JDS : A proponent of multidirectional memory among Sinhala readers

Today, JDS turns 10 years old.

Hence, we have a good reason to blow our own trumpets, a little.

JDS was launched in July 2009, by an exiled group of Tamil and Sinhala journalists in the immediate aftermath of the bloody war in Sri Lanka that killed over 70,000 civillians and forcibly disappeared at least 20,000.

In exile, JDS members living scattered in several countries,  far away from each other, voluntarily carry on as an active campaign group exposing Sri Lanka's state criminality as well as covering the victims' continuous search for justice. 

The fundamental rule for survival of any tyranny is the closure of the democratic political space. Critical journalism in exile is a way of challenging and changing the rule of engagement set by such tyrannical power. When the closure of political space becomes the priority of the tyranny, finding an alternative space becomes a priority of the journalists. For that, past ten years of  existence and activism of JDS stand out as an example.

JDS salute those individuals and organisations in our land of birth and elsewhere who have been with us during the last ten years. 

Published below is an objective evaluation of JDS journalism by Vihanga Perera, first posted on his own blog in December 2018, who is only affiliated to JDS as a member of the audience.

The author is an academic and an award winning writer.

- Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka 

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) is an agent that consists of a group of Sri Lankan journalists in exile. It lobbies as a media interface which, as a more concentrated effort, seems to encourage an alternative platform against hegemonic, state-friendly productions and circulations. Its birth pangs are tied up with the last of the war years: a time when the totalitarian tendency of state control was ruthlessly challenging the parameters of a democratic and civil-minded society in Sri Lanka; a time where alternative — if not opposition — views were quite ill-received, and where para-legal removalists were operating freely in both the north-east and the southern regions of the country.

Special categories of armed units were deployed under the aegis of the highest commanding avatars to carry out special, nuanced attacks and ambushes on persons who included many alternative-minded intellectuals, activists, journalists and political moderates. Against such a repressive backdrop, Journalists for Democracy emerges in 2009, being energized by a group who had been forced into exile by state persecution.

Over the past decade or so, the work collated by JDS is of crucial significance, both as a body of alternative, counter-hegemonic literature, as well as in its encouragement of exploding grand-narratives of mainstream history. JDS contributes to and maintains a web platform which is conversant in both English and Sinhala. Of the two, the Sinhala forum is perhaps more articulate and myriad in scope and representation; which, perhaps, is fruitful, as the Sinhala-speaking communities in Sri Lanka has much to benefit from the kind of historical and political intervention JDS has chosen to champion. One of the crucial deficiencies in Sri Lanka — and, in turn, among 80% or so of its Sinhala readers / speakers — is its low political and cultural literacy. This paralysis further debilitates the way in which history is framed for the average Sri Lankan, the way she is taught how narratives are to be read, and overall in framing historical and cultural readings in an island of pluralistic cultures, mythologies, histories, and ways of life.

Mainstream journalism: lack of critical depth

JDS’s main role seems to be to intervene with hegemonic impositions in areas such as ethnic conflict, the reading of history, extra-judicial excesses and matters of human and social rights. It also preoccupies itself with current political and social developments — more in the way of keeping its reader up-to-date on crises of sorts — but, its chief long-term programme is in counter-hegemonic representation. Some of the key such discursive areas in which JDS has invested itself has to do with extra-judicial excesses during the closing stages of the war and the immediate post-war, state-terrorism (intimidation, kidnapping, assault, white-vanning, disappearances), abuse of state resources and power, judicial due processes (or the absence thereof), and day-to-day abuses by law enforcement agents such as the Police. Between 2009 and the present (2018), JDS has consistently provided analytical essays on a range of issues — ongoing and current — within the above-defined broad spectrum.

