Two South Asian women journalists who set new standards of professionalism and lived courageous lives died in March.
Razia Bhatti, trail-blazing Pakistani editor, died of a brain haemmorhage in Karachi on 12 March. Veteran Sri Lankan journalist Rita Sebastian died on 29 March in Colombo after a brief illness.
Both were women with solid professional credentials, both survived threats and regularly put their lives at risk, both went beyond the day-to-day of journalism to try to bring people to their senses amidst the anarchy and carnage in their two cities: Karachi and Colombo.
Rita Sebastian was a fearless reporter and editor who lived through the darkest days of Sri Lanka´s civil war and violence, always working to the high professional standards that she set for herself even in the most trying of times.
Razia Bhatti was at the height of her career as the editor of Newsline. Armed only with her insight, sense of balance, and powerful writing style, she took on political bullies and social injustices with a courage few could match. She was respected evenby the adversaries she so mercilessly exposed in the face of, literally, death-defying odds.
For all her reputation as a crusading editor, there was nothing intimidating about the mild-mannered Ms Bhatti: no condescension, arrogance, weight-throwing or bombast. Instead, there was an almost dreamy calmness, and a willingness to listen.
When she left the popular Herald magazine in mid-1988 following differences with the management, almost the entire editorial staff left with her to start the monthly Newsline, a unique magazine, which was owned by the journalists who wrote for it.
In the award-winning Newsline, Ms Bhatti ensured extensive coverage of issues that are often sidelined by editors: literacy, population, education, health, environment, crime, violence, child abuse, women´s rights, corruption, human rights and religious persecution.
In 1994, the International Women´s Media Foundation in New York awarded her the Courage in journalism Award, citing Ms Bhatti as “a courageous editor who set standards in journalism by breaking taboos and transgressing limits imposed on freedom of expression, not only by authoritarian regimes but also a very conservative society”.
At home, Ms Bhatti was a woman of few words. She saved her insights for her editorials, fearless darts which invited the wrath of governments, including the present one. Other publications far more powerful than Newsline allowed themselves to be intimidated by the government or Karachi´s warlords, but Ms Bhatti would not be cowed.
“If the bloodshed in Karachi has proved anything conclusively, it is that violence never comes without a price,” Ms Bhatti warned in her last editorial.
Sebastian had to deal with the violence and terror of Sri Lanka´s twin insurgencies: the Tamil separatist war in the north and the JVP insurgency in the south. Ms Sebastian´s fluency in Sinhala and Tamil made her a versatile reporter, much sought after by international news organisations for coverage of the conflicts. Even as the wars polarised society and tore at Sri Lanka´s socio-political fabric, Ms Sebastian refused to be drawn into taking sides. She often said that there is just too much bad blood in Sri Lanka for violence to be the answer: either by the rebels or the government.
Her moderate approach made Ms Sebastian unpopular with extremists on all sides. She was often caught in the crossfire— sometimes literally as she dodged bullets from Tamil Tiger guerrillas and government helicopter gunships while covering the frontlines.
She covered some of the most appalling massacres, mind-numbing bombings, and horrific assassinations (often of people she knew well) with a deep reservoir of personal fortitude and compassion.
Even as her editors demanded antiseptic detachment and “objectivity” in writing about the events around her, Ms Sebastian was always deeply -troubled by the bloodshed that had engulfed her beloved homeland. Overcoming a bout with cancer three years ago, she continued to “file” and live by her strong code of personal ethics, decency and morality.
After her studies in London, Ms Sebastian became the first woman to edit the Sunday Times newspaper in Colombo. Since 1989, she had served as Sri Lanka corespon dent for Inter Press Service, the Indian Express and Kyodo.
Razia Bhatti and Rita Sebastian. Their work will live on.