lives and aspirations of Tamils fighting for their rights.

Senior Journalist N Parameswaran addressing the commemoration held at the Jaffna art gallery said that the Tamils were paying back a historical debt.

Gamini Navaratne courageously left the relatively secure life Colombo to take charge of the weekly, printed from war torn Jaffna following its editor and his bosom pal Subramaniam Sivanayagam fleeing the country.

Saturday Review founding Editor Sivanayagam was forced to leave Sri Lanka when the state apparatus under President JR Jayawardena became more than a threat.

“Living as the solitary Sinhala civilian in a militarized zone and without a sense of alienation – that was Gamini’s greatest triumph,” wrote Sivanayagam in 1998.

Lotuses in Jaffna

Gamini was the only Sinhala Journalist who was able to witness many atrocities in North perpetrated by the state, including the Mandaithivu massacre where over 30 fishermen were hacked and shot to death by Sri Lankan Navy in June 1986.

Shocked by the brutality of the crime and ridiculing his own Bohemian lifestyle, Gamini wrote in Saturday Review on June 21.

"A grisly "exhibition" was on: 30 people who went to fish that morning were lying inert in the Centre's hall, like dead fish. I was unmoved. I have attended worse "exhibitions" before, especially at Valvettiturai, Kurikadduvan and at the Jaffna General Hospital mortuary. At some of these "exhibitions" there were only pieces of flesh and bone.

"I cycled back from Gurunagar......I cycle along, just like thousands of other Jaffna people. The easiest, cheapest and most convenient mode of transport in this part of the world. If the Army approaches, you can dump the vehicle and vanish through the maze of cross-roads that are an integral feature of Jaffna city, sure in the knowledge that the Army will not, cannot, follow you easily. But you might still get a bullet in the back - from a distance." (Lotuses in Jaffna)

Rebel with a cause

For almost two years, Gamini Navaratne reported the north in English, which enraged the majority Sinhalese who called him a traitor and won the respect of oppressed Tamils.

''I am fighting for a cause,'' he told the New York Times in 1984. ''I am for press freedom and human rights.''

A real pain

The ingenious manner Gamini navaratne fought for press freedom was captured in  a letter he wrote to Index on Censorship in 1988, ten years before his death.

“I gave the censor headaches by submitting piles of copy, including whole books and magazines. Most were not intended for publication and in any case could not be accommodated in the 12-page tabloid. The censor did not catch on in the two yeas while censorship applied.

"The Saturday Review highlighted security force atrocities against civilians. An exasperated government ordered that all copy be referred to Colombo. It was virtually impossible to run a newspaper in these conditions. Copy got delayed because of frequent transport disruptions. Several times I was hauled before the censor and the Press Council and faced censure, but the Review did not bow down.

At the start I did a weekly run to Jaffna by train – it then took only six hours for the 250-mile journey from Colombo – put the paper to bed and return within two days. Fellow journalists called me ‘the editor who is always on the run’.”

Gamini Navaratne started his journalistic career in 1954 as a sub editor of the 'Morning Times' and later worked for 'The Times of Ceylon' and 'Sunday Times' before ending up as Chief sub editor of the 'Daily Mirror'. In 1964, he joined the "Sun" newspaper as its first chief sub editor, but soon left his position to become the Colombo correspondent of the Gemini News Service in London, Times of India and Bangkok Post.

He died on Tuesday, March 10, 1998, at the age of 65 in Colombo.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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