By 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 Statements provided, later withdrawn, or repudiated or supposedly disproved.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.