Jan 9, 2009

Personality - Lasantha Wickrematunge;Dying for Journalism

Jyoti Thottam

Lasantha Wickrematunge, one of Sri Lanka's leading journalists, a freelance reporter for TIME and an outspoken critic of the Sri Lankan government, was shot this morning as he drove to work in Colombo, his country's capital. He later died of his injuries.

The attack, by two gunmen on motorcycles in the middle of morning rush hour traffic, was brazen even by the standards of Sri Lanka. The country has suffered through more than 25 years of war between the government and a Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which pioneered the use of suicide bombers. Wickrematunge wasn't far from his home in Colombo South when he was approached some time between 10 and 11 am by the two gunmen, who blocked his car and shot him in the head and chest; he was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died shortly after 2 p.m. local time.

His death has galvanized the growing anger among the press and other civil society groups in Sri Lanka about restrictions on free expression in the country and intimidation of the media. Just two days earlier, the offices of Sri Lanka's largest private broadcasting company were attacked in the middle of the night. "What has happened to Lasantha Wickrematunge today is an absolute atrocity," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a research group based in Colombo, who added that the two attacks were linked, part of a plan to silence Sri Lanka's few independent media voices. "Those who are doing it it want to stifle dissent and destroy democracy in this country."

Wickrematunge, who was trained as a lawyer, started the Sunday Leader with his brother almost on a whim. Over dinner last week, he told me that he intended, at first, to get the newspaper off the ground and then return to the law, but he couldn't get enough of the thrill of journalism. And so it was especially frustrating for him to be prevented from running pictures or firsthand reporting from the war zones in northern Sri Lanka. The government claims that the 25-year-old war is finally approaching an end — an event that any journalist would be eager to cover — but it has refused to allow reporters or photographers regular access to the war zone, or to those areas where an estimated 230,000 people have been stranded amid the shelling.

Even more than the war, Wickrematunge's specialty at the Leader was no-holds-barred, occasionally salacious stories alleging corruption and self-dealing among the powerful. No matter who the ruling party was, all officials were his potential targets; and, Wickrematunge believed, he had become theirs. His paper's stories and editorials about the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current Sri Lankan president, have been particularly controversial. The newspaper is fighting a defamation lawsuit by the defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is also the president's brother, over a series of articles in the Leader alleging corruption. The Sri Lankan government has denied that it is responsible for the attack on Wickrematunge and has called for an investigation.

The Sunday Leader's motto is "Unbowed and Unafraid" and it's a good reflection of its editor's philosophy. Wickrematunge had been worried over the last few days that he was being followed, but that had not diminished his enthusiasm for the next big story. I spoke to him less than an hour before the gunmen appeared, and he was full of ideas. It will be up to the staff at the Leader — including his wife, who is also a journalist with the paper — to continue that work. I spoke to a staffer who was waiting at the hospital during his surgery, and she said a group of her colleagues had decided to go back to the office before they knew whether their mentor and friend would survive. "We have to get the newspaper out," she said. I can't think of a more fitting tribute.

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