18 January, 2019

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After A Decade Of Lies, One Truth Still Shines: Lasantha Spoke Truth To Power

By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera

Ten years ago today assassins on motorbikes forced Lasantha Wickrematunge’s car off a busy street in a Colombo suburb. From what we have been told since, all we long-standing international observers can really say confidently, even now, is that he died of his injuries in a local hospital a few hours later.

For all who believe in the rule of law and a peaceful future for a democratic Sri Lanka, everything else is clouded by obfuscation, implausible denials, half-truths, flat-out lies and it must be said – ‘fake news’.

He was shot, but there were apparently contradictory autopsy reports. One killer, or two, or maybe eight? Military-grade automatic weapons, or clubs and iron bars? Or not. Scores of eyewitnesses, or none. And suspects, suspects, suspects. Men named, shamed, accused, charged, released – or who just died in custody, in deeply unexplained circumstances. A well-publicised link to military intelligence that led nowhere in particular.

More ‘alleged’ conspirators than you could shake a stick at. Big fishes and small ones. Libel actions, investigations, incomplete evidence. Statements provided, later withdrawn, or repudiated or supposedly disproved. There were bizarre rumours of espionage and corruption. Of vengeful ‘frenemies’ in high places, drawn from Sri Lanka’s brigades of the shamelessly rich and powerful, enthralled by the man’s private charm, but exasperated by his public words.

Lasantha took a wry view of the lead up to his own death. He prepared for it by writing an editorial for publication post mortem. It was duly run three days after his assassination, in the media at home and worldwide. “Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed,” he wrote. “It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.”

For us, as international campaigners for media freedoms, it was possible to take a clearer, simpler view. There was no question for us that Lasantha belonged to another select category – the man who spoke truth to power.

Wickrematunge was placed on Amnesty International’s threatened list in 1998, when anti-tank shells were fired on his house. He remained on that list until his violent end. He was the inaugural winner of Transparency International’s Integrity Award in 2000, and awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Award in 2009. The same year he was posthumously awarded the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, and the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award at Washington’s National Press Club.

The global view is that Lasantha’s killers must be brought to justice, and that there can be no statute of limitations on the crime. It’s part of a continuing worldwide crisis of impunity, repeatedly illustrated by years of similar extra-judicial state-sponsored assassinations, most recently by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A lack of justice for the murders of journalists creates an entrenched climate of censorship, says the US Committee to Protect Journalists. Its latest Global Impunity Index, its eleventh, has again highlighted countries where journalists are murdered regularly and their killers go free.

“Impunity is an effective way to silence journalists and creates a void of information,” said Elisabeth Witchel, author of the report. In the decade since Lasantha’s murder, at least 324 journalists have been silenced by murder worldwide and in 85 percent of these cases – as in Lasantha’s case – none of the perpetrators have been convicted.

Lasantha was killed a few days before he was supposed to give evidence to a court regarding allegations that then defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa had corruptly exploited state arms purchases for personal profit. The year before Rajapaksa’ brother and then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had screamed down the phone to Lasantha that he would be killed if he continued to speak out.

A funeral wreath was delivered to his door, then a page of his own newspaper on which someone had written the words “If you write you will be killed” in blood-red paint. Lasantha did not doubt it. “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me,” he wrote in his self-penned obituary. “Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty.”

He predicted that Mahinda – who Lasantha, in life, cheerfully called a friend – would be “anguished” by his death. But nevertheless he was sure that the President would orchestrate a cover-up to protect the agents of corruption, terror and political abuses that kept the Rajapaksa machine humming and their foreign bank accounts swelling.

His final words from beyond the grave to Mahinda rang agonisingly true: “You will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted.”

It’s illustrative to consider the fate of Lasantha’s paper, The Sunday Leader, bought up by the Rajapakses’ acolytes after his murder. Today it is toothless, a shadow of its former self, apologetic for its old historic exposes. Meanwhile it and much of the rest of the establishment media appear unwilling to resist the brothers’ ambition to return to power.

There’s no doubt that Lasantha found Sri Lanka’s relentless cycle of corruption and cruelty endlessly fascinating, and even bleakly humorous. But ten years on, that bitter black joke is still on the Sri Lankan people. And true freedom of expression, never mind justice, seems further away than ever.

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    Rohan, I my self do not have a n appropriate word to describe what took place during MR era. A very bad joke??dream??. How can this be real ???????? For 10 years it is not just the politicians (past and present) but with help of broken down and dysfunctional judiciary, doctors, lawyers, fake media, bureaucrats, forensic/postmortem cover ups, security personals/higher ups, from peon level to doctors,underground criminals —-etc—-etc (the list has no ends) have colluded in denying justice to Lasantha,s family. Just imagine, what Saudi monster thought was a perfect plan in murdering Jamal was exposed in no time. But in a pathetic country called Lanka it has now taken 10 years and still there is no signs of any progress. Goes to show how rotten the whole country and people are. To make it worse the same politicians who were involved are returning looking like Mandela ( GR giving lectures to Intellectuals???? MR taking economy classes for corporate??? This goes to shoe the depth of dysfunctionality in Lanka where every system to the core has been dismantled by previous regime. It just continues with recent rapping of the constitution by MS/MR. No surprises when MR told “he will save the country from constitution???? Anyone listening????

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    Lasantha did not speak truth nor was he any unbiased journalist. His loyalty towards UNP that too Sharmini S’ s high breed ones in UNP was clearly visible. He also wrote in support of Norwegians and LTTE. He is just another Sunil Gonawala who was very supportive of UNP. And was probably killed for the same reason Sunil Gonawala was killed

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      So you justify the killing? Remember two wrongs won’t make a one right. As long as people like your calibre live in this society Sri Lanka will be a third world developing country. VERY SAD.

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        Actually Sri Lanka is in a better place thanks to people who stood for the country and stood for destroying LTTE , people like my caliber………not for Lasanthas who was waiting for and doing everything for a foreign intervention in SL

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    Lasantha spoke the truth or not is the not the question. Even if he had spoken lies he did not deserved to be murdered. He had his own way of looking at matters. Some of it you may like and some of it you may not. What was wrong in his support of Norwigian and the LTTE? All prime Ministers and Presidents were flirting with LTTE, at on time or other. If they stopped their flirting and got engaged with them seriously, Srilanka will be land where the milk flows ,though not the honey.
    I remember a poem which I studied and memorized, when I was in the third standard:- Speak the truth and speak it ever
    Cost it what it will. He who hides the wrong he did Will do the wrong thing still. (I am not sure whether I have used the right words) pardon me if I am not correct.

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    So you justify the killing? Remember two wrongs won’t make a one right. As long as people like your calibre live in this society Sri Lanka will be a third world developing country. VERY SAD.

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    Sach you too do not speak truth at times. Does it mean????????

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      Nice article Mr Jayasekera.

      So, here is a summary of the cost of Sri Lankan PRESS FREEDOM

      The brave unlucky ones: Lasantha, Richard et al six-feet under.

      The brave lucky ones: Frederica-ca-ca pasting wallpaper in Seattle; Keith doing his toilet sideways down-under……..and others missing in action, too many to detail.

      And (the pig that eats shit!!! eats dirty f…..g journalist!!!”) and friends are driving happily along the beautiful highways of Sri Lanka.

      Where is the justice?

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