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Saturday, July 6, 2013 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m.
Journalist flees Sri Lanka media crackdown, seeks safety in U.S.
By Sarah Stuteville
Special to The Seattle Times
Frederica Jansz is used to making people mad. She worked for decades as a journalist in Sri Lanka — a country ranked among the worst for press freedoms by Reporters Without Borders.
As a young journalist she interviewed key leaders from the militant separatist group the Tamil Tigers. At the end of the Sri Lankan civil war she wrote an article about the defense secretary suggesting he shared a similar psychological profile to that of the leader of the Tigers (a sworn enemy).
But after 25 years of pursuing tough stories and taking on powerful people, Jansz is seeking asylum in the United States and making her home in the Pacific Northwest.
In the winter of 2010, Jansz was editor and chief of The Sunday Leader, a paper on the verge of ruin. The Leader, long known for its stance against the Sri Lankan ruling party, was engaged in multiple lawsuits brought on by outraged officials and bankruptcy loomed.
Presidential elections were on the horizon when Jansz interviewed the opposition candidate — a former army commander in the Sri Lankan army. She asked the commander about a rumor — that the army had shot a group of Tamil Tiger rebel leaders as they attempted to surrender at the end of the war.
The general told Jansz that the rumors were true, and that other officials (specifically ones currently in the ruling party) had ordered the killings without his knowledge.
“When he told me this, I knew this was my page-one story,” says Jansz. She also knew she was dooming her already beleaguered paper to more attacks.
Over the years, The Leader’s presses had been burned down and its reporters subjected to numerous death threats. The former editor and chief (Jansz’s predecessor) was gunned down in 2009 as he drove to work, a murder that remains unsolved.
The government used the story to paint the former general as a traitor and terrorist sympathizer — he was publicly shamed and lost the election.
As a result, The Leader — and Jansz — had made an enemy out of both the government and the opposition, an impossible position in a climate where independent can mean unprotected.
Jansz didn’t stop there.
A year ago — in the midst of mounting lawsuits — Jansz learned that Sri Lanka’s defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (the very same guy she’d already ticked off with that profile comparing him to a Tamil Tiger) was planning to commandeer a Sri Lankan Airlines flight in order to fly a puppy to his wife in Switzerland.
When Rajapaksa was asked to comment he “went berserk,” shouting a string of threats and curses.
Jansz put the call on speakerphone just in time for her and all of her colleagues to hear him say:
“If you and I were at the same function together and I were to point you out ... 90 percent of people there would want to see you dead.”
After the story ran, Jansz was followed by motorbikes, received death threats and in September was fired from The Leader. According to Jansz, a pro-government businessman bought the paper in an attempt to control it.
She knew she had to get out. She had a U.S. visa and left, arriving in Seattle with her two sons this past October.
The three have applied for asylum and in the meantime are trying to start a new life in Puyallup, amid the mountain views of south Puget Sound.
Jansz says she doesn’t think her future includes journalism — her family has paid too high a price for her profession.
In fact, she’s happy to announce that she’ll begin a new job working as an assistant for an interior designer next week.
But her passion for her past profession is still close to the surface.
“I had a story and I would say it the way I felt it had to be said,” she says, recalling a fight with her publisher at The Leader. “I told him the day I have to [change] that is the day I leave the profession.”
And she’s kept her promise.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeaStute
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