By Ahimsa Wickrematunge –
I would like to thank Journalists for Social Justice for inviting me to speak at this solemn occasion.
We are here today to remember the fallen heroes of a war against freedom of speech, waged by tyrants whose greatest fear is that journalists and activists would expose their emptiness to the people they lead.
This war should never have been waged in a just and decent country whose Constitution guarantees every citizen the freedom of speech.
At first, it was the LTTE terrorists who began the practice of killing anyone who spoke out against them.
Sadly, many of those who pledged to defeat the Tigers could not resist the allure of using LTTE terror tactics to silence journalists who criticized them.
From the murder of Richard de Zoysa in 1990 to the killing of my father in two thousand and nine and the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda eleven years ago, far too many journalists have been killed by abusing the machinery of the Sri Lankan state.
To borrow a phrase, they were killed like dogs.
Shortly before his death, my father wrote that murder had become the primary tool by which the state sought to control the organs of liberty. That was true in 2009.
But now, in 2021, after so many people have already disappeared, been killed or tortured, or arrested on false charges, now fear has become the primary tool used to strangle our organs of liberty.
In Sri Lanka, everyone is made to fear that if they say one word that those in power do not want to hear, they will be punished.
If a foreign embassy helps an honest police officer to escape certain death, they must fear that their staff could be abducted and tortured.
Then if they complain to the police, they must fear that their employees could be arrested and prosecuted.
If a lawyer campaigns against forced cremations, he must fear being locked up and called a terrorist.
If a TV station exposes a corrupt scam to import antigen test kits, they must fear being gagged.
If a Muslim MP refuses to vote for a draconian law, he must fear being arrested and called a terrorist.
Parliamentarians who criticize the government do so knowing full well that the regime has protected and brought to Parliament people accused of murdering MPs in cold blood.
MPs who still speak out are reminded that they too can be killed, like dogs.
And If a Sri Lankan journalist even thinks about openly criticizing those in power, she is vividly reminded of what happened to those brave journalists whom we are honoring here today.
Now that governing through terror has received an overwhelming mandate, it is up to us as civil society to break the cycle of fear. This cycle must be broken.
There must come a time when ordinary Sri Lankans need not live in fear.
There must come a time when those who live in fear are those who try to silence us through abduction, arrest, torture, murder and disappearance.
These criminals will never be afraid for as long as their own blood-soaked hands are wrapped around the wheels of justice.
They will only know fear when justice takes the side of the victims whom we honour today.
This is why I dedicate these remarks not just to those who we have lost, but also to those who risked their lives to help turn the wheels of justice and seek accountability for the slaughter of journalists.
We only know what happened to my father Lasantha Wickrematunge to Prageeth Ekneligoda, Keith Noyahr, Upali Tennakoon, Poddala Jayantha, Nandaraja Raviraj and Joseph Pararajasingham and to so many others thanks to the fearless investigations conducted by CID officers like Nishantha Silva and Shani Abeysekera.
But because of their valour, they have lost everything.
Today, these exceptional police officers have been abandoned and left to suffer, all because they had the courage to be our heroes.
Nishantha, his wife and three daughters, all had to flee the only country they ever knew or loved.
Now they must suffer harsh, lonely winters in a foreign land whose language is alien to them.
Shani was handcuffed in front of his wife and children and dragged to jail.
Even when he suffered a heart attack, his captors tried to stop him from getting medical care.
We must stand with Nishantha, Shani, and their fellow officers.
We must not let them be punished for investigating the murders of journalists.
Any one of us could be the next victim. Unless we safeguard police officers who have the courage to investigate atrocities, there will be no honest police officers left to investigate when one of us is killed for speaking out.
For many years after my father, Prageeth Ekneligoda and others were killed, we gathered at vigils, lit candles, and prayed for justice.
Very few people had the courage to answer our prayers.
It is our duty to stand up for those few people who did, especially when they need us the most.
*Speech made at the event organised by Journalists for Social yesterday to commemorate fallen journalists.