"He said that" . "No he
never said that " "She made it up." "No he said it again at a rally"
" He will sue her. " " She cried" "NO she didnt
"Fonseka’s garbled and
gradual retraction destroyed his credibility,"
government backed campaign to publicise particularly in Sinhala, a distorted
version of the story, and present the General as a
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The fraudulent interview
On December 13, 2009 The Sunday
Leader’s headline “Gota Ordered Them To Be Shot” – General Sarath Fonseka would
become the most explosive story of the year.
The article which, perfectly
accurately, quoted the General as saying he had heard that Gotabaya Rajapaksa
had given an illegal order asking Brigadier Shavendra Silva (later promoted
General) to not accommodate surrendering LTTE cadres, became more than a news
It became a political phenomenon and the
allegations, denials, retractions and recriminations that followed are
However it is a history that has come to be
As all the various parties caught in the
story’s fallout struggled to save face, what began as a piece of journalism
accusing the government of a serious war crime would become, through lies and
deception, a coup for the Rajapaksa administration. Ultimately the
campaign to vilify and distort the article and discredit me has now reached a
point where I feel, I must comment and present what I believe to be an accurate
version of the events leading to and following its
To start at the
After the presidential election was formally
declared The Sunday Leader’s management made a decision that the paper would at
an editorial level broadly throw its weight behind Sarath Fonseka’s
The Rajapaksa administration, by filing
multiple law suits against this paper and failing to take real action in the
ongoing investigation into Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, left The
Sunday Leader’s management with no alternative.
Facing devastating court cases The Leader had
no option but to back Fonseka and despite my personal reservations I sympathised
with the management’s position and agreed to devote a large amount of page space
to the General’s campaign.
As part of our effort to give publicity to
Sarath Fonseka’s campaign I requested on Monday, December 7 an interview with
the General. The interview was intended to both give the reading public a
better idea of the General as a person and allow him to put forward his views
regarding his campaign and major policy issues.
We requested the interview on December 7, and
were told that it could be done on Wednesday December 9 but at extremely
short notice we were informed that the General would only be able to see us on
Tuesday December 8 at 5.30 p.m.
Even at such short notice The Sunday Leader
considered the interview sufficiently important that Lal Wickrematunge, the
Leader’s Chairman, Raknish Wijewardene, a journalist, Thusitha Kumara
a photographer and myself gathered at the General’s office at Reid Avenue
on December 8th a little before 5.30 p.m.
As the General was preoccupied with the
important business of managing a campaign we waited over an hour for our
appointment but were eventually granted an audience with the man
The interview proceeded as a series of
questions and answers on major topics and issues and a transcript of the
interview by Raknish Wijewardene appeared in The Sunday Leader of December 13,
However towards the end of the interview we
began to discuss the ethnic conflict and the role Fonseka had played in the
I then asked him one final question. In
relation to claims made both internationally and locally that LTTE surrendees
carrying white flags had, instead of being accommodated, been killed. I
asked the General what really happened.
In that context Fonseka made the allegation
that would later appear in the newspapers.
He claimed he had heard that
Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered any surrendering LTTE cadres to be shot, and related
the story of Pulidevan and Nadesan’s surrender.
When Sarath Fonseka made this allegation I
reacted as any journalist would. A presidential candidate and decorated war hero
was accusing the incumbent President’s brother of ordering the death of unarmed
surrendering LTTE leaders and their families.
That was simply an extraordinary story and I
knew immediately that this would be the paper’s headline for the
It was at this point that I took the decision
to run Fonseka’s allegation as a headline separate from the main
It seemed obvious that an allegation of this
magnitude deserved special attention.
As the accusation; the massacre of
surrendering cadres and their families was extremely serious, I contacted all of
those implicated in the General’s denunciation.
When I spoke with General Shavendra Silva he
said he could not comment without permission to do so. I then spoke with
Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara who later got back to me saying he had discussed the
matter with the current Army Commander Jagath Jayasuriya as well as General
Shavendra Silva and collectively taken a decision that they would not issue any
comment. When I spoke with Basil Rajapaksa he denied that Norway had got in
touch with him regarding this issue. Rajapaksa however did not deny knowledge of
the incident. I tried contacting Gotabaya Rajapaksa but was told he had not come
into his office on that day, December 11, 2009. I left a message with his
office but Gotabaya Rajapaksa holds a personal grudge against this newspaper and
refuses to speak to the Leader.
However, having secured an adequate number of
responses from the government and the army I was able to compile the
Realising the impact such striking
allegations would have, at 9.45 a.m. before the paper went to print on Saturday
I once gain contacted Sarath Fonseka.
