For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
The murder of my uncle, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was a tragedy for our country: the world must wake up to our plight
While driving to work on 8 January Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor in chief of the Sunday Leader, was assassinated by four gunmen on motorcycles. He was shot at point-blank range after being forced to stop at a traffic light. He was rushed to the Kalubowila hospital where he later died. His death came just two days after a major arson attack on the privately owned MVC/MTV television studios in Colombo.
Sri Lanka is considered the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists (Iraq being the first). The Leader, which Lasantha founded with his brother in 1994, was one of the strongest – if not the strongest – liberal, democratic voices in Sri Lanka, speaking out against the war but also against corruption, terrorism, organised crime and human rights violations. As a result, Lasantha and his staff were frequently attacked. In the past he had been ambushed and beaten with clubs and nail-spiked poles. His family home was bombarded by a heavily armed assault team. The premises of the Leader were stormed twice, employees were threatened and printing presses burned. Inquiries never reached a conclusion.
Despite these onslaughts, Lasantha and the Leader did not stop, their motto being “we will prevail … unbowed, and unafraid”. Lasantha knew he was being followed last Thursday. He had been working, as ever, on a particularly controversial story, and he knew the risks he faced – which is why he wrote this editorial in anticipation that he would be killed. In the preceding weeks, he had received threatening telephone calls. His wife Sonali had noticed the motorcycles tailing them earlier that day. She had begged him not to go to work.
Stories about his life and his death have been prominent and plentiful on the internet, and also in the international press, though not as yet on the front pages. Tributes have been personal – listing his provocative style and scathing manner alongside his integrity and tenacity. Comments have been self-righteous, spiteful, and angry (as well as supportive, saddened and angry). Some claim he was a liar, that he was corrupt and partisan. I don’t mind. This is to be expected. If you are a journalist and a lawyer and you work in Sri Lanka, it comes with the territory.
But what I cannot abide is the accusation that he was unpatriotic. Is patriotism blindly advocating everything done by a government? Is it pandering to the majority opinion? Was he betraying his country by upholding his principles? By speaking out against the war? By exposing corruption and human rights abuses? By being a “peacenik”?
As his niece, I had the honour of giving the speech at Lasantha’s wedding reception – little over two weeks ago, on 27 December 2008. What I said about the couple came from the heart: they are ferociously loyal to their principles and they both love their country. In my opinion, Lasantha was a true patriot.
I too am a patriot. I love the country that gave the world the word “serendipity”, its first female prime minister, amazing spin bowlers, Michael Ondaatje, some of its best tea and warmest smiles. I am proud to be a Sri Lankan. Not a Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Dutch Burgher or Veddah but Sri Lankan. True patriots love every part of their country and every person in it.
And they are willing to fight and to die for every part of their country and every person in it. The Sri Lankan Daily Mirror ran an editorial saying:
[Lasantha’s] killing must deserve our condemnation not merely because it denied a journalist his right to an opinion, but more because it denied the people their right to know.
Outside Sri Lanka, much is known. There have been countless UN reports, political statements and NGO studies on harassment of the media, disappearances, arbitrary detention, use of child soldiers, assassinations, forced migration, and ethnic cleansing by many different players over the years. But after the disastrous attempt by India to intervene and the failed Norwegian monitoring mission, people do not want to know any more.
Why does Sri Lanka never make the headlines? Sri Lankans “out-die” people in Israel and Palestine by a rate of over 3:1. The Tamil Tigers perfected the art of suicide bombing – pioneering the use of concealed bombing vests – and brought it to international audiences (notably by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi). Hamas doesn’t have a naval wing.
Sri Lanka has endured 25 years of conflict, and before that decades of oppression, corruption and violence. A vicious terrorist group and a succession of cruel, weak, uncaring and thuggish governments. Lies, bombs and assassinations. But Sri Lanka is still not front-page news. We are just not important enough. Lacking oil, we are not geopolitically significant. Our fundamentalists are not of the recognised brand. We are neither a threat to international peace and security nor a pivotal part of the global economy.
What do we have to do to get attention? Start building nuclear weapons? Grow beards? We may not be in anyone’s strategic interest, but if you prick us, do we not bleed? If we are assassinated, do we not die? If we slaughter each other, does the international community not have a responsibility to act?
The government says it is winning the war, but this war cannot be won militarily. Unless a just political solution is found and economic stability established, there will always be those who will seek change through violence. It is possible to crush an army or a terrorist group, but without justice, tolerance, freedom and human rights, peace can never be achieved. We have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq what happens when violence and injustice are allowed to fester.
What angers me most is that Sri Lanka could be an international peace success story. It is not the Middle East or Afghanistan or Darfur. I am not calling for military intervention (though Sri Lanka merits, at minimum, consideration under the preventive elements of the UN’s “responsibility to protect”). Having grown up experiencing a “success” (Kosovo) and a “failure” (Iraq), military interventions to me signify bombs, destruction and the possible death of my loved ones. But international publicity, diplomatic pressure, security council attention, UN monitoring, prosecutions, targeted sanctions on individuals and conditions on aid and trade could make a difference if employed swiftly and intelligently, with a real commitment to helping the country to heal itself.
As Sri Lankans take to the streets to protest the assassination of Lasantha, politicians all over the world should speak out against violence, crimes against humanity, terrorist attacks and human rights violations. Journalists should rise to the defence of one of their own, a natural born reporter and a true patriot. Sri Lanka should mourