London Connection Q&A: Sonali Wanigabaduge

Lisa Pierre talks to Sri Lanka-based LLB graduate Sonali Wanigabaduge about adrenaline rushes, keeping one’s emotions in check and her hunger to uphold the truth
Sonali Wanigabaduge
Sonali Wanigabaduge presents the news for MTV while establishing herself as a human rights lawyer
The University of London is a prestigious and time-tested institution with superior quality education. It feels great to have been part of this

Why did you choose to study with the University of London International Programmes?
The University of London is one of the most revered educational institutions in the UK, with a vibrant history. Three months after completing school I opted to study the LLB through the University of London International Programmes (at the Royal Institute, Colombo), as I was confident of the University’s name in upholding its international reputation of academic distinction.

You did a law degree, so how did you end up reading the news?
Well, journalism has always been my first passion. I joined MTV right after leaving school. Having had to juggle with lectures, exams, newsreading for more than six years sounds easier said than done! But I’ve enjoyed the journey from day one. I’m on my eighth year in media now and it has been a fantastic experience. And once you get used to that adrenaline rush, there’s no life without it. Law was always on the cards for me, because as clichéd as it sounds, it’s been on my Dad’s Bucket List - and I didn’t mind. Now I thank the Universe (and my Dad) that I did law! So here I am. But in all seriousness, I have serial Samaritan instincts and I am a strong believer in rights-awareness, protection of human rights, and enacting effective legislation – thus being a lawyer certainly helps in going about the process.

Tell us about a typical day at work?
On days I do the morning shift at MTV, I’m at the office by 4.30am. Read up on the latest stories, coordinate with the rest of the team on the lead stories for the news, getting voice cuts, arranging for visuals and editing stories which are to be aired on TV, translating certain local stories, voicing scripts, rushing for makeup, and the news is on air at 7am (see below left). After a quick breakfast, I’d be off to Courts. Usually Supreme Court convenes at 10am and concludes by around 1.30pm. After the day’s cases are done, I’d have a chilled out lunch, go back home, maybe catch a movie, or meet up for coffee with friends, and at 5pm rush back to the law chambers for client consultations. The day would end at about, well, midnight. On a good day.

Sonali WanigabadugeDo you think you would like to continue on the journalistic path?
I would love nothing more. However, my main focus is to establish myself as a human rights lawyer in Sri Lanka, as I am a strong proponent of rights-awareness which is currently at a dangerously low level.

Reading the news you are at the forefront of seeing your country change after the end of the civil war. What do you think are some of the biggest changes you are seeing in Sri Lanka?
Some of the biggest changes I personally see are the notable development efforts being made to rebuild a country that has been at the brunt of a three-decade war, which is a Herculean task in itself. We can also witness the greater voice of the international community, such as the UN, which seems to be closely monitoring activities taking place in Sri Lanka. However, it is my humble opinion that unifying a country post-war also urgently requires mental conditioning, intellectual development and emotional rehabilitation of a wounded citizenry.

"My hope for Sri Lanka is that its people will, against all odds, come together as one nation, united, and reach the world."

What are your hopes for Sri Lanka in the future?
I love this country! My dream is for Sri Lanka to continue as a sovereign state, self-sufficient, with a people that are aware of their rights as well as corresponding responsibilities, that are empowered, literate, and are given the opportunity to reach their fullest potential regardless of social status or wealth. My hope for Sri Lanka is that its people will, against all odds, come together as one nation, united, and reach the world.

How do you cope with your emotions or prejudices when reporting a story you do not agree with?
Interesting question! One of the primary cornerstones of a journalist is to be unbiased. At MTV we always strive to report and present the facts as they are, and try to eliminate prejudices as much as we can. I believe that one’s credibility is something that goes in tandem with one’s professionalism. Thus, if you overtly emote with the story (positive or negative), it directly impacts both your professionalism (or lack of it) as well as your credibility in turn. It takes a great deal of mental conditioning, but it’s possible.

If you could have interviewed anyone or reported on any story who and what would it have been?
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of listening to a speech by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian medical doctor who authored the book I Shall Not Hate, written in the aftermath of losing three daughters to a brutal shelling in Gaza. The sheer conviction with which he spoke, despite having gone through an unspeakable tragedy, moved the entire audience to tears. I would like to have interviewed Dr. Abuelaish, as he epitomises the qualities of a present day messenger of peace, as he speaks about the need to work towards bridging the divide between people in conflict all over the world through compassion, dignity, tolerance and interconnectedness.

With social media playing such a huge part in people’s lives today do you think televised news is still a viable medium for reaching people?
Although social media is rather a powerful media source, especially in the Western world, Sri Lankans still love their idiot box. Televised news still plays a prominent role in being an informer, educator and opinion-former, and the nightly news is a routine dinner activity at the majority of homes.

"Good journalism is almost a Utopian ideal, but it is this that we must strive towards. It requires professionalism, conscience, objectivity and an insatiable hunger to protect and uphold the truth - quite a feat to achieve."

“And I believe that good journalism, good television, can make our world a better place”. Do you agree with CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour?
I definitely agree. We’re living in a day and age of sound bites and social media addiction. Statements are taken out of context, they go viral on social media with millions of ‘hits’, resulting in violence not just locally but across countries. ‘Good’ journalism is almost a Utopian ideal, but it is this that we must strive towards. It requires professionalism, conscience, objectivity and an insatiable hunger to protect and uphold the truth - quite a feat to achieve. But we start when we try.

Who is your biggest influence?
I could give so many fancy answers, but I would have to say my biggest influence is my mom. She’s truly been the Silent Saviour and is the most important person in my life.

What does it mean to you to be a graduate of the University of London International Programmes?
The University of London is a prestigious and time-tested institution with superior quality education. It feels great to have been part of this.

Where would you like to be personally in five years?
I’d like to have my own television show dealing with human rights and the law, have directed my first film, published my first book of poems and have found my vocation.

What is the one thing or place you would like to see in your lifetime?
If there’s one thing I’d want to see happen in my lifetime, it would be the discovery for a cure for cancer. Cancer is among us, and we each think we are untouchable by it, which is far from the truth. A cancer diagnosis can have the most devastating and heartbreaking consequences. Sadly, we only realise its impact when someone dear to us is affected by the disease. It’s time we reconsidered spending billions on defence budgets everywhere the world over, while millions fall prey to this disease. Time is of the essence in the war against cancer. It’s about time we got started.

  • Find out more about studying for a University of London degree by distance learning in Sri Lanka.