During a twenty minute phone conversation the
General reiterated that he stood by the allegation. At that point I
asked him who the journalist was who had told him about the supposedly illegal
order given by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Shavendra Silva. Fonseka gave me the
journalist’s name but asked that I not name him “for reasons for his own
personal security.” A request I obliged.
Fonseka then said that he was willing to go
on record with his claim and he assured me he would not back down. Only
with that assurance did we go to print.
On Saturday the paper went to print and at
The Sunday Leader’s premises at Ratmalana extra precautions were taken to guard
against possible government reprisals; new lighting was installed, and new
private security personnel were hired. Publishing what we thought
was a story that would damage the credibility of senior government officials the
newspaper naturally feared that the government or those aligned to it would, as
they have done in the past, react violently.
And that was our biggest
We assumed the government would react as they
have done in the past with threats and violence but the Rajapaksa regime is
capable of learning and should never be underestimated.
By contacting Basil Rajapaksa we had already
given the government advanced warning; they knew the story was coming and they
reacted decisively; not with the violence as we had expected but with
After the story broke, instead of flatly
denying the allegation or threatening journalists the government began to
portray Fonseka’s allegation as an act of treachery. The story of the
massacre was irrelevant. What mattered was that by speaking out Fonseka was
betraying Gotabaya, the army and the country.
We believe the outcry that followed the story
was to a large extent the result of an orchestrated campaign.
A government backed campaign to publicise
particularly in Sinhala, a distorted version of the story, and present the
General as a traitor. The objective behind the campaign was to convince
the General that his accusations were eroding his popularity and to force him to
back down in the interest of winning more votes.
This campaign began immediately after the
newspaper went on sale with radio shows denouncing the story as an act of
treachery by early Sunday morning.
The Sunday Leader’s message board which
usually receives one hundred responses for a lead story was flooded with
messages by 2 a.m. on December 13 and received well over one thousand
(1000) responses to the story; the vast majority of them being extremely similar
comments denouncing Fonseka.
Our analysis indicates that this was an
orchestrated campaign with a small number of users using multiple log-in names
to post multiple messages on The Sunday Leader website denouncing Fonseka as a
However the internet was only a small part of
the campaign and by Sunday afternoon the state media was in a frenzy already
denouncing the General as a traitor and alleging a conspiracy between The Sunday
Leader, the General and the usual unpatriotic forces – the Western NGOs,
this pressure it is notable that in the hours after its publication the General
stood by the story. In a press conference he gave on Sunday
afternoon at the Jaic Hilton, documented by the BBC, he made no effort to deny
It was only as the government’s denunciation
campaign intensified with TV, radio, and internet sites declaring the
former war hero a traitor that Fonseka’s advisors Mangala
Samaraweera, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Vijitha Herath in particular advised
him to retract part of the story.
At a meeting with the Chairman of The
Sunday Leader, Lal Wickrematunge on Monday, December 14, senior UNP leaders
together with Samaraweera and the JVP insisted that a retraction was
necessary as the story had damaged Fonseka’s reputation as a
It was requested that The Leader retract
those parts of the article mentioning Shavendra Silva. The argument being
that by criticising the army Fonseka was betraying his own comrades and
losing public support.
However as a journalist and as someone who is
committed to the truth I refused to publish a
Also as I had contacted Shavendra Silva to
get his version of events it was impossible for me to deny that he had been
Later that same day, December 14, I met the
General at approximately 2.45 p.m. whereupon he reiterated
that he could not deny what he had said.
Mangala Samaraweera and Vijitha Herath
however remained adamant demanding that The Leader publish a partial
retraction. However as a journalist I refused to back
down knowing that what I had published was the truth.
Finally, we agreed on a compromise whereby a
clarification written by Sarath Fonseka would appear in The Sunday Leader of
December 20, 2009 issue. This clarification emphasizes a technical point
and is in no way a retraction.
However, The Sunday Leader is of course a
weekly paper and during the course of the week pressure continued to mount on
Accused of betraying the army and conspiring
to involve the international community in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, at a
hastily convened press conference at his offices at Reid Avenue the General
addressed the matter of The Sunday Leader story.
Under immense pressure at this briefing and
unable to flatly deny what he knew to be the truth, the General waffled and issued what was
neither a clarification nor a retraction.
However over the following days his
advisors and supporters would insist that Fonseka had denied the
The move from
clarification to retraction and denial proved to be a
By backing down the politically inexperienced
Fonseka ultimately played completely into the hands of the
He immediately came across as indecisive and
weak. No one believed his half-hearted denials and his credibility
suffered considerable damage.
