Journalism under the gun in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, violence is so endemic that it begins to feel routine. Since I arrived here four months ago to work as a reporter for a local newspaper, there have been at least half a dozen bombings, an aerial bombardment of a power plant by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) secessionist group, and a suicide bombing that killed three people and injured thirty-six.
This was just in the capital of Colombo, hundreds of kilometers from the battlefront, where the military has banned journalists from documenting its offensive against the LTTE rebels.
Since 1983, it’s estimated that as many as 80,000 people have been killed in the ongoing civil war between the largely Singhalese government and the ethnic Tamil LTTE, commanded by Velupillai Prabharakan. In recent months the Sri Lankan government has claimed victory after victory in the north and east of the country—but it’s unclear if these victories will be decisive after decades of bloodshed.
Despite all this, I have only felt unsafe in Sri Lanka on two occasions: attending a three-day conference celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Colombo Declaration—a document bringing Sri Lankan media together in support of press freedom and media responsibility—and attending the funeral of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the newspaper editor who was assassinated in Colombo on January 8.
The editor of the Sunday Leader, Wickrematunge had a reputation as a provocative, muckraking journalist, unafraid to criticize the government’s bloody military response to the LTTE. He also decried human rights offenses, against both Singhalese and Tamil citizens, committed by the LTTE and the military.
For writing these things, Wickrematunge was threatened throughout his career, and was even warned on January 8 by a household staff member that there were several suspicious looking characters on motorcycles lurking outside the house. Nevertheless, Wickrematunge decided to drive himself to work that day. Along the way, the motorcyclists surrounded his car and shot him multiple times at close range.
“I feel like I’m about to see what a bomb blast looks like first hand,” muttered another journalist as we watched nearly 10,000 people gather for Wickrematunge’s funeral procession. Some of the participants at the procession burned tires, others symbolically gagged themselves with red strips of cloth. Many held photographs of the editor lying dead on a hospital bed, after doctors had tried for three hours to save his life. As the procession neared Borella cemetery, where Wickrematunge’s body would be interred, mourners released hundreds of black balloons, staring at the sky to watch their ascent.
The intimidation, harassment, and killing of journalists here is common; fourteen have been murdered since 2006. A decade of government impunity, stemming from unchecked emergency regulations and sustained wartime nationalism, has caused countless other journalists to leave the country. In the aftermath of Wickrematunge’s murder, several more boarded planes or went into hiding.
But Wickrematunge’s assassination garnered a relatively incredible amount of foreign press coverage—partially because of a posthumous editorial written by Wickrematunge himself, in which he predicted his own death.
Entitled “And then they came for me,” Wickrematunge wrote that journalism was a profession whose “calling” is above “high office, fame, lucre and society. It is the call of conscience.” Addressing President Mahinda Rajapaksa directly, he wrote: “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.”
The editorial led to international headlines like these: “Sri Lankan editor points finger from the grave” (Ravi Nessman, AP); “Chronicle of a death foretold” (The Economist); “If you write you’ll be killed” (Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian).
National Public Radio’s Philip Reeves reported that Wickrematunge hoped fellow journalists would see his death not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration to intensify their efforts to expose the truth.
In the foreign press, Wickrematunge became a symbol of press freedom; his life a testament to the terrible costs journalists living in struggling democracies and oppressive regimes must sometimes pay when they “speak truth to power.”
In the Sri Lankan media, Wickrematunge was no less than a fallen warrior.
“Thus ended the saga of one of the bravest human beings I have ever known,” wrote D.B.S. Jearaj, a columnist for The Daily Mirror. “Thus ended the life of a fearless scribe, crusading for justice and peace. An irredeemable loss for journalism and Sri Lanka. Cry, the beloved Country!!”
Vijitha Yapa, a former newspaper editor and owner of the country’s largest bookstore chain, wrote in The Sunday Times: “When they shot him, did they not realize that it is not red blood which would pour out of his body but blue ink.”
Several journalists described the armed men on motorcycles who surrounded Wickrematunge’s car and shot him as the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The columnist Ayoma Wijesundera wrote, “Today, the fire of insatiable journalists who do not succumb to greed of bribes or the fear of threat is finally doused by the bullets.”
Commenting on the flood of impassioned remembrances, editorials, and tributes to Wickrematunge in the local media, one editor explained to me that, in Sri Lankan culture, when somebody passes away they immediately become “the best person who ever lived and who will ever live on this earth.”
But some worried that such treatment inevitably buried a deeper conversation—about journalistic standards, truth, politics, and objectivity—that could have been instigated by his death.
For instance, Wickrematunge’s sustained political connections to Sri Lanka’s opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) have been largely overlooked in the press.
Wickrematuge had once been a parliamentary candidate for the UNP, and was on the phone with the party’s ex-chairmen when he was shot. “He liked to be in the thick of the policy-making and decision-making process of the UNP, and had his own likes and dislikes among the hierarchy,” said one anonymous political column in The Sunday Times.
These connections served both to make Wickrematunge a glaring target for the Rajapaksa government and, in the eyes of some journalists, to cast a measure of doubt on the editor’s motivations for exposing corruption and criticizing those in power. In a recent column for The Daily Mirror, M.S.M. Ayub wrote: “…journalists have not only to be balanced but also to be seen as balanced. That is not only to uphold their professionalism, but also to protect their lives.”
To some journalists with whom I spoke, Wickrematunge’s political connections, compounded by his outspokenness, amounted to foolery that resulted in an unnecessary martyrdom, possibly risking the work and safety of fellow journalists by raising the stakes in the ongoing hostilities between the government and the media.
“When the playwright and journalist Richard de Zoysa was abducted and his body finally found,” said one journalist to me, speaking carefully, “there was a sense of relief among some. Not because he was dead but because the risks he took…” The words trailed off.
Nothing can minimize the horror of Wickrematunge’s death and the situation faced by journalists here, where free speech is often suppressed at the barrel of a gun. But it does raise some bleak questions that can transcend the Sri Lankan context: Do political convictions have a place in one’s work? Are truth-telling fellow journalists at risk? Are there stories worth giving one’s life for?
No matter how these questions are answered in the future, the media in Sri Lanka has been dealt a violent blow—one that has worsened an already dire situation. As journalist Jehan Perera wrote for The Daily Mirror, “[Wickrematunge’s] long survival as a journalist, while breaking his stories and expressing his views without inhibition, gave rise to an illusion. This illusion was that there were indeed broad parameters of freedom within which the media could function.”
Maura R. O’Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. This year she was awarded a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and will be reporting on American foreign aid from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa.