Lasantha Wickrematunge

Last updated

Lasantha Wickrematunge
Born
Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge

5 April 1958
Died8 January 2009(2009-01-08) (aged 50)
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Other namesSurnimala
Education St. Benedict's College, Colombo
Alma mater Law, University of Colombo
Occupationjournalist and politician
Organization The Sunday Leader
Spouse(s)
    Raine Wickrematunge
    (m. 1985;div. 2007)
      Sonali Samarasinghe
      (m. 2008)
ChildrenAvinash Wickrematunge
Ahimsa Wickrematunge
Aadesh Wickrematunge
Parents
  • Harris Wickrematunge (father)
  • Chandra Wickrematunge (mother)
Website www.thesundayleader.lk

Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge (5 April 1958 – 8 January 2009) was a Sri Lankan journalist, politician and human rights activist who was assassinated in January 2009.

Contents

Wickrematunge was the founder of The Sunday Leader and Leader Publications alongside his brother and was known for taking "governments of all hues to task", was a "virulent critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government", and had been "locked in a legal battle with the president's brother, defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was spearheading the battle against the LTTE rebels.

Wickrematunge's assassination caused a national frenzy being the country's most influential media personnel and one of the biggest political figures and raised questions about freedom of expression in the country. Wickrematunge's murder was widely condemned across the world. The Daily Mirror called it the "biggest blow" to media freedom in Sri Lanka, and the Editors Guild held the government responsible for the killing as it has failed to stop attacks against media personnel. The government also expressed shock at the killing, pledging to do everything in its power to catch his killers. Wickrematunge had been on Amnesty International's endangered list since 1998, when anti-tank shells were fired on his house.

Early life

Lasantha Wickrematunge was the youngest of six born in Kotahena Colombo to Chandra and Harris Wickrematunge, a prominent politician, who had served as a municipal councillor for 30 years and was former deputy mayor, Wickrematunge was the grandnephew of George E. de Silva and Agnes de Silva and cousin of Fredrick de Silva and Minnette de Silva. In his childhood Wickrematunge attended St Benedict's College where he excelled at cricket. Wickrematunge spent his adolescence in Britain, where he graduated high school and eventually returned to Sri Lanka, where he started law school.

Career

Political career

Wickrematunge began his career as a lawyer, practicing as a defense attorney for eight years. [1] [2] Whilst practicing law, Wickrematunge made his way into the political scene before entering into journalism starting with the Island and Sun newspapers. Wickrematunge ran for election from a Colombo seat with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and then became the private secretary to the world's first female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Wickrematunge then crossed parties moving to the United National Party and was advisor to Ranil Wickremasinghe and was often dubbed as the De facto opposition leader [2]

Journalism

In 1994 Wickrematunge started the Sunday Leader with his brother Lal Wickrematunge. [1] [3] He reported critically on both the government and the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels, [4] and the Leader soon "became well known as the island's best independent newspaper". [5] He later stated that once the paper was started, he had intended to return to law, but found himself unwilling to give up journalism's excitement. [1] He was also a reporter for Time magazine and was a political commentator and hosted several programs including Good Morning Sri Lanka. [6]

The paper quickly drew threats and attacks for its reporting on corruption by government ministers. In 1995, men pulled Wickrematunge and his first wife, Raine, out of their car and attacked them with clubs. Raine later stated that the death threats became part of the routine of their lives: "There were so many threatening calls. 'We are going to kill you. We are going to kill your children.'" [7] In 2000, the government tried Wickrematunge for criminal libel of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, but Wickrematunge received no major penalties. [8] In 2002, Raine left him due to the constant threats against their family, taking their three children to Australia. [7]

The Leader was particularly critical in its coverage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. [1] In 2008, Mahinda Rajapaksa, furious over the paper's reporting, called Wickrematunge and shouted at him that he would be killed if the paper's coverage did not change; [7] the president had also described him as a "terrorist journalist". [9] Later, after the assassination of Wickrematunge the paper was allegedly bought over by a Rajapaksa associate and an unconditional apology was made to Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for publishing a series of reports suggesting that he had made corrupt arms deals. [10] [11] [12]

In the weeks before Wickrematunge's death, a funeral wreath was delivered to him, as well as a copy of the newspaper reading "If you write you will be killed" in red paint. [7]

In an editorial Wickrematunge had written shortly before his death, and that was published posthumously, he stated, "When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me." [13]

