Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the major Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Leader and a vocal critic of the Sri Lankan government, was killed by unidentified gunmen on Thursday as his car was stopped in traffic in Colombo, the nation's capital.
Wickramatunga was rushed to the hospital and died after three hours of surgery. The gunmen escaped on motorcycles.
Wickramatunga, 52, had received death threats before. His in-depth coverage of government corruption put him under pressure throughout his career with the anti-establishment newspaper.
The killing of Wickramatunga has brought new attention to the threats and violence that Sri Lankan journalists endure. The country is one of the world's most dangerous for reporters. Now, with prominent coverage of the story of his death, the Sri Lankan government faces new pressure to ensure the safety of its media.
From The Guardian:
The Sunday Leader is locked in a legal battle with the president's brother, Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is suing the newspaper for defamation over stories it published alleging corruption, Reuters reported. Rajapaksa has denied any wrongdoing.
From the BBC:
[Wickramatunga] was prosecuted for criminal libel of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2000, but escaped serious punishment.
Correspondents say that while some of his stories verged on the salacious, others exposed high-level corruption - he recently reported on an arms procurement deal with Russia in which it was alleged that government ministers were receiving financial "kick-backs".
The Hindu reported that the U.S. and India, two of Sri Lanka's allies, made statements condemning the murder. Agence France-Presse reported that in Colombo, "hundreds of Sri Lankan journalists took to the streets Friday to protest." One news site, LankaDissent.com, closed down in protest of Wickrmatunga's death.
On Thursday, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa released a statement condemning the crime and ordered an investigation of the killing of a man he called "a close friend" and "courageous journalist":
"This heinous crime points to the grave dangers faced by ... our country, and the existence of forces that will go to the furthest extremes in using terror and criminality to damage our social fabric and bring disrepute to the country," he said.
Asked to comment on the killing, former SAJA president and Time magazine South Asia Bureau Chief Jyoti Thottam told SAJAForum:
Lasantha's death has shaken everyone in Sri Lanka who believes in the ideal of democracy and free expression. This attack is the most brazen of many recent attacks on journalists, and there is a real fear that the space for dissent and independent reporting about the war and the government is shrinking almost to nil.
About Lasantha personally, she added:
I got to know him recently, but he has been a regular freelance reporter for Time for several years. He had amazing contacts—even among those who didn't always like his stories—and he was patient and perceptive in helping explain the long and complex politics of the conflict in Sri Lanka. He was warm and gracious, and his death is a great loss.
Veteran Sri Lankan-American journalist and SAJA member Thalif Deen, UN bureau chief of Inter Press Service, told SAJAforum:
Wickramatunga's funeral will be held tomorrow in Colombo.
Sanjana Hattotuwa of Groundviews (a panelist on SAJA's Sri Lanka webcast #2) pointed SAJAForum to a "pithy" comment on his site's thread about this topic, by former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Read her exchange with Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, here.
Wickrematunga's killing followed last Tuesday's attack on the MBC group, the largest private TV broadcaster in the country. The media group had also been criticized and called unpatriotic for its coverage of the government's war against the rebel Tamil Tigers.
Human Rights Watch has condemned the attacks on the media and deems it a threat to the democracy of Sri Lanka as a whole. From the HRW Web site:
"Sri Lanka prides itself as a functioning democracy. Yet media freedom, a vital pillar of democracy, has increasingly come under attack," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should not take its recent military victories as a signal that it can stifle dissent."
In November, Amnesty International said at least 10 journalists have been killed in the past two years.
Reporters in Sri Lanka continue to face attacks and threats.
See coverage of and/or statements from other journalists and journalists' organizations here:
- Nepali journalists
- Commonwealth Journalists' Association
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- The Sunday Leader's coverage of their editor's life and death
- CNN on Sri Lankan president makes conspiracy claims
- ColomboPage on
Reveal the conspiracies, Sri Lanka opposition leader demands
- ColomboPage on Sri Lanka's opposition to brief diplomats on media threats
Sanjana Hattotuwa and others addressed attacks on the media in Sri Lanka in SAJA's Sri Lanka Briefing #2: After the Fall of Kilinochchi.
UPDATE: AFP via Google on Row over Sri Lanka editor's murder grows as diplomat censured
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