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And then there were none...

6 February 2009

N. Bibile considers the state of media freedom in Sri Lanka following the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge (pictured)

Winning the war? Then there must be elections around the corner. It is no secret that the war has become Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recipe for electoral success; but what surprises many is that he is able, time and time again, to persuade the Sri Lankan people – or at least his Sinhala-Buddhist constituency – that victory is but a gunshot away.


Thus began Lasantha Wickrematunge’s first Sunday Leader editorial for 2009. Under President Rajapaksa the Sri Lankan Army had made unprecedented gains against the Tigers, whose 25-year struggle for an ethnic Tamil homeland has claimed more than 70,000 lives. The army captured Killinochchi, the Tigers’ capital, on 2 January, and was on the brink of a conventional military victory as troops closed in on the rebels’ last outpost in Mullaitivu.

Lasantha was one of few people in the media who genuinely recognised and appreciated the innate pluralism of Sri Lanka and the need to arrive at a new social contract – a contract that would embrace the aspirations of all of the peoples of Sri Lanka. He was condemned and scorned by Sinhala extremists of the racial, religious and political kind and labelled a traitor and foreign stooge. On 8 January he was murdered, and Sri Lanka lost one of its most intrepid and iconoclastic journalists and editors. The attack occurred in rush-hour traffic, the assailants on motor bikes smashing the window of his car before shooting him at close range. He was rushed to a Colombo hospital where he died three hours later.

Lasantha’s fearless, forthright and uncompromising challenge irked many and he paid with his life. A member of the Sinhala elite, he was a one man army in which the pen was mightier than the sword. The first ever winner of the Transparency International Integrity Award, his investigative stories were meticulously researched and every point was backed up with documentation, whether he was writing about ice cream parlours, misuse of credit cards or arms purchases. He had exposed hundreds of corrupt deals involving politicians, officials, generals and businessmen. He and his team understood the dangers involved: he was threatened, beaten, shot at and sued, and his press set on fire and sealed.

If anything, the more Lasantha was threatened the more he wrote, with his urgency summed up in the poet Adrian Mitchell’s words: “I was run over by the truth one day. Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way.” With his high energy personality, everything about him was also about the art of the possible. Defying and daring a corrupt and dangerous government to come clean, he continued to publish – only to be damned. According to Sunday Leader sources, only a few weeks before he was killed a torn page of an edition of the newspaper had arrived by post. It was a critical story about the army’s march against the Tiger rebels in the north, headed “The capture of Killinochchi a media circus.” Across the page in red paint were the words: “liwwoth maranawa” (If you write on, you will be killed). With a dismissive gesture and his characteristic smile, Lasantha had instructed the editorial secretary to throw it into the dustbin.

Everyone in Sri Lanka is aware that the government is behind Lasantha’s death. The attack occurred in broad daylight about a hundred metres from an air force base. With army personnel staffing checkpoints dotted throughout the city, it seems extraordinary that unknown assailants could kill with impunity and escape justice, unless there is some degree of complicity. As on previous occasions, the usual sanctimonious speeches have been aired and commissions promised and appointed to investigate his death. But once again it is business as usual and no one will be held accountable.

In the wake of Lasantha’s death, the government has gone into damage control mode. The dean of the diplomatic corps in Colombo, German ambassador Juergen Weerth, was sharply criticised by the foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, for delivering an oration at the funeral. Weerth was summoned to the foreign ministry on 12 January where the foreign secretary “expressed Sri Lanka’s displeasure and concern over his remarks.” It did not matter that the contents of his speech (which ran for less than three minutes) were uncontroversial and indeed appropriate. “Maybe we should have spoken before this,” Weerth had said. “Today it is too late.” He then called on the government to investigate the killing and to prosecute the offenders.

In 1990, friend, fellow actor and human rights activist Richard de Zoysa was the first high-profile journalist to be abducted and shot. Richard was himself a member of the elite, the scion of two long established families, one Sinhala, the other Tamil. He was charismatic and outspoken in a constitutional democracy flawed by institutionalised exclusion and marginalisation. He exercised the freedom of speech that is guaranteed by law in the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka and yet denied in practice, and he was also a homosexual in a country where homosexuality remains unlawful. With extraordinary courage his mother, Dr Manorani Sarvanamuttu, began the Mother’s Movement to hold a government and its killers accountable for all sons, fathers, brothers and husbands “disappeared.” But to no avail. Richard’s death silenced much of the dissident minority and paved the way for more killings with impunity.

Over the subsequent two decades a steady stream of media personnel have disappeared, been tortured, incarcerated or killed. A disproportionately large number of Tamil journalists have also been killed. Despite such grave threats – from the political establishment, the military and the Tamil Tigers – sections of the media continue to report on the excesses of both the rebels and the state, exposing themselves to great danger.

As far back as 1988, the chosen instrument of the government and of the JVP (Sri Lanka’s pro-Marxist group), who were engaged in a bitter struggle for control, was the brutal clampdown on anyone with a dissenting voice. With the Tamil–Sinhala conflict simmering, the stage was set for the full force of repression as the government fought the Tigers in the north and disillusioned Singhalese youth in the south, who had fashioned themselves into an armed revolt.

Those who opposed the JVP or the government swiftly found themselves in very uncomfortable places. I remember the enormous pressure we were under when I was young not to criticise the indefinite closure of schools, either because the JVP had issued its word of mouth hartal or the government was tapping the phones of its citizens. In such a climate, voicing dissent about human rights abuse became an act of suicide. Voices of dissent “disappeared” with impunity; killer squads of varying groups began having a field day.

Lasantha came under surveillance and threat from 1994 when he began to write his weekly column recording political scandal and exposing government corruption. In 1995 he was dragged out of his car in a quiet residential street and beaten by thugs. On another occasion his home was shot at and grenades were thrown. So frequently did he and his family receive threats that his wife and children left the country. During an interview last October, according to a Reporters Without Borders representative in Colombo, President Rajapaksa called Lasantha a “terrorist journalist.” Lasantha in turn criticised “a government that routinely bombs its own people.”


Since the current government has come to power in 2006, nine journalists have been killed, twenty-seven physically assaulted and five abducted. It is a record by any standards. Sri Lanka was ranked 165th out of 173 countries in the world in Reporters Without Borders 2008 Press Freedom Index; the lowest ranking of any democratic country. Alarmed by this latest killing, the Hong Kong–based Asian Human Rights Commission released a statement which said: “[I]n any rule of law system stopping assassinations is achieved through prompt, efficient and credible inquiries into any such crime. For quite some time now in Sri Lanka inquiries into politically sensitive matters have turned out to be bogus, lacking seriousness and any will to uncover the crime.” Should the international community continue to recognise a regime that has failed to demonstrate the commitment, conviction and capacity to protect the rights of all of its citizens?

Lasantha’s outspoken and sustained challenge to each government more drunk with power than the previous one was despised and feared by those on whom his investigative pen landed. But then he always had great timing, his newspaper always exposing the scandals as they were happening or in their immediate aftermath. So current and accurate were the reports that those whom he exposed were frequently astounded by the vivid detail and acute inside information. He peppered his many scandal exposures with mischievous inside information – even describing elaborate meals in some government officials’ homes or quarters, laying bare the ridiculous indulgence and waste at the taxpayer’s expense. His second wife, herself a senior investigative journalist, has vowed to carry on the fight. But as one comes to understand, a clear conscience and popularity are never good friends.

It is not a strange coincidence then that the man who always got his timing perfect, exposing scandals in a thoroughly corrupt and morally bankrupt government, foretold his own death in that pre-emptive editorial titled, “And Then They Came for Me,” written days before the murder. As his life and work have demonstrated, there is never a good or auspicious time for acting to stem the slide into an abyss. Democracy requires unwavering attention; it requires everyone to do something about it, in the present. No one should desist; no one should believe that this is an obligation that can be delegated.

For centuries, as Stanley Thambiah has noted, Sri Lankans have lived together and shared each other’s customs, food and kings. I believe the narcissism of nationalistic jingoism should not obscure the future that Lasantha saw, where every person of any ethnic origin could live in dignity in Sri Lanka. It will only be then that the majority Singhalese, who pride themselves in being the custodians of the dhamma (Buddhism), can truly say they have lived by the precepts that are important to this philosophy. And surely the majority Singhalese understand that a government that rules through the repression, murder and maiming of its own people is tantamount to the famous Sinhala proverb, watath niyarath goyam ka nam kata kiyanneda (if he who is supposed to protect has not done so, whom does one turn to?).

The Lasantha I knew was flamboyant and confident in the clarity of his conscience – a maverick who was humble only as an eccentric could be. But this article is not about a Lasantha Wickrematunge legacy – it is a call for international attention to the state of affairs in Sri Lanka, which appears to be sleepwalking into functional anarchy, where justice and democracy have become mere bywords of electoral rhetoric. Are we willing to take on the onerous task of individual responsibility, which requires us all to engage in political activity? Let us not delude ourselves that silence and disengagement are not political positions. •

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