The murder of Lasantha Wickremetunge: A letter to the President and a record of shame

Lasantha

[Editors note: The following text is from a speech at the Platform for Freedom event commemorating Lasantha Wickremetunge's brutal murder a year ago. The widow of the slain editor, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, also sent a strongly worded letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 4th January 2010, which can be read in full here. Both the text of the speech and the letter were sent by Sonali to Groundviews for publication.]

Lasantha was murdered on January 8, 2009 in broad daylight as he drove to work. According to witnesses eight men on four motorcycles surrounded his car and bludgeoned him to death. The brutal killing took place some 200 yards from one of Sri Lanka’s largest Air Force bases.

Now a year later, Lasantha’s murder remains unsolved. Indeed, as with the 13 other dissident media workers brutally slaughtered since President Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed the presidency just four years ago, there has been no serious investigation of his murder. And I am confident there will never be one. When the state kills, it kills with impunity.

The situation of the media in Sri Lanka is precarious and the outlook is grim. Independent journalists practice their profession only with the utmost risk. In 2006 President Rajapaksa suspended the Constitution and promulgated a series of regulations that sought to curb the media. It is under these regulations that Jayaprakash Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist, was recently given a 20-year sentence of imprisonment with hard labour for writing an article perceived as being critical of the Rajapaksa Administration. These draconian regulations are still in force eight months after Sri Lanka’s armed forces vanquished the Tiger terrorists. They are in force because Mr Rajapaksa has an election to win on the 26th of this month. And nothing—neither life nor limb, neither decency nor democracy—will be spared to wrest that victory from the people of Sri Lanka.

Sadly for our country, I believe the worst is yet to come. It is now open to doubt whether the victory over terrorism, achieved after terrible bloodshed and loss of life, both civilian and military, will turn to ashes as the government subverts democracy so as to consolidate its stranglehold on power. Never in our history have we seen corruption, nepotism and state-sponsored violence practiced so blatantly and on so wide a scale, as we see now. Never before have the fundamental tenets of democracy been tested so severely as they are being tested now.

In the course of this spasm of murder and violence these past four years, dozens of media workers have been forced to flee Sri Lanka and seek refuge elsewhere. The Rajapaksa Government holds the Sri Lankan media in an iron grip. The state media have been reduced to an organ of cheap political propaganda for the president and his brothers, little more than peons singing paeans. But even they sometimes rebel, and the consequences for their staff—as we saw at the Rupavahini television station in 2008—can be terrifying.

My husband was just one of fourteen journalists to have paid the ultimate price for practicing independent journalism since November 2005. Others such as Paranirupasingham Devakumar, the Jaffna correspondent for MTV and Sirasa’s News 1st programme, was brutally hacked to death while driving his motorcycle in Navanthurai.

In 2006, Daily Mirror editor Champika Liyanarachchi was telephoned and threatened by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, warned not to expose the misdeeds of former LTTE Eastern Commander Karuna Amman, who now serves as a cabinet minister in government, and holds the title of Vice President of the SLFP.

In 2008, journalist Keith Noyahr was abducted in the cover of darkness as he drove home at night. Only desperate appeals from senior politicians to the powers that be were able to secure his release, and the veteran defence correspondent was forced to flee Sri Lanka shortly thereafter.

Even before Uthayan Editor Nadesapillai Vithyatharan was abducted and later ‘arrested’ by the police last year, on the charge trumped up by the defence secretary of having coordinated LTTE air attacks, several of his journalists had been murdered.

Suresh Kumar, Uthayan’s Marketing Manager, was murdered on World Press Freedom Day in 2006 in a commando-style raid on the newspaper’s Jaffna office. A delivery agent for the paper, Sathasivam Baskaran was shot dead not three months later as he sat in his marked delivery vehicle. Uthayan investigative journalist Selvarajah Rajivarnam was murdered in 2007.

There can be no doubt that the LTTE terrorists with its barbarous past is to blame for their fair share of terrorising and murdering journalists. But for the state to indulge with impunity in the very tactics that made the LTTE such a menace to our country, is unacceptable. It is never acceptable to fight terrorism with terrorism, especially when that war is being waged on your own citizens.

It is indeed remarkable that despite the climate of total impunity for attacks on journalists and their places of work, there still exists that small but indomitable minority of scribes and editors in the ever-diminishing independent media many of whom are gathered here today. You are of an altogether different ilk. You walk with angels. And it is thanks to your determination and extraordinary courage that Sri Lanka today retains even a vestige of journalistic and democratic integrity. So long as you persist—and are allowed to live—there is hope.

Our duty today then, is to extend to this minority of brave people all the support we can muster. We must speak out for freedom. If we fail in this duty now Lasantha, and all those who have paid the supreme price for the liberty that we ourselves enjoy, will have died in vain. History judges harshly, and future generations must not point to us and say it was we who failed them. We must not fail.

