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Sri Lanka: Questions Surrounding Slain Journalist's Death Persist

Lasantha Wickrematunge, investigative journalist and editor of the Sunday Leader, was buried in a Colombo cemetery on Monday afternoon after being shot in broad daylight on his way to work last week.

Wickrematunge and his paper were outspoken critics of the government's war against the LTTE and ran stories about corruption within the government. The Sunday Leader is also in the midst of a defamation suit brought forth by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The journalist's murder came only two days after an attack on the studios of Sirasa TV, a major broadcast network in Sri Lanka.

indi.ca photo of the funeral procession for Lasantha Wickramatunga
Funeral Procession for Lasantha Wickramatunga, Photo by Indi.ca, used under a Creative Commons license

Nalaka Gunawardene describes the mood of the funeral on Moving Images, Moving People!.

This afternoon, family, friends and many sorrowful admirers of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the courageous Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was brutally slain last week in broad daylight, took him there — and left him behind amidst the quiet company.

But not before making a solemn pledge. All thinking and freedom-loving people would continue to resist sinister attempts to turn the rest of Sri Lanka into a sterile zombieland where there is no discussion and debate.

Indi at indi.ca posted photos and comments from the funeral procession. On YouTube, the Vikalpasl channel has seen a surge in viewers since posting videos about the murder and subsequent protests.

The brazen murder has revived debates in Sri Lanka's English-language blogosphere about the role of the government in silencing its critics, the state of journalism on the island and the conflict itself.

An unsigned editorial in Wickrematunge's voice that ran in the Sunday Leader this weekend is being reproduced and cited across the Web. Former South Asia correspondent Peter Foster extols the editorial and the slain journalist's work in his Daily Telegraph blog.

His death – conveniently obscured in the news agenda abroad by events in Gaza and at home by Sri Lankan army's gains against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in the Elephant Pass – sounds the death knell for civil society in Sri Lanka.

Just like all the other state-sanctioned killings in Sri Lanka, the promised investigation will be an unholy sham. His killers won't be caught and ‘we'll never know', who did it.

However Mr Wickrematunge, writing from the grave (see below), is in no doubt who was behind his murder: the Rajapakse regime and its lawless proxies.

But bloggers are questioning if Wickrematunge actually wrote the piece before he succumbed to his injuries, or if it was written by someone else. In Mutiny calls the editorial “one of the best pieces of writings we have seen in a while in Sri Lanka” but also points out that it is “not immediately clear who wrote the article.” Jack Point on Court Jester calls the editorial's authenticity into question.

I am of course, open to correction – will someone in the know clarify the position? If indeed he wrote it, it would be truly prophetic and a fitting tribute to the man, otherwise it looks like a piece creative writing, a piece of theatre, something that defined that newspaper.

Moving Images blogger Nalaka Gunawardene writes in Himal South Asian:

I have no idea which one – or several – of his team members actually penned this ‘Last Editorial', but it reads authentic Lasantha all over: passionate and accommodating, liberal yet uncompromising on what he held dear. I can't discern the slightest difference in style.

And there lies our hope: while Lasantha at 51 lies fallen by bullets, his spirit and passion are out there, continuing his life's mission. That seems a good measure of the institutional legacy he leaves behind. If investigative journalism were a bug, the man has already infected at least a few of his team members…

Reporters Without Borders said in a press release 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.” Comment areas are being quickly filled with debates about the merits of such allegations; on the citizen journnalism site Groundviews former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United Nations, Dayan Jayatilleka, entered the fray.

Groundviews editor Sanjana Hattotuwa comments on the government's inaction and a forgotten committee that was formed to hear journalists’ grievances.

On both counts [the murder of Wickramatunge and attack on the MBC/MTV station], the Rajapakse administration points to some mysterious armed force hell bent on discrediting the government. It has done what it does best – expressed outrage, ordered a full investigation and appointed a committee to investigate the attacks.

Yet it conveniently forgets that the Cabinet subcommittee to look into the grievances of journalists set up in June 2008 is largely forgotten today. No one knows whether it exists, how to reach it, what it does, or came up with as recommendations to protect journalists.

Indi.ca calls for journalists to take a cue from the ministers and protect themselves by learning self defense seeking protection from the larger community.

Wickrematunge was not universally accepted as a journalist of record. Many prominent bloggers disagreed with much of his writing and called his reports salacious. Still, they often mourn his death and call for justice for the sake of free expression. On Groundviews, author Lionel Bopage writes:

My obvious political differences with Lasantha do not prevent me from appreciating his personal, political and journalistic qualities as a leader in the island’s media industry. He was fearless and was willing to boldly uncover and critically expose in no uncertain terms what he believed to be the truth. His assassination is a tragic loss to the people of Sri Lanka as a whole.

Significant military gains in recent weeks are a big story in Colombo; blogger Cerno says that this should trump news of the attacks on media.

The recent murder of the Sunday Leader editor and attack on Sirasa TV is taking up too much attention from the brave achievements of driving back the LTTE. That war isn’t over yet. There is a hard fight ahead. Then comes the harder part of making the peace happen, one second at a time so that our grand kids (should we have any) won’t have to deal with this shit. Aren’t we a lucky lot ?

  • Pingback: Readers Edition » Sri Lanka: Ein getöteter Journalist und viele offene Fragen

  • Indik#

    Thank you for the invitation but i con’t english very well.futility of this war economy of the country has suffered wer has had a drastic hegative we need peace vital

  • coldrain

    On behalf of the Pakistani people, I would like to apologize to all Sri Lankans for the tragedy that has taken place. Our Sri Lankan friends were very kind to come over to Pakistan, when other teams had refused. Prayers for the family members of the players that have been injured. We love your team and hope that one day things will be normal in our country and you will be able to come back again.

  • Pingback: Sri Lanka and its long war | (Insert Witty Title Here)

  • David

    Wickrematunge’s death is definitely a blow to the role of the media in Sri Lankan society. The effects of this will be felt for many years to come. The importance of the press in a thriving democracy can not be understated.

    However, there is a well defined line between reporting the news and getting involved politically.. which at least in Sri Lanka tends to happen across many professions. History shows that playing with politics on the island comes with a strong potential of a violent death. Wickrematunge unfortunately didnt appreciate the fine line he was crossing. He is guilty of associating within dangerous political circles and ultimately paying with his life for it. I would not classify him as a simple journalist but an influential player in local politics.

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