Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sri Lankan government implicated in death of prominent critic

The death toll in Northern Sri Lanka’ 25 year old war has risen to 70,000 after the military captured two Tamil Tiger bases in a heavy air and ground assault. The hardline Colombo government has vowed to crush the separatist movement over the next few months after overrunning their administrative capital Kilinochchi a week ago. The government is also clamping down on internal critics and a heavy shadow has been cast over the country after the assassination of one of Sri Lanka's leading journalists last week. Lasantha Wickrematunge had been one of the country’s most prominent editors and was a scathing critic of government and military figures. On Thursday, he was shot repeatedly with an automatic pistol equipped with a silencer while driving to work in the capital and died of his wounds in hospital.

Wickrematunge was a freelance reporter for Time and the editor of popular Colombo weekly The Sunday Leader. The Leader was well known for being critical of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government. Wickrematunge founded the paper in 1994 with his brother and it quickly became one of the strongest voices for democracy in Sri Lanka. It spoke out against corruption, terrorism, organised crime and human rights violations. But it got in most trouble for its attitude to the war in the north. In a recent editorial, the paper accused the president of stepping up the war in order to stay in power. In return Rajapaksa called Wickrematunge a “terrorist journalist”. But Wickrematunge was more of a victim of terrorism. He had been subject to numerous threats and on two occasions he was brutally assaulted, while on another his house was sprayed with machine-gun fire.

Yesterday Wickrematunge’s niece Natalie Samarasinghe wrote an article in The Guardian defending her uncle’s legacy. She denied he acted against Sri Lankan interests, called him “a true patriot” and said he loved his county and was loyal to his principles. However she decried the lack of world attention to the brutal war going on in the country’s north. “Until justice is done and someone starts giving a damn about Sri Lanka, she said, “a nasty stain remains on the conscience of the world.”

Wickrematunge knew he was in danger. In the preceding weeks, he had received several threatening telephone calls. At home on the morning of his death he got a call from the Sunday Leader office that some people had observed suspicious activity and that he was being followed. However he was determined to go to office to commence writing his column and to take steps against this new threat. He never made it to the office. An eyewitness to the shooting said he saw motorbikes speeding off and people moving towards a parked car. When he approached the car he saw that the window on one side was smashed and the main windscreen was damaged. He looked into the vehicle and found a person lying across the two front seats. "I saw that he was finding it difficult to breathe. Then I called on some of the people standing around to carry him to a van that was there. We carried him into the van. He was bleeding heavily from the head," he said.

Wickrematunge was taken to hospital but died after three hours of extensive surgery. This weekend, his Sunday Leader newspaper printed his powerful final editorial where he foretold his own death. The article was entitled “and then they came for me” reflecting the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power. In it Wickrematunge knew his life was in danger but said the “call of conscience” demanded he continue his work to the end. The article even predicted what would happen after his death. “In the wake of my death I know you [President Rajapaksa] will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry,” he wrote. “But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too.”

Wickrematunge’s death is the latest in a long line of attacks against Sri Lankan media workers critical of the government. Amnesty International last year said that at least 10 journalists were killed in the last two years. It said that many more were abducted, detained or had disappeared. The state has also locked up some of its more vociferous critics. In December Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Sri Lanka government drop charges and free a prominent Tamil journalist on trial for his writings. J.S. Tissainayagam, a columnist with the Sunday Times newspaper, was arrested in March by the Terrorist Investigation Division and eventually charged for printing and distributing a pro-Tamil magazine and “aiding and abetting terrorist organisations”. HRW says that since 2006 the Rajapaksa Government has intimidated and silenced the media and any other dissenting views of the government's military policies.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on foreign ambassadors to “weigh in forcefully and immediately” with President Rajapaksa to stop the attacks on the nation’s media. Wickrematunge’s death came two days after an early morning assault on Maharaja TV (MTV) studios outside Colombo. 15 masked men shot at and destroyed broadcast equipment, held staff at gunpoint, and attempted to burn down the station's facilities after state media had called the station "unpatriotic" for its coverage of the war.

Reporters Without Borders also condemned Wickrematunge’s murder. They issued a statement which said Sri Lanka has lost “one of its more talented, courageous and iconoclastic journalists.” They warned that military victories against the Tamil Tigers must not be seen as a green light for death squads to “sow terror among government critics”, including outspoken journalists. “The international community must do everything possible to halt such a political vendetta,” they said. The last word belongs to the end of Lasantha Wickrematunge's extraordinary final message to his Sri Lankan audience. “Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.”

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