Death

Wickrematunge was shot while he was on his way to work around 10:30 a.m. on 8 January 2009 few days before he was supposed to give evidence about Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's corruption in arms deals before a judge. [14] [15] Four armed assassins riding motorcycles blocked Wickrematunge's vehicle before breaking open his window and shooting him. [16] He was taken to the Colombo South General Hospital (Kalubowila). It was initially planned with a helicopter on standby to transfer him to the Colombo National Hospital. A specialist team of 20 of medical personnel were called in for the surgery. Despite surgery lasting nearly three hours, Wickrematunge died from his head wounds. [8]

International reaction

Wickrematunge's assassination caused an international outcry. Reporters Without Borders said that "Sri Lanka has lost its more talented, courageous and iconoclastic journalists," and said that "President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press". [17] President Mahinda Rajapaksa described the assassination as an attempt to discredit the government and said he was both grieved and shocked and stated that he had instructed a thorough police inquiry and called the assassination an international conspiracy. [18] The opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe observed that it was part of an anti-democratic conspiracy and accused the government of attempting to silence its critics. [19] The United National Party, Sri Lanka's main opposition party, also staged a demonstration in the parliament on 9 January to protest his killing. [20] [21] The assassination was condemned by Norway, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, India and Japan, the United Nations strongly condemned the assassination while the World Bank expressed its concerns over the attack. [22] President Mahinda Rajapaksa told Time (magazine) about Wickrematunge: "He was a good friend of mine. He had informed somebody to inform me that he was in danger. But unfortunately, I didn't get that message. I would have told him to go to the nearest police station. No one knows what happened."The British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said in a statement and condemned the killing of Wickrematunge and said that it was the duty of the authorities to take prompt action into these incidents.

"We condemn such brazen attacks. Of particular concern was the murder, on 8 January, of the Chief Editor of The Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickrematunge. The Sri Lankan authorities have a duty to take prompt action to ensure that a thorough and independent investigation is carried out", he said.

In a statement ahead of World Press Freedom Day Ban Ki Moon called on the government of Sri Lanka to ensure that those responsible for Lasantha Wickrematunge's murder are found and prosecuted. Time (magazine) called his death "A personal loss to Time" Wickrematunge's widow of 13 days, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, fled the country a month after Wickrematunge's death and now calls herself an editor in exile.

Investigation

After denying all responsibility for the attack Rajapaksa government called for an investigation. Despite intense media pressure, no one was arrested, and Sri Lankan media speculated that the murder investigation may "end up as a cover-up", and that safeguards for an independent media appears bleak. [23] [24] [25]

After Mahinda Rajapaksa's defeat at the presidential election in 2015, the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena reopened the investigation over allegations that former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered the assassination. [26] [27] [28]

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the former Prime Minister, accused Sarath Fonseka, the former army commander, of the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2008 and 2009. [29] [30] In 2011, the former MP Rajiva Wijesinha told BBC Sinhala Service that the British High Commission in Colombo had told him it possessed evidence that former military chief Gen Sarath Fonseka was involved in the assassination of the Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickremetunge. [31] According to Sarath Fonseka the order for the assassination was given by Gotabaya [32]

In 2016 a retired intelligence officer committed suicide and left a note claiming he is the killer and the intelligence officers that were arrested in investigating are innocent. [15] [33]

U.S Lawsuit

In April 2019 Wickrematunge's daughter Ahimsa Wickrematunge filed a civil lawsuit against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the state of California. Wickrematunge's daughter's lawsuit alleged that Rajapaksa was behind his death.

Awards

In 2009, Wickrematunge posthumously won the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. [3] He was also awarded the Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation [2] the James Cameron Memorial Trust Award, and the American National Press Club's John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award. [34]

In 2010, Wickrematunge was declared a World Press Freedom Hero of the International Press Institute. [35]

In 2016 the East West Center, Hawaii conferred the 2016 Courageous Journalism Award on Lasantha.

Posthumous editorial

Following his death, the Sunday Leader carried a posthumous editorial [36] by Wickrematunge, in which he blamed the government directly [37] for assassinating journalists as its "primary tool" for controlling the media. He wrote:

"No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last." [36]

The editorial meditated on why Wickrematunge continued his reporting despite threats to his life: "After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice. But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy". [36]

The editorial's publication caused a "furor" in the nation, with thousands of mourners turning out for Wickrematunge's funeral. [37]

Bibliography

Books

See also

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References

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