Jan 16, 2009

World - Sri Lankan Editor’s murder puts government in the dock

B. Muralidhar Reddy

COLOMBO: Pressure continues to mount on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to bring to book those behind the assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga, Editor of Sunday Leader and a fierce critic of the government, on January 8.

Failure of the authorities to make any headway into the investigation a week after the murder has not only strengthened suspicions of possible involvement of elements within the establishment in the crime but also overshadowed the impressive gains made by the military against the LTTE, including the capture of Kilinochchi on January 2 and the Elephant Pass on January 9.

The killing of Wickramatunga came two days after an attack on the studios of Maharaja Television, one of the largest television networks in the country, on January 6 by unidentified persons.

Wickramatunga’s in-depth investigations into corruption and nepotism in the government frequently made him the target of intimidation and lawsuits. Maharaja Television was labelled by pro-government elements as “unpatriotic” for its coverage of the government’s recent military campaigns.

On Thursday, representatives of civil society held a silent vigil here in protest against the assassination and other targeted attacks on the media.

What has particularly embarrassed the government is a note purportedly written by Wickramatunga prior to his assassination in which he implicated elements in the establishment for threats to his life.

The note surfaced in the form of an editorial in Sunday Times on January 11. It is not immediately clear when he wrote it and who possessed it.

The operative portions read: “It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”.

“In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.”

While charges and counter charges of killings, abductions and attacks on media have become a common feature in Sri Lanka since the current phase of hostilities between the military and the LTTE began in July 2006, there is little doubt that no single incident has stirred so many sections of the people as the killing of Wickramatunga.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quick to condemn the murder as a heinous crime by elements out to diminish the significance of the military victories against the LTTE and discredit the government.

He had separate interactive sessions with Colombo-based foreign correspondents and the local media heads to emphasise that the government had everything to lose by targeting the media at a juncture when it was making spectacular progress in the war against terror.

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