Uvindu Kurukulasuriya: “Going into exile is a big decision”

Clara Zid, August 2019

Uvindu Kurukulasuriya

“Deciding to leave your country is a big decision. I lost everything, my job, my family and absolutely everything”. Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, editor-in-chief of “Colombo Telegraph”, is a 49 years old journalist, freedom of expression activist, researcher and artist from Sri Lanka. In 2009 he left Sri Lanka and went into exile in London. Uvindu explains. “Most people don’t understand our lives; in my whole life I never cared about money, if you want to earn money you should select another profession, not journalism. We are the kind of people who seek justice, that’s why I started this volunteer journalism project. I just need justice, that’s what I am fighting for”.

Uvindu started journalism in the late 80s and since then he has been in exile twice because of his work. The first time was in 2000. He had to leave Sri Lanka after one of his journalist friends was killed and Uvindu himself was threatened by the president’s media advisor publicly via national radio. Just after the situation changed – two years later – Uvindu went back to Sri Lanka and, in 2008, he became the head of the Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka’s most prestigious freedom of expression activist organization, with more than 25 years of history.

“2008-2009 was the most difficult period in history for Sri Lankan press, with 19 journalists killed, dozens of media workers – including newspaper vendors – killed, hundreds of harassment cases, and abductions taking place”, he recalls. On January 8, 2009 the editor of “The Sunday Leader”, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was killed. “That was the tipping point. Before, they killed only ethnic Tamil journalists in the north, but Lasantha was a Sinhalese. The threats to our lives escalated. We were personally threatened, telling us to stop our activities”. At that time Uvindu was a Director of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, Council member and executive committee member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) and Co-convener at the Centre for Monitoring Elections Violence.

Uvindu asserts: “Just a week after Lasantha was murdered, representatives of International Media Support (IMS) visited Sri Lanka and urged us to temporarily leave the country. I was asked to go to Singapore, but I said “I have UK Visa and I have no friends in Singapore”. To stay was not an option, there was no one to protect us in Sri Lanka. IMS facilitated our travel. Those who had no UK Visa were sent to Singapore or to a safe house in India. The day I left Sri Lanka, another editor was attacked at his house in early morning”. Then, the situation turned from bad to worse and we were advised to not come back. Uvindu became a Visiting Fellow at the London School Of Economics and Political Science.

The mission of “Colombo Telegraph” is to report the under and miss reported, censored stories in Sri Lanka

After several failed attempts to start a news outlet with others, Uvindu started up his own news site in 2011: “I only spent 25 dollars to buy the domain and I started my WordPress site writing and publishing everything myself. Within a week the webpage became one of the most popular in Sri Lanka and elsewhere”, he says. The mission of the news site was and is “to report the under reported and miss reported, censored stories in Sri Lanka”. The website was named “Colombo Telegraph”.

Hundreds of intellectuals and opinion makers around the world give their opinions on Sri Lankan matters on “Colombo Telegraph”. “People come to Colombo to read opinions and to read censored  or misreported stories”, he says. More than 1 million users visit the webpage per month, but if there is a political crisis, the traffic can increase 2 million or more users per month.

It all started in July 2010, thanks to a congress for exiled journalists around the world taking place in Stockholm, Sweden. “I was invited as a moderator”, he says. At the congress, there was a talk about a supporting program for exiled journalists assisting them with website hosting. In mid 2012 Colombo Telegraph approached the program and found its first and only hosting provider: Virtualroad.org.

Uvindu talks very well about Virtualroad: “It’s a quick and secure hosting, if you send a mail they respond quickly”. His website has been hacked a couple of times but, he says, “but Virtualroad managed to recover it quickly”. And adds: “When the new government came to power in 2015 January, as promised they unblocked all blocked websites, but Colombo Telegraph remained blocked. When I exposed it, the government was in denial, but Virtualroad created a video which exposed that the blocking was still in place and which techniques were used to block Colombo Telegraph. It was an amazing experience and the government had to unblock us the very same day”. 

Uvindu’s future is uncertain: “I have never visited Sri Lanka since I left, although I miss my friends and family so much”. He has not gone back because “still not a single perpetrator of the former regime is brought to justice. Just leave war crimes, human rights abuses for a while, at least I have a responsibility to fight for justice for my colleagues who were harassed, abducted, tortured and killed as the then Convener of the Free Media Movement. I still see their faces.”

If you look at last October’s coup in Sri Lanka, you will understand the repercussions. The President has unconstitutionally appointed perpetrators as Prime Minister and the cabinet. After nearly a two months battle, he says: “We had managed to reinstate the legitimate rulers, but I must say the present lot is also corrupted. As soon as they came to power they also engaged in Bond Scam, which is billions of rupees worth of tax-payer money. I am the first to even get and publish an unpublished parliamentary report regarding that. Former regimes had done the same but this government has so far, failed to investigate in that regard. We have a lot to do to make Sri Lanka better”

At the moment, he says, his main objective is to bring perpetrators to books: “We don’t cover daily news, we are only working on reports about different issues. Although we would like to cover everything, we don’t have resources. We are solemnly depending on Google ad income, which is not enough to cover our operational cost. We use the ad income to give assignments to local reporters, and sometimes to support local journalists that lost their jobs because of taking principle stance,” he says.

Moreover the long years of war, with the country fractured along ethnic, cultural, language and religious divides, he has seen many elements of Sri Lanka’s media present stories that are biased in favor of one side or another. “We believe this needs to be changed,” he says and adds: “This is a new exile journalism experiment”.

Recently, the former Sri Lanka dictator Mahinda Rajapaksa has nominated his brother, who is accused of abducting and killing journalists, as the Presidential candidate. Meanwhile, Uvindu continues his battle from the journalistic and opinion front that represents “Colombo Telegraph”. From an unwanted exile and a great willpower.

The former Sri Lanka dictator Mahinda Rajapaksa has nominated his brother, who is accused of abducting and killing journalists, as the Presidential candidate.