I have known several journalists in the past 35 years. Of the many, I rank Lasantha Wickrematunge in the top three of the most courageous. Lasantha was consistently subjected to legal harassment and acts of violence and intimidation since he co-founded The Sunday Leader in 1994, together with his brother Lal.
Lasantha Wickrematunge joined journalism in 1980 as sub editor of the Sun newspaper. He continued his career at the Island, where he became news editor. In 2000 he was a recipient of the first ever Integrity Award from Transparency International.
He was such a thorn in the side of those in power, he was constantly tailed. He told me once he would start the day around 4am because at that time the streets would be deserted and anyone following him could be noticed quite soon! He knew the dangers he faced and lived with it. Even so, his partner told me they had planned to move their country of residence and had chosen the house where they would shift before he was tragically murdered.
I knew him as a friend. It was tough seeing him still at home before the funeral. The investigation into his death still continues which shows the extent of the lengths taken in the attempts to cover the tracks of his assassins. The source of his death, however, is now common knowledge.
This is how his wife, Sonali Samarasinghe, described their last minutes together. “On 8 January 2009, he and I knew we were being followed. We attended to some work in the morning and he then dropped me home, advising me to come to office in my own car. We still had to attend to some domestic matters but he wanted to address the grave situation and also get to office quickly to start on his Suranimala column. I begged him not to go as we had already been alerted about the thugs and to at least allow me to come with him. But he was adamant and determined. Later I got to know he called many people along the way to inform them he was being followed.
“It wasn't 10 minutes after we parted that I got the call I had always dreaded. My fingers hurriedly slid over my phone digits as I hastened to call him, more in hope than anything else. In my haste I pressed a wrong button. On the screen appeared a message I had received from Lasantha just hours before.
‘Wifey,’ it said, ‘I love you.’"
The High Commission of India went on to say, “This deplorable incident comes in the wake of the series of attacks on and intimidation of media organisations and personalities in Sri Lanka including the recent bombing of the studios of Maharaja TV. We hold media freedom as an essential element of any democracy and such attacks are detrimental to the idea of democratic freedom in Sri Lanka.”
The World Bank called for an investigation. It said, “The World Bank expressed grave concern about the growing incidents of violent attacks on the media in Sri Lanka, including the brutal killing of several journalists. Free and independent media is fundamental to the sustainable economic development of Sri Lanka.
Violence against media has a profoundly negative impact on the ability of the media to fulfill its core watchdog function and to carry out its role as a medium of accountability and reflection of the citizens’ voice.”
The British High Commission statement, read, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the continuing acts of violence and intimidation against the media in Sri Lanka, including the attack on 6 January on the MTV headquarters and the killing of the chief editor of The Sunday Leader.”
The United States strongly condemned the murder of The Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and the 5 January attack on Sirasa TV. They said, “These deplorable acts mark the latest in a series of attempts to quell independent voices in Sri Lanka. The murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge is a shocking blow to the independent media in Sri Lanka. This is the second attack in 48 hours against individuals or media outlets and just the latest in a string of incidents against journalists.”
The European Union condemned the killing. The statement by European Commissionerfor External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, read, "I was deeply shocked to learn about today’s assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the chief editor of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader newspaper. This attack comes just two days after a privately-owned television station was attacked and set on fire and follows several incidents of harassment and threats to journalists in Sri Lanka that have occurred over recent months. Our concerns about the freedom of the media, already under severe pressure from assaults and intimidation, have been exacerbated by the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge.”
“Thus ended the saga of one of the bravest human beings I have ever known,” wrote DBS Jearaj, a columnist for The Daily Mirror. “Thus ended the life of a fearless scribe, crusading for justice and peace. An irredeemable loss for journalism and Sri Lanka. Cry, the beloved Country!!”
Vijitha Yapa, a former newspaper editor and owner of the country’s largest bookstore chain, wrote in The Sunday Times: “When they shot him, did they not realise that it is not red blood which would pour out of his body but blue ink.”
These are but a few of the tributes and show the measure of the man and his influence not only in his home country but overseas.
But it does raise some bleak questions that can transcend the Sri Lankan context: Do political convictions have a place in one’s work? Are truth-telling fellow journalists at risk? Are there stories worth giving one’s life for?
* Jeevan Thiagarajah is Chairman, Centre for Humanitarian Affairs, Colombo, Sri Lanka