  • Shamed Lankan

    The murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge, like the other journalists’ killings, likely will never be solved because the Rajapakses govern through sheer fear and apparently there are millions of Sri Lankans who are dumb enough to buy the nonsense the Rajapakses sell. Sri Lanka was a lovely nation. Too bad its people allow it to be run by crooks, thieves and killers.

  • Realist

    It is a damning indictment on the President and the Police that they have not been able to apprehend those criminals who murdered Lasantha. But the blood of Lasantha will not be appeased until the murderers are brought to book. Why is the Police failing? Is it that some one is protecting the murderers? SF if elected should give priority to investigate and charge those responsible for Lasantha’s murder. I would like SF to say what he knows about this murder.

  • subasinghe

    I think it is not fair to blame president for everything. There are so many unsolved murders on his side too: kadiragamar, Fernandopulle etc etc. Names of highups in the presidential race have also been implicated. We do not know the truth. It was a time of war and bloodshed. I understand late Lasantha had a good understanding with MR. Hope the mystery will be solved oneday.

  • Mr.Right

    Raviraj, Lasantha was always headache for MR and his clan. They brought most truths to the light. So they must be eliminated [edited out]. Near the High Security Area, nothing can happen without permission of MR & Co. Only one who can bring the truth now SF, he will bring the Justice for Lasantha and many More. [Edited out] We will seeeee….

  • Veedhur

    @ Subasinghe – Kadirgamar and Fernandopulle were killed by LTTE.

    “It was a time of war and bloodshed” …. what are you trying to say here? that Lasantha got caught in the crossfire when LTTE and Army were fighting in Colombo?

  • Kumudini

    I hope Sonali realises that ther are thousands of unresolved murders in the Uk . Some have been unravelled after 30 years . Is someone in Custody regarding this murder . Or Should the country come to a standstill to give prority to this ????

  • Chandrika

    all are sleeping. do not blame mahinda its one of fashion and hobbies doing this stuff.

  • deen

    really shame on our hon president……why cant we blame him he is the one who is responsible for these killings…[Edited out] president definitely should know…we vote against him this time…

  • Observer

    why don’t we all take a chill pill and wait for the outcome now? i’m quite certain the fates are sealed at the present. i’m not gonna spoil it for you ;-)

  • Sri Lankan

    What else can you expect from MR. [Edited out] During 1987 -89 many political activist who will be of any threat to MR were killd by unknown gunmen. This will continu even in the future if do not make any change.Yes we can and we should.

  • Michael

    There’s a whole lot of editing out in this thread. Free speech in Sri Lanka being what it is, one cannot be too surprised, its irony notwithstanding.

    • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

      @Michael, derogatory references to the President and other individuals have, along with expletives, been deleted from comments here and elsewhere on this forum, in line with our submission guidelines that many regular readers on GV follow, but most new to the forum despite clear markings are unable, or unwilling to abide by.

  • wijayapala

    Michael,

    Free speech in Sri Lanka being what it is, one cannot be too surprised, its irony notwithstanding.

    Try limiting your comments to the President’s intelligence and/or literacy of English, and they should pass ok.

  • Michael

    @Groundviews
    Well, I suppose most of the non-compliant posters had a different standard of “derogatory”, and perhaps even thought that whatever the names (the specifics of which we’ll never know) they called the President were reasonable or helped carry their emotional response to the President accurately. It’s dangerous when free speech is protected only within commonly accepted (or arbitrarily imposed) guidelines. It kills non-conformity.

    Just an opinion. Not an argument.

    And by the way, kudos to Sonali. That letter was fantastic. I admire her courage.

    • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

      @Micheal, fully supporting your critique, we would submit that it is more applicable to traditional broadcast and print media with significant barriers of entry and response. On the web, if you were to disagree with content on this site, it is easy to create one’s own media, use whatever expression one desires, and then disseminate it. There are in fact a plethora of web fora that don’t have any published content or moderation guidelines. Without exception, all of them feature a timbre of discussion markedly different from that which is on GV. That is a distinction we have worked hard to achieve and also why we have a much smaller audience that actively comments. As we have been repeatedly told however, and often by those who vehemently disagree with what we have to say and the content we publish, it is the largely respectful tone of discussion on GV that attracts healthy debate, in a manner few other websites can match.

  • Michael

    Well that explanation sounds a little elitist. But that’s probably just me.

    It’s fine, though. Editors edit. And mostly to achieve their perceived standard of perfection. That’s what they do. In consolation to myself, I am sure I wouldn’t be a victim of that editorial cut any time soon, so I need not worry too much as yet.

    I like the idea of citizen journalism. It assures me that at least a small part of the public does not share in with the general attitude of apathy. The moderation of the comments therein is a small price (though a price nevertheless) to pay.

  • Observer

    ok they have arrested someone on suspicion for the murder. it’s a matter of prosecuting him now. sorry we can’t all do justice they way SF was planning on doing. the 48 hour service.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/srilanka/7138654/Aide-to-Sri-Lankas-General-Fonseka-arrested-over-journalist-murder.html

    i thought gv would jump on this news!?