Journalism Is A Deadly Business In Sri Lanka

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From the moment Lasantha Wickrematunge left home on the day he was murdered, he knew he was being tailed. The editor of Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Leader called a friend, who urged him to go immediately to a safe place. Lasantha refused, and replied that "at most I will be killed". He knew that by going to a safe place he would only be postponing his death for a few days. If a person decides to kill somebody, it will almost certainly happen. There is no safety for the civil population of Sri Lanka.

The moment I heard Lasantha was shot, I went to the Kalubowila hospital with the co-convenor of the Centre for Monitoring Elections Violence. On my way, I was reminded of the trip I took to the same hospital the day I heard that Rohana Kumara, editor of pro-opposition newspaper Santana had been shot. That day, I had been accompanied by Victor Ivan, editor of the influential Sinhala political weekly, Ravaya, who was also considered to be in great danger.

Rohana Kumara was shot dead on 7 September 1999, during the tail end of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first term. It happened during the regime’s most brutal crackdown on democracy and the free media. A minister who had been sidelined in her cabinet wanted to show publicly that he was shocked, and to secretly do something for the freedom and safety of journalists. I had discussions with him and paved the way for him to reconcile with Victor Ivan, then Convener of the Free Media Movement, whom he did not like much. This minister was then persuaded to take the lead in establishing a broad front to re-establish democracy in the country.

One evening during that period, the minister, Victor Ivan and I were at former prime ministerial secretary Hemasiri Fernando’s house, when I received a telephone call: "A journalist has been shot at Delkanda". Hemasiri made several phone calls and identified the journalist as Rohana Kumara.

"This is the work of Chandrika and [her media advisor]," said the minister.

That minister, who had been sidelined by Chandrika, and who had promised to come forward to safeguard democracy and media freedom, was none other than the present President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The accusation he levelled against Chandrika that day has boomeranged on him. At Lasantha’s funeral procession last month, the most common slogan people chanted was one accusing Rajapaksa of his murder.

Since Rajapaksa was elected in 2005, 17 journalists and media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka. Two years ago, when the Free Media Movement officially met the President, we requested that he bring the murderer of at least one journalist to trial — as a symbolic gesture of his taking the problem seriously. At a personal meeting a few months ago, I reminded him of that request. So far nothing has happened.

Rajapaksa called Lasantha Wickrematunge a "terrorist journalist" during an interview with Reporters Without Borders in October 2008. 

He said the same thing to me when I met with him at his house last September. After suggesting that Lasantha should be among the first journalists to leave the country, Rajapaksa called Lasantha a "kotiyek" (tiger) and criticised the head of MTV, Raja Mahendran, and several other prominent newspaper editors. After the meeting the President asked us to join him for dinner, but we politely declined.

The same night I phoned both Lasantha and Raja and told them what the President had told us.

After Lasantha was killed, the President released a statement calling Lasantha a close friend of his! Rajapaksa also claims that Lasantha and he had dinner together, among many other stories.

This sounds like the kind of dinner invitation extended to those marked out for assassination by the Mafia. I don’t know whether Lasantha had dinner with the Mafia or with Mahinda Rajapaksa, but I do know one thing: he never went to breakfast meetings with the President like all the other editors.

It seems that if a Sri Lankan journalist is to survive, he or she should never miss breakfast with the President.

New Matilda

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