"Unbowed and unafraid" is the motto of Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Leader.
Despite having received numerous death threats throughout her career as a journalist in a country with a dismal press freedom record, its editor Federica Jansz appears to live by these words.
Jansz inherited her current position when the Sunday Leader's founding editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, an outspoken critic of the government, was murdered in broad daylight as he drove to work in January 2009. The case remains unsolved.
Yesterday, Jansz was one of dozens of Sri Lankan journalists, activists and opposition members who gathered in the capital, Colombo, to denounce the worsening climate of media suppression and intimidation, including a recent police raid on websites critical of the government, the alleged abduction of a journalist, and threats on Jansz's life by the president's younger brother in connection with the transportation of a puppy.
On July 6, Gotabaya Rajapaksa- who, as both defence secretary and the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the second most powerful person in Sri Lanka- had told Jansz by telephone: "People will kill you!!! People hate you!!! They will kill you!!!" according to the transcript of the interview, published online by the Sunday Leader.
The controversy that sparked Rajapaksa's threats began on July 5, when Jansz telephoned the defence secretary to ask whether he was aware of or wished to comment on allegations that the country's national airline had been under pressure to swap the A340 aircraft that had been scheduled to fly from Zurich today (Friday July 13) for an A330- which would have resulted in 56 paying passengers being kicked off their scheduled flight- so that a pilot friend of Rajapaksa’s who is not qualified to pilot an A340 could personally ensure the safe passage of a puppy.
The defence secretary responded to Jansz's probe by saying, “So what is wrong with that? It is a regular flight – Yes they are bringing a puppy – it is for my wife. There is nothing wrong with that. I have every right to bring not just a dog but an elephant if I so wish.”
When Jansz clarified that the issue at hand was not transporting a puppy but displacing passengers to switch the plane and pilot- a decision that was reportedly reversed after senior pilots objected- Rajapaksa responded: “Nobody objected! If you write any bloody thing about this I will sue you! I am not afraid of the bloody courts! I have already sued you I will sue you again! That is my right!”
This threat was repeated numerous times, according to the transcript, along with a great deal of profanity, as Janusz attempted to explain that she was merely seeking his side of the story. Finally, Janusz asked, “Mr. Rajapaksa are you threatening me?” He replied, “Yes! I am threatening you! Write every single word I have told you if you want – you write a bloody f…..g word and we will see…”
The following day, Jansz called Rajapaksa again to tell him that the Sunday Leader would not run the story after all- because the airline had reversed the decision to change the aircraft, and not because he had threatened her. He reportedly responded: “Yes I threatened you. Your type of journalists are pigs who eat shit! Pigs who eat shit! Shit, Shit Shit journalists!!! Ninety percent of the people in this country hate you! They hate you!!!”
These pronouncements were followed by the aforementioned threats on Jansz's life. When Jansz asked whether hear death would come by Rajapaksa's directive, he "appeared to prevaricate," as the Economist put it:"What?? No. Not mine. But they will kill you – you dirty f…..g shit journalist."
In a subsequent interview with Reporters Without Borders, Jansz admitted that there was reason to believe that the threats should be taken seriously. “It is well within his power to do me harm, whether or not through abuse of the state machinery that lies at his disposal," she said. In an email to the Committee to Protect Journalists this week, Jansz reportedly wrote, “I fully expect some repercussion following yesterday’s publication, but in what form remains to be seen.”
“The threat against journalist Frederica Jansz is the latest demonstration of the Sri Lankan government’s systematic attacks against independent and opposition-supporting journalists and media houses," said Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. "They have showered scorn on journalists and shown a complete inability or unwillingness to prosecute perpetrators of violence toward and the killing of journalists.”
Rajapaksa, who had previously threatened to “exterminate” a journalist from Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror newspaper in 2007, did not respond to the Guardian’s request for a comment.
In answer to a question from Reporters Without Borders about the breadth of the Rajapaska brothers’ power, Jansz replied: “White van abductions continue unabated. The abductors remain at large. So yes, to answer your question, the Rajapaksa family have proved over and over again that they can do whatever they want. There are no limits to what they can do.”
Image of "A news stand in Minuwangoda" courtesy of Dennis Sylvester Hurd via Flickr Creative Commons
In the following clip from a November 2009 interview with Reporters Without Borders, Jansz discusses previous threats on her life: