The Politics Of The Decision To Kill Lasantha – According To Wife It’s Not Related To Journalism
Lasantha Wickrematunge, friend and fellow-journalist, was assassinated 4 years ago. To date, his murderers remain unknown. Investigations have been inconclusive. When the former Army Chief, General Sarath Fonseka broke away from the regime, the government publicly accused him of the Lasantha killing. For instance, the Government MP Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha* told BBC that the Defence Attaché of the British High Commission (BHC) in Colombo “gave a note” that accused the then Gen Fonseka of being responsible for that assassination. As the BBC reported the British authorities have neither denied nor confirmed Prof. Wijesinha’s statement. Two weeks ago when I interviewed Ranil Wickremesinghe he confirmed what he said at Lasantha’s funeral. He re-confirmed that the killers were four army persons. But in my opinion, even if Fonseka is responsible for the Lasantha killing what are the steps the other two people above him have taken so far? The President himself is the Minister of Defence, His brother Gotabaya is the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, both positioned above Fonseka. Killing Lasantha cannot be one of Fonseka’s own decisions. He may have deployed the killers but killing such a high profile journalist is a political decision. That is why nothing is happening about his killing, I am forced to conclude.
Lasantha’s assassination intensified calls for media freedom. He was honoured, posthumously, with several prestigious international awards pertaining to media freedom. The newspaper of which he was founder editor, ‘The Sunday Leader’, is now owned by a close associate of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Four years later, then, more questions have been raised which answers have been obtained. What was the politics of the decision to kill Lasantha? I ask this question as a friend of many years, and yet the questions that I am compelled to raise are startling. Lasantha, wasn’t just a journalist; he led a complicated life, and had many faces. His political practices were complex; sifting through the details may guide us closer to his killer’s motives.
Many people asked me who wrote the Sunday Leader editorial which was claimed to be one written by Lasantha just before he was assassinated and published in the Sunday Leader posthumously. The day after the murder, I went to Sonali’s house where Lasantha’s body was and asked her sister where Sonali was. She told me that Sonali ‘was upstairs finalising the editorial with someone else’. The same question was answered by Lal, Lasantha’s elder brother who was also Chairman of Leader Publications. On January 17, 2009 , in the London Times, which published Lasantha’s posthumous editorial with a disclaimer by Lal, where he admitted that ‘30-40 per cent was written by the staff, including the headline and the words ‘AND THEN THEY CAME FOR ME’.
This cast considerable doubt on the authenticity of the document. It was suggested that Lasantha’s computer be checked to figure out when he wrote it (if he did) and what percentage of the document was his work. I don’t know if anyone took the trouble to do this. If someone had done so, then that someone has not revealed the truth, either way. All I know and what anyone who worked at the Sunday Leader knows, is that Lasantha never wrote editorials. Some claimed that the entire editorial was written by someone else. Multiple sources came up with the same name, but since I couldn’t contact him I will leave that issue aside for the moment.
There is evidence that Lasantha was enticed into renewing his long standing relationship with the President, — first formed as he sought political gossip as a journalist years ago– in several intimate meetings with Rajapaksa shortly before he was killed. In fact, after his death, the President claimed that Lasantha was one of his very good friends and that they met often, usually around midnight. Lasantha had even played a recorded conversation he had had with Dr Kumar Rupasinghe. Few believed this claim, offering that the President was just trying to cover up the murder and absolve himself of involvement by portraying Lasantha as a friend.
But in fact, Lasantha had played the record of the said conversation and Rajapaksa had telephoned Kumar and criticised him for double dealing. Around the same time Victor Ivan, the Editor of the ‘Ravaya’ told me on the phone: “Your friend Lasantha is meeting Rajapaksa secretly, and not just meeting but passing recorded conversations to the President”. He said “Ask Lasantha, he is your friend”. Angry Rupasinghe also rang me and confirmed the story. I rang Lasantha and asked him and he, as was his usual manner, laughed and never said anything. What I found later was that Lasantha had met the President with his friends Pasan Madanayake and Eliyantha White.
I remember having a conversation with the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe, former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Lasantha in a niche of the 80 Club. This was on September 6, 2008, at Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu‘s 50th birthday celebration. I told them that the President had invited me to meet him. Lasantha opposed it and said “don’t go”. I said “I’m not meeting a friend, it is the President of this country I’m going to meet as the Convenor of the Free Media Movement and also I’m not going alone”. He continued to press me not to go. And yet, all the while he had been meeting Rajapaksa secretly. It turned out that Lasantha was showing another face to us.
I asked the leader of the opposition, Ranil Wickremasinghe, whether he knew Lasantha was meeting Rajapaksa secretly. He told me Lasantha never told him about it, but when he found it out and asked Lasantha about those meetings, Lasantha had admitted meeting the President.
Regardless of all this, I was convinced that Lasantha’s assassination was purely related to his fearless journalism. Rajapaksa wanted to silence Lasantha, I thought. The Sri Lankan media, across the board, tried to cover up the fact that Rajapaksa wanted to buy the Sunday Leader while Lasantha was alive. It was only I who exposed it after Lasantha was killed. I wrote to Index on Censorship about the deal:
“Not long before Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed, his brother Lal, chairman of the Leader Group, received a call from a Deputy Minister, Faizer Mustapha. Faizer said he would be coming to the company’s offices with some important news. He came as promised and asked Lal to get into his vehicle, telling him that they could talk while travelling. Lal was nonplussed, but got in. Faizer ordered his driver to drive on. A vehicle packed with security personnel followed. All at once, the vehicle with Lal inside turned sharply into Temple Trees, where President Rajapaksa was in residence. Lal found himself in the presence of the President. ‘How are you Lal? Let’s come to the point straight away. What is the selling price of the Leader Publications?’ Lal didn’t understand what was happening. ‘Let’s close the deal for 400 million rupees,’ the President had said. He told Lal to make a decision quickly. When Lasantha, who had been away, returned to Sri Lanka Lal explained to him what had happened. Lasantha was furious. The proposal went ignored. It may be that the President wanted to silence Lasantha by offering to buy the newspaper at a price far above its real value. President Rajapaksa called Lasantha a ‘terrorist journalist’ in an interview with Reporters Without Borders in October 2008. He said the same thing to me in September 2009, tagging Lasantha as a ‘Kotiyek’ (a Tiger) during a meeting I had with him in my then role as Convener of the Free Media Movement. ” The State Media painted Lasantha as a ‘traitor.’ By painting him as a traitor, those who wanted him out of the scene were able to justify his murder.
Much later, towards the end of 2010, once I started to work with Lasantha’s second wife Sonali Samarasinghe as a consequence of a conversation we had, I started to wonder whether Lasantha’s killing was purely related to his journalism or if there was more to the story.
This was the time Sonali and I started a website called Lanka Independent. In the first week of June, 2011, I was writing on my findings on the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneliyagoda. It is my considered opinion that Prageeth was not abducted due to his journalism. I discussed this with Sonali. After listening to all the facts she suddenly said:
“Lasantha unanth maruwe journalim nisa neveyne. … Hmmm …”
(“Even Lasantha was killed not because of his journalism…. Hmmm…)
Ay ? (Why?) I asked
“Oya danne naha. Anduva peralanna eyage thibba plan … Pissu oyata. Oya danne naha eyage thibba plan. Intelligence ekka karapu eva nisane. Evath Journalism neveyne uvindu!”
(You don’t know. The plans he had to overthrow the government…you are mad…the reason is the “intelligence” [read, ‘espionage’] work he was engaged in. That’s also not journalism, Uvindu.”)
Mokakda? ( What? ) I asked
‘Lasantha foreign Intelligence ekak ekka weda kala, mama passe kiyannam’
(“Lasantha worked with a Foreign Intelligence Service…I’ll tell you later”.)
Quoting the above conversation we exchanged a couple of emails, but she never gave any further details.
After Lasantha was killed I got to know that Lasantha was working for RAW, the Indian intelligence outfit. A couple of days before he was killed Lasantha went to meet a certain woman attached to the Indian High Commission in Colombo at 1.00 in the morning and the Sri Lankan Intelligence had followed him. That theory suggested that his killing was related to espionage. I didn’t believe it. Was this the intelligence service that Sonali was referring to? It is not clear.
But I had no reasons to disbelieve Sonali. I knew she was sober and fully in control of her senses at the time. Even after the conversation, we exchanged a couple of emails about the matter and she never retracted her claim. She was one of Lasantha’s trusted colleagues, then girlfriend, then wife, and at the end, his widow. A lawyer and a diplomat, she gave up journalism once the UNP came to power and worked at the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia. Furthermore, even after Lasantha was killed she had access to his email account. On Saturday, April 2, 2011 she wrote to me that she sent Adele Balasingham an email from Lasantha’s email account requesting an interview and that it had bounced. She said perhaps Adele had changed it because that email address Lasantha had was a 2003 one, activated during the peace process. It was clear to me that she had access to his email account and read even emails going back to 2003 and she was in a good position to understand Lasantha’s work.
Even though all the cables were fairly low-level classifications and intelligence matters were not mentioned at that level, over the year I read all leaked US state department cables related to Sri Lanka in the WikiLeaks database. But I couldn’t find anything related to Lasantha implying that he was a spy or working with a foreign intelligence service. There was only one remark of that nature, but that was about another journalist, Poddala Jayantha. The US Embassy Colombo had informed Washington that Poddala was well known to the Embassy, and had been a key contact for PAS for years. (Read the cable here).
When I talked to his brother Lal about the conversation he said he had no clue. I interviewed Lasantha’s good friend, the Leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe; he said he didn’t know that, but he had no reason to suspect that Lasantha was a spy. When interviewed Lasantha’s first wife Raine, she said; ‘I got to know this spy issue soon after he died. That is a totally baseless allegation, just another fabrication by those who are eager to tarnish his name even after death. They do it to cover up their own sins. The origin of this story may have some links to the fact that Lasantha was planning to take some evidence against a certain US citizen to the US authorities just before he was killed. If Lasantha was working for an intelligence agency, he would have been a wealthy man. We all know that Lasantha was a man who led a simple life and did not own anything of any significance.”
When I asked Frederica Jansz, Lasantha’s successor as the editor, she said, “Lasantha was an excellent journalist. An editor par excellence. Unfortunately, his journalism was overshadowed by political ambition, which impaired the independence of The Sunday Leader during his tenure. Soon after his death, a highly placed source confided that Lasantha was believed to have been killed not for his journalism but for his political connections and activism. It was rumoured that following a late night meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Lasantha had been followed by local intelligence officers who allegedly saw him enter the home of a foreign intelligence agent. Rumour had it that the government suspected Lasantha of leaking sensitive information divulged to him by the President to an intelligence agent of a foreign government.”
What Sonali said to me was entirely a private conversation. It is unethical to go public with a private conversation if there is no public interest justification. As Sunday Leader and Sonali claimed, Lasantha predicted his death in his ‘posthumous editorial’. That editorial may be the most printed and read editorial in the world. Two of the world’s most prestigious press freedom awards were awarded posthumously given to him, the UNESCO world press freedom award and Lasantha was named 53rd IPI World Press Freedom Hero. If his wife says his killing was not related to journalism then the public should be duly informed.
Related posts on Lasantha by Uvindu;
On Prageeth Ekneliyagoda by Uvindu;
*The following note is sent by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha and added by Colombo Telegraph on January 9,2013
My statement to the BBC was well over a year after Fonseka’s crossover and was made in passing when discussing a different issue, though characteristically they focused on this. I cannot recall the entire conversation, but my point I think was the changing approach of the British to Sarath Fonseka, which would have meant allegations of witch-hunting if the investigation had indeed revealed Fonseka complicity. It was not a public accusation, but a reminder to the BBC of double standards in their paymasters.