by: anticorruption January 9. 2012
In some parts of the world speaking out against corruption can be met with threats, intimidation and physical harm, even death. Courageous individuals work at great personal risk to make their voices heard in places where dissent can meet with harsh repercussions. The beginning of January saw the brutal murder of one such individual, Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga.
On 8 January, Wickramatunga was shot by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles on his way to work. He was rushed to hospital but died after three hours of emergency surgery.
Wickramatunga received “numerous death threats through his career and was detained on several occasions because of the controversial nature of his stories,” notes the BBC. The Sunday Leader newspaper is renowned for being critical of the government, and Wickramatunga, a qualified lawyer, had “often fought defamation cases brought by senior politicians,” reports AFP. In 1998 gunmen shot at his home and the paper’s printing presses have come under repeated arson attacks.
“Lasantha was a symbol of dissent whose motto was “unbowed and unafraid”. His life was full of challenges all revolving around exposing of corruption. Many took to investigative journalism due to his leadership and guidance. When the media was attacked with impunity, he stood strong exposing those responsible. His death has exposed the danger of being a corruption fighter but, let us hope, thousands of Sri Lankans will come forward to stand by his motto,” said J.C. Weliamuna, Executive Director of TI Sri Lanka.
Hundreds of Sri Lankan journalists took to the streets of Colombo to protest Wickramatunga’s murder and the suppression of the media. The US, European Union, India and the World Bank also joined in condemning the shooting as “the government came under local and foreign pressure to protect freedom of expression,” writes AFP.
Wickramatunga had been highly critical of the government’s policy and the war with the Tamil Tigers. In his final editorial, he wrote, “Winning the war? Then there must be elections around the corner. It is no secret that the war has become Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s recipe for electoral success.”
Rajapakse has publicly condemned the killing and ordered a police investigation into the murder. “This heinous crime points to the grave dangers faced by the democratic social order of our country, and the existence of forces that will go to the furthest extremes in using terror and criminality to damage our social fabric and bring disrepute to the country,” said Rajapakse in a statement.
However, Amnesty’s Sri Lankan country specialist questions the likelihood of the perpetrators being brought to justice. “At least 14 journalists or other media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka over the past three years. More than 20 journalists have left the country due to death threats…the police have yet to find the killers of any of the other murdered journalists,” he writes. “
Journalists face murder, harassment, abduction and arbitrary detention in Sri Lanka,” reports Reuters. Sri Lanka was ranked 165th out of 173 countries in media rights group Reporters Without Border’s 2008 Press Freedom Index – the lowest ranking of any democratic country. The group criticised Rajapaksa and the government media saying they had, “incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press.”
The murder of Wickramatunga is one more tragic example of a worrying pattern of violence and intimidation against the media and civil society in Sri Lanka. In September 2008, the home of TI Sri Lanka’s Executive Director J.C. Weliamuna came under a grenade attack, which has yet to be fully investigated, and the MTV/MBC television studios near Colombo were stormed by 15 masked gunmen on 6 January.
In 2000, Wickramatunga was awarded Transparency International’s first Integrity Award to underscore his commitment to unearthing corruption and in recognition of the difficult and dangerous circumstances he faced as The Sunday Leader editor. “Lasantha Wickramatunga’s assassination is a grim reminder to us all that some activists still have to pay the highest of prices for their dogged pursuit of accountability and transparency. I feel privileged to have met Lasantha Wickramatunga and I hope that his memory will stand as a symbol of perseverance and courage for all anti-corruption activists,” said Susan Côté-Freeman, who handled TI’s 2000 Integrity Awards programme and is now TI’s Private Sector Programme Manager.