Colombo, Peace and Conflict

The murder of Lasantha Wickremetunge and Sri Lanka’s future

Watch reactions to Lasantha’s murder in Sinhala here.

The Editor in Chief of the Sunday Leader and one of Sri Lanka’s best known journalists Lasantha Wickremetunge was murdered this morning en route to work. He was shot repeatedly and succumbed to his injuries at around 2.15pm. The murder of Lasantha comes just two days after after the arson attack against private TV broadcaster MBC / MTV networks that destroyed their Main Control Room and studios.

On both counts, the Rajapakse administration points to some mysterious armed force hell bent on discrediting the government. It has done what it does best – expressed outrage, ordered a full investigation and appointed a committee to investigate the attacks.

Yet it conveniently forgets that the Cabinet subcommittee to look into the grievances of journalists set up in June 2008 is largely forgotten today. No one knows whether it exists, how to reach it, what it does, or came up with as recommendations to protect journalists. Journalist J.S. Tissanaiyagam still languishes in jail on the most ludicrous charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government is silent on his plight and case, despite widespread local and international condemnation and calls for his release.

Coincidentally, Dayan Jayatilleke in conversation with me yesterday said that there is a right way and a wrong way to use violence. Clearly, there is some confusion in Sri Lanka about Dayan’s thesis and not just by the LTTE. If there are mysterious armed groups on the loose wantonly murdering journalists and vandalising private and independent media establishments, one must ask what the Government has done to protect the freedom of expression and media freedom from such violence.

In the context of a racist and brutish Lt. General Sarath Fonseka who is of the opinion that Sri Lanka ‘belongs’ to the Sinhalese (read Lt. General Sarath Fonseka: military dictator, saviour or both?) a President with his two brothers who basically run Sri Lanka with little regard for criticism against their policies, practices, statements and beliefs and the recent capture of Killinochchi which seems to be a trigger for violence against critical voices, we may as well write the obituary for media freedom and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.

As the Centre for Policy Alternatives noted in a Press Release today,

Tellingly, Sri Lanka has been repeatedly identified as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for independent journalists. This latest attack of one of Sri Lanka’s best known and most senior journalists confirms fears of a planned terror campaign against critical voices, conducted with complete impunity.

The legitimacy of the war against terror rests on government respecting the norms and values of democracy and human rights, of which the tolerance of criticism is a fundamental facet. Those responsible for this egregious violence are enemies of democracy and become terrorists themselves.

When those fighting terrorism mirror the enemy, the future of Sri Lanka looks increasingly bleak irrespective of how much of territory we gain from the LTTE. How many more journalists need to be murdered and independent media institutions attacked for us to realise this?