The original article was written in part to
demonstrate that Fonseka as a true war hero was not scared to confront the
government’s bogeymen head-on. By backing down he proved himself to be incapable
of tackling the Rajapaksas with the most powerful weapon at his disposal; the
Again the fundamental mistake was the
assumption that the government would react clumsily and violently and attempt to
intimidate the newspaper into burying the story. By reacting with spin and
turning Fonseka’s allegation into a question of patriotism the government was
able to deal in its favourite currency of traitors and
By implying that the General’s comments made
him appear a traitor and were losing him support, they put enormous pressure on
him to rescind the story and squash any potential investigation into the
And Fonseka on the advice of his political
advisors walked into the government’s trap; with a partial retraction that
turned out to be a triumph for the government.
Fonseka’s garbled and gradual retraction destroyed his
credibility, and also squashed any hope of an impartial
investigation into the alleged massacre. As an added bonus for the
government it also served to discredit that other thorn in the Rajapaksas side —
The Sunday Leader.
As usual the government’s opponents — just
like the LTTE, UNP and the JVP in the past — were through division, cowardice
and petty-mindedness destroying themselves.
The end result has been devastating for Sarath Fonseka who
has come across not only as unpatriotic but also as vacillating and
To his credit the General never showed any
enthusiasm for the denial always admitting that he had said what he had
said. It was pressure from his advisors that pushed him to make his
various half retractions.
To make matters worse however instead of
burying the story after the press conference and clarification in The Leader,
the JVP in particular began to circulate absurd rumors; that The Sunday Leader
had conspired with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to discredit Fonseka, and
that I had begged the General’s forgiveness for misquoting him etc.
These hopelessly false allegations only had the effect of keeping an
embarrassing story in the public eye.
Finally, the JVP threatened to sue The Sunday
Leader for defaming Fonseka.
However, the UNP-side of the opposition
alliance assured us that no Letter Of Demand would be forthcoming. In fact
Malik Samarawickrema of the UNP finally issued instruction to bury the story
and bring an end to a clumsy and bungled chapter in the General’s
And we at The Leader can only hope that once
the story is buried the lies and spin associated with it will disappear as
Comrades Bungle Again
The JVP in particular has failed to play a
constructive role in containing the damage from the original story and the
resulting government spin.
As Fonseka’s patriotic credentials came
under threat the patriotic JVP fearing an erosion of support became
determined to prove that SF was a true patriot and in doing so did half the
They first pushed him into the devastating
half retraction but having done that they realised that a retraction wasn’t
enough and that in order to prove that he never said what he did actually say,
he would have to sue.
Understandably the General is reluctant to
sue as he is unable to honestly deny he made those comments. The General’s
reluctance compelled the JVP to resort to new muckraking tactics, and they began
to claim that the article was the result of a conspiracy between The
Sunday Leader and the Rajapaksas.
Of course the idea of any collaboration
between The Sunday Leader and the Rajapaksas not even a year after Lasantha
Wickrematunge’s assassination is offensive and absurd.
Apart from these fraudulent claims, JVP
mouthpieces online have published that at some point I began weeping and begging
the General for forgiveness.
Personally however I’m
not much given to tears and the JVP’s and Sarath Fonseka’s troubles are
definitely not going to move me to tears any time soon. I certainly don’t
feel I have anything to apologize for other than perhaps underestimating the
sheer cunning of the Rajapaksas’ media machine and the JVP’s stupidity in
playing into the government’s hands.
even went so far as to run a completely fabricated interview I was
supposed to have conducted with General Shavendra Silva. They
composed an entirely fictitious interview including a set of questions and
answers with the General.
While this is an unusually creative attempt
at defamation, in reality since my one telephone call to General Shavendra Silva
on Friday December 11, 2009 to ask for his version of the original allegation I
have not spoken with him once nor have I ever met him. I have certainly
never conducted an interview with him.
Thereafter Lanka-E-News continued to publish
more defamatory and outright lies against me. These claims are as baseless
and absurd as the purported interview with Shavendra
Letter – Proof Of Government Spin
That the government deliberately spun the
reaction surrounding the article to its advantage is clear from the events
surrounding Rajiva Wijesinha’s response to UN Special Rapporteur for Extra
Judicial Killings, Phillip Alston’s query.
Alston has called for a government response
to Fonseka’s allegations. However Wijesinha used Fonseka’s clarification in The
Sunday Leader where the General claimed that no white flags were in fact
carried to argue that there was no basis for an
Wijesinha’s response implied that the
government accepted Fonseka’s clarification and was using it to clear its name
at the UN and that as such there was no story.
Days later however the government
withdrew this letter, in order to exacerbate the fall out from the story,
which they would continue to spin to their advantage.
By keeping the story in the news they would
continue to discredit Fonseka but when it suited them, preferably after the
election they would use his clarification to quash any potential war-crimes
Fonseka’s bungling media camp however failed
to see that Wijesinha’s letter and its subsequent withdrawal effectively
vindicated their man. And they failed to point out that the letter proved
that the government itself had accepted Fonseka’s