Brother of murdered Sri Lankan editor: Yours are the standards we look to

| by Dominic Ponsford

( July 3, 2013, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) In a world in which journalists are killed every week for no other reason than that they sought to report the truth, it is easy to become numbed to the slaughter.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 25 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 1992 and it has confirmed that 19 of these were killed because of their work.

One of those victims, Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, is a name which has become famous around the world, because he had the extraordinary presence of mind to leave an editorial on his computer with instructions that it be published in the event that he was murdered.

‘And Then They Came for Me’ is a piece of writing which is now quoted by journalism schools. Cynical hacks and fresh-faced students alike should be inspired by 49-year-old Lasantha’s explanation of what it means to be a journalist. “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism…

“Why then do we do it? I often wonder that.

“After all, I too am a husband,and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism.

“Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness
knows it offers a better and safer livelihood.

“Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. “Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have

offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. “Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

“But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”

After a career in journalism
which had been dogged by official
intimidation, Lasantha knew who
would be behind his murder. He
wrote: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

I met Lasantha’s brother, Lal
Wickrematunge, when he stopped
off in London on his way to Toronto
for an annual trip to visit his
mother, father and three sisters.
Lal was the owner of the Sunday
Leader and his brother’s partner
in various court cases and legal
battles with the authorities.

Four and a half years on, there
has yet to be conviction for
Lasantha’s murder. This is hardly
a surprise in a country, Lal says,
where no one has been convicted of
the killing of a journalist in recent

Two men were arrested for
Lasantha’s murder: an army
intelligence officer and a garage

Evidence from mobile phone
networks narrowed the suspects
down to five simcards, Lal says, all
five of which were bought by the
garage mechanic. He claimed he
had lost his national ID card and
the sims were bought by someone

Lal says that in evidence the army
intelligence officer claims he was
promised by an army commander that he would be “taken care of”
after Lasantha’s death.

The mechanic died in prison “of
natural causes” at the age of 39, Lal
says. The army officer is free on
bail still awaiting trial.

The facts of Lasantha’s killing
leave no doubt that he was the
victim of a targeted assassination.
There were eight men on four
motorcycles who followed his car.
One of them broke a side window,
reached across and shot him
through the head with a bolt-gun
(the sort of device which used by
slaughtermen to kill animals by
firing a retractable bolt into their

Lal believes that his brother’s
killing was linked to the final
stages of the war in the north of Sri
Lanka against the separatist Tamil

“The war was being prosecuted to
its final stages without witnesses,”
he says.

“It was widely regarded that
Lasantha being the journalist he
was he could even obtain secret
reports about what was happening
on the front line.

“The whole style of the
newspaper was investigative

“After Lasantha was killed
everybody just clammed up.”
Lasantha was no stranger to

In the 15 years to 2009 that it has
been in existence the Sri Lankan
authorities had often tried to
silence the Sunday Leader.
Lal says of his brother: “He was
shot at, he was physically assaulted,
our presses were set on fire
twice, we were shut down under
emergency regulations which went to court and we fought successfully.
“He was arrested under the
prevention of terrorism act. But he
carried on.

“We felt that we should not be

He says that he was taken to
court by politicians many times
alongside Lasantha.

Lal still owns a 30 per cent stake
in the Sunday Leader but says that
sales have dropped from around
48,000 a week under Lasantha’s
editorship to less than half that
figure now.

Since his brother’s death he says
that Sri Lankan journalists have “all
resorted to self-censorship”.
“Nobody goes far enough to
criticise the government or the
ruling family,” he says.

“What Lasantha felt was that
the fourth estate first has to make
sure that the information which is
required by the people is brought
before them so they can self
govern. That was his goal.
“Some day when we have a
benevolent leader running the
country he or she will restore that

Asked what message he has for journalists in the UK, Lal urges us not to take our freedom for granted.
“Journalists are not on a wageearning scale which is compatible with other professions, but they
stay there because of the position they have and the work they do.

“It is a like the teaching profession, it becomes more or less a vocation after a while… “Those who are in safer climates
must keep the drum beating because these are the standards that other journalists in troubled areas look to.”