The work thus tabled has been of immense importance to a community which is overladen by mainstream journalism that often lacks critical depth and politico-historical nuance. They have, in matters of state violence and abuse, often reached far over and above mainstream media discussions in Sri Lanka. Parallel to such critiques on current developments and crises of ongoing interest, JDS has also triggered a discourse that re-investigates passages of violence and abuse that are dated in the public imagination. Among these are incidents investigated with depth that have not captured the imagination of the Sri Lankan south in any significant way. They are localized in the north and the east of the country which, in spite of paranoid protectiveness, the south often has no imagination of whatsoever. JDS has raised questions of violence carried out against communities, individuals and groups in these marginalized terrains, supported by careful reading and cause for representation. The commitment and dedication JDS often shows in the questions of the Tamil-speaking communities stand out for the simple reason that very few journalistic and literature forums (publishing in Sinhala) have volunteered such representational space.

In a simultaneous trajectory, JDS also re-investigates and re-centers narratives from the late-1980s: narratives within which the role of state terrorism is revised in the run up to and in the duration of the Second Insurrection by the JVP (1987-1990). Specially, being read in 2018, some of the re-narrations of events that took place in 1987, 1988 and 1989 contribute to the somewhat younger readers’ nuanced understanding of that past. To be fair by chroniclers of the 1987-90 insurgency, a palpable body of literature — both pro-establishment and of an alternative nature — has been collected over the past twenty years or so. Apart from memoirs written by the likes of Prins Gunasekara (A Lost Generation: Sri Lanka in Crisis: the Untold Story), Rohitha Munasinghe (එලියකන්ද වඳ කඳවුර, ජවිපෙ සැඟවුනු ඉතිහාසයෙන් බිදක් I & II etc) and Victor Gunathilake (71-89 මතකයන්), the insurrection has also brought into the mainstream a ‘popularized’ imagination based on several work which were initially carried out in serialized form by newspapers. This includes ඇඹිලිපිටිය මිනීමරුවෝ by Kularatne Kurukulasuriya and Prasanna Sanjeewa Tennakoon’s රෝහණ විජේවීර . But, quite often, the rhetoric of journalistic story-telling undermine the objectivity and critical distance in these latter narratives. Of a parallel line to these inquiries is the forensic analysis by Ravindra Fernando who re-investigates the death of Wijedasa Liyanarachchi in The Death of a Lawyer in Police Custody.

Politics of representation

Collectively, this body deviates from the ideological and political stance — albeit, an open and unabashedly state-friendly one — adopted by writers who, to this day, are considered authorities on the Insurrection as a subject: A.C Alles (The JVP 1969-1989), C.A Chandraprema (J.V.P: The Years of Terror) and Rohan Gunaratna (Sri Lanka: A Lost Revolution?).

Perhaps, the most comprehensive collation of material on the insurrection in question to date is tabled through Dharman Wickremeretne who, in 2016, published ජ.වි.පෙ දෙවන කැරැල්ල (with a promise of a second volume which is yet to come). In many ways, JDS’ concern with the insurrection years complements with — yet, easily overrides — Wickremeretne’s submission. While Wickremeretne writes as a journalist-reporter — an aspect often seen in his penchant for lists, details, meticulous records etc — JDS anchors on the depth of analysis and the consciousness of working within an ideological frame. Thus, its reading and intervention with the conflict years of 1987-90 is energized by a politics of representation and an analysed defense of human and social rights.

Positions taken by multi-directional memory identify the role of memory as an energy that can be invested across conflicts and situations of violence/trauma, as an inter-sectional fluid that accommodates better understanding of situations of displacement. In the broader Sri Lankan context marred by a catastrophic human and political rights record throughout the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s — which were fueled by near-totalitarian manias by any state leader who possessed large parliamentary majorities: Presidents Jayewardene and Rajapaksa — the literature and the framing strategies proposed by JDS can play a pivotal role in awakening the nation to reading conflict anew. Their writing often defuses extremes and promotes conversation across marginalized histories and narratives. Its vision of centering such dislocated spaces is a necessary first step for any kind of national reintegration or reconciliation.☐

Vihanga Perera



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.