Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

Killing dissent: Lasantha, violence and impunity

In a country where, it seems, shooting the messenger has become the norm, yet another journalist who sought to highlight everything that is wrong with Sri Lanka today, has been brutally gunned down.

Lasantha Wickramatunge is the latest victim of a long list of assassinations of media personnel in Sri Lanka, yet another sorry statistic which has made Sri Lanka one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to practice their profession, according to Reporters without Borders.

My obvious political differences with Lasantha do not prevent me from appreciating his personal, political and journalistic qualities as a leader in the island’s media industry. He was fearless and was willing to boldly uncover and critically expose in no uncertain terms what he believed to be the truth. His assassination is a tragic loss to the people of Sri Lanka as a whole. I take this occasion to convey my deepest sympathies to his family, friends and colleagues.

In the outstanding contribution he has made to Sri Lankan journalism over a comparatively short but eventful life, Lasantha took governments of all hues to task through his daring and unparalleled investigative reporting. He was a strong critic of the current government. He wrote recently about the war euphoria enveloping the country and warned of the danger of not addressing the aspirations of the Tamil people. Despite many attempts to silence him, he continued exposing what he believed to be misconduct and corruption by highly influential individuals. He did not allow his freedom to write to be limited by the ‘truths’ presented to the people.

The Government of Sri Lanka and the President have condemned this tragic murder in public and ordered an investigation. In the past few years there have been many similarly heinous assassinations carried out in Sri Lanka. Many parties and individuals including some who hold high positions have been blamed for these killings. In every such assassination, the government ordered investigations. However, very few perpetrators of such terrorist activities were ever brought to justice. When allegations were raised against those who were not in government, the process had been fairly swift, while when allegations were raised against those who were in government, the process had been extremely slow.

The government claims that investigations cannot proceed due to lack of witnesses; that those who have witnessed such assassinations have not come forward to provide any evidence. In the north and east the reason for this seems fairly obvious. Either, people did not know, or were too afraid to antagonize the various forces affiliated to the parties involved in the situation there. This situation extended to Anuradhapura and what happened afterwards is public knowledge which does not need to reiterate here. Setting fire to ‘Sirasa’ broadcasting station and assassinating Mr Lasantha Wickrematunga signifies the return of these terror tactics to the south of the island.

Naturally, questions arise in one’s mind: who are the parties or individuals, people in the south are afraid of accusing when such heinous incidents occur? We remember the historical parallels that existed in the 1988-89 period where various pro-government paramilitary groups and the notorious “Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya” silenced people.

Who were these groups? Who led them? Are many of those ring-leaders still in positions of power now?

The long list of assassination of media personnel include RK Ratnasingam in 1985, M. Amirthalingam and I. Shanmugalingam in 1986, Nithyananthan in 1987, Rajani Thiranagama and K. S. Rajah in 1989, Richard de Zoysa in 1990, Rohana Kumara and Nadarajah Atputharajah in 1999, Mylvaganam Nimalarajan in 2000, Aiyathurai Nadesan and Balanadarajah Iyer in 2004, Dharmaretnam (Taraki) Sivaram, Arasakumar Kannamuthu, Relangi Selvarajah, Manickam Kamalanathan and Yogakumar Krishnapillai in 2005, Subramaniam Sugirtharajan, Bastian George Sagayathas, S. Ranjith, Suresh Kumar, Rajiv Kumar, Sampath Lakmal de Silva, Mariathas Manojanraj, Sathasivam Baskaran and Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah  in 2006, S. T. Gananathan, Chandrabose Suthaharan, Selvarajah Rajivaram and Sahathevan Deluxshan in 2007, and P. Devakumaran, Mahendran Varadhan, and Rashmi Mohamed in 2008.

Obviously, all parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka have targeted media personnel.

Time and again, local and international organisations have called upon these parties to respect the rights of media personnel to report and inform on the happenings in the country.  

Governments of the time have been called upon to investigate all cases of attacks, disappearances and killings promptly, independently, impartially and effectively, irrespective of the identity of perpetrators or victims. Yet, despite pious pronouncements about democratic ideals and rights of free speech, these killers have been brought to justice only rarely.

Many journalists have fled their work areas and what is called news reporting in Sri Lanka today seems entirely dependent on what is dictated by the ruling faction.  

These assassinations and the repressive culture being imposed upon the Sri Lankan society, culminating with the killing of Mr Wickramatunga, should provide the impetus to stimulate all political forces and individuals in Sri Lanka and overseas, who are committed to protecting the human and democratic rights of its people, to come together and oppose this state of  fascism.

For the people of Sri Lanka, this latest assassination should serve as a timely reminder  of the immortal poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) on the inactivity of German intellectuals following the ascendency of Nazis to power and the targeting of people who did not adhere to their twisted philosophy;

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

It is the duty of every Sri Lankan, local and overseas to ensure that this does not happen.