Poddala Jayantha: Paying a high price for investigative journalism

Poddala Jayantha's mother and father receiving award from Kanak Mani dixit (extreme R)

Two persons stood out among the several hundred people gathered at Sri Lanka National Integrity Awards ceremony on December 9 evening in Colombo. Dressed in off-white, the elderly couple looked dignified yet slightly bewildered by the pace of events at Colombo’s top conventions venue.

But when their moment arrived, the parents of investigative journalist Poddala Jayantha rose to the occasion: they accepted the Global Integrity Award presented to him by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI).

Jayantha could not turn up in person because his is under threat and fled Sri Lanka for safety. In June 2009, he was abducted by unidentified persons and assaulted. The attack, one among many on journalists in Sri Lanka, left him permanently disabled in his legs. That’s the high price he had to pay for systematically exposing corruption and irregularities in government and corporate sector in Sri Lanka.

TI, which created this award to recognise the courage and determination of individuals and organisations fighting corruption around the world, commended Jayantha for his “dedication to exposing injustice in Sri Lanka”.

It was originally presented at the Global Anti-Corruption Conference in Bangkok in November 2010.

Poddala Jayantha

“I am happy that I could fight against corruption and campaign for press freedom while working for the state media,” he told BBC Sinhala after the awards announcement. “But yes I had to leave the country as a result.”

I’ve long admired Poddala’s courage and meticulous research, and have been amazed that he managed to do so much while working in a state-owned media establishment like Lake House, where he was employed after leaving the independent Ravaya newspaper. Of course he was the exception to the rule, but what a refreshing exception that was — reminding us that even amidst all those sacred cows that state media journalists must tiptoe around, they can still serve the public interest if they want to…

Of course, there were also stories that he never got to write. In November 2008, I wrote about one such example in an essay commenting on the Lankan media’s shameful conduct in relation to our own Ponzi scheme and local Madoff called Sakvithi.

Fellow investigative journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti has written an excellent tribute to Poddala on Groundviews.

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