'Privately owned press have been cowered into submission'

Frederica Jansz, a senior journalist and the Editor in Chief of 'The Sunday Leader' was dismissed by its' new owner last week. The dismissal has stirred up controversy, since the newspaper is widely known for its outspoken critical views on government policy.  In January 2009, her predecessor Lasantha Wickrematunge was gunned down in Colombo, triggering international outrage and condemnation.

Following her removal, Ms Jansz accused the new ownership of being subservient to the interests of the government and the ruling family. 'The new owner said our articles were too slanderous of the president and the first family," she was quoted as saying by French news agency AFP.

In an exclusive interview with the JDS, Frederica Jansz spoke to Sanath Balasooriya* about the circumstances surrounding her dismissal.

JDS: There are conflicting reports about the recent happenings in 'The Sunday Leader.' Some of the reports claimed that you were sacked from the editorship while several other websites reported that the decision to resign was your own. Can you explain what really happened?

FJ: I did not resign.  My contract was terminated with immediate effect on Friday September 21.  It followed after Asanga Seneviratne - the new owner - told me that articles carried in the main section of The Sunday Leader are slanderous and malicious of the "First Family" and "degrade the President." He asked me to stop being critical of the Rajapaksas and even stop carrying cartoons depicting the President in lighter vein.  He then took strong objection to two nutshells carried in the newspaper on Sunday September 16, which he told police in a subsequent complaint made together with Sajin Vass Gunewardena not only embarrassed him but could evoke public emotions and incite violence against the President. The two nutshells in question are age old jokes rephrased to suit the local political situation.  I maintained to Seneviratne that The Sunday Leader has no personal or political agenda against the President nor any other politician or individual, but that the type of journalism we practice is independent and devoid of any bias.  That we as journalists are merely performing our duty in acting as messengers, holding those in political and public office accountable.  But Seneviratne refused to understand or accept this position.  I then had conveyed to him that I had no intention of resigning given that I had done no wrong that he could terminate my services if he so wished.  

JDS: Since the assassination of  Lasantha, there was quite a lot of speculation regarding the fate of The Sunday Leader. One of the widely circulated rumors was that the newspaper is going to end up in the hands of Rajapaksa loyalists - which now appears to be quite true. Could you tell us how all this happened?

FJ: It is indeed ironical that it was I who first approached Asanga Seneviratne.  I did so asking him what the possibilities were of raising an IPO, since the newspaper was in dire financial constraints. He readily agreed.  For one and a half years negotiations were conducted with him and Lal Wickrematunge in this context.  However, at some point Wickrematunge was told an IPO would not be possible,  Seneviratne then said he had identified 5 or 6 investors and that there would be a private placement. This too however did not transpire and ultimately he emerged as the sole investor buying a majority share of 72%.  He in September last year maintained to both Lal and me that he raised the monies from two private banks.    

JDS: Your recent encounter with the Defence Secretary created ripples in and outside Sri Lanka. Is there any connection between the latest events inside The Sunday Leader and the controversy involving the top defence official?

FJ:  I have been told there is - but I have no proof of this.  

JDS: In Sri Lanka, as far as editorial content is concerned, the thin dividing line that existed between the privately owned and state owned media has now completely disappeared. What does your experience say?

FJ: For sure.  In fact, next to winning the war this is the Rajapaksas second biggest success story.  The stifling of the privately owned press.  They have all fallen into line, cowered into submission and subjugation.

JDS: Do you think that your removal increases your vulnerability as a journalist? What are your future plans?

FJ: For a long time now I have been vulnerable.  A lone voice with little or no support from my journalistic colleagues.  So that situation hardly changes.  As for my future plans, my resolve to survive has never been dented so I will continue to do what I enjoy doing most. And that is putting pen to paper.

Sanath Balasooriya worked as an Associate Editor of 'Dinamina' Sinhala language newspaper and from 2005 to 2009 served as the president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) - a position he held until he was forced into exile. He now lives in Europe.



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.