Sri Lanka Journalists Still on Edge After Lasantha's Death

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By Amantha Perera
Thursday, January 7th, 2010
LW Time

Lasantha

A year after the murder of the prominent Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, the island's independent media is still under siege. An investigation into Wickrematunge's death has gone nowhere, and at least half a dozen other journalists, including his widow, have left the country in fear since his death.

I began my career as a writer at the Leader, and the seasoned editor's passion was infectious. His writing style and exposés were not for the faint-hearted. There were many fans and an equal number of critics who felt that theLeader's brand of journalism was salacious. But all agreed that he had brought something totally new to Sri Lankan media. He was threatened, sued and beaten up, and his house was fired at with automatic weapons. Still, he kept going.

Wickrematunge, who was also a freelance reporter for TIME, was shot on Jan. 8, 2009, while driving to work. His car was followed by two motorcycles, which blocked his path as the gunmen shot him through the driver-side window, when he was just five minutes away from his office. He was rushed to the hospital but died after surgery. Wickrematunge was a staunch critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, and his murder came in the middle of the government's final offensive to crush the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The government did not brook any criticism of its conduct of the war, but even since declaring victory last May things are little improved for journalists.

The exodus of journalists and media activists from Sri Lanka has been partly due to the failure of the murder investigation to make any progress. Soon after the shooting, police recovered the mobile phone used by Wickrematunge that had gone missing after he was taken to the hospital. Since then there has been no real breakthrough, though the investigation has been taken over by the Criminal Investigation Department. There have been no arrests so far, nor are there any suspects. Journalists from Sri Lanka's minority Tamil ethnic community have long felt under threat, but Wickrematunge's death sent a clear signal that even journalists from the majority Sinhala community, like Wickrematunge, were not safe.

In August 2009, eight months after Wickrematunge's murder, Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Tissainayagam was sentenced to 20 years in prison when he was found guilty of aiding terrorism. Later that year, Poddala Jayantha, a prominent media-rights activist, left the country due to ongoing threats. "It is not only where the Lasantha Wickrematunge investigation has progressed, but also where all the investigation into the assassinations, assaults and intimidation of journalists have progressed," says Lakshman Gunasekera, president of the national chapter of the media-rights group South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA). "The manner the investigation has moved does not give any reason to feel safe. Things have improved, but most certainly I would not advise those in exile to return just yet."

Wickrematunge was one of the loudest and most persistent critics of the administration of Rajapaksa. Although he considered Rajapaksa an old friend, he criticized him over the conduct of the war and lack of safety for the civilians trapped by the fighting. A posthumous editorial that appeared in the Sunday Leader, the paper that Wickrematunge founded, immediately after his murder addressed Rajapaksa directly: "In the wake of my death, I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too." The widely circulated piece sent shockwaves beyond Sri Lanka. "You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch," it read.

The widespread condemnation of Wickrematunge's murder did little to change the restrictions on the media. For months after the civil war was declared over, journalists were not permitted to travel to or report in the former conflict zone in the island's north, and they still need permission to visit camps where those displaced by the war remain, or to speak with those who have returned to their former villages. Similar authorization is required to visit and write on the accelerated development and resettlement process now under way in the Vanni, the former conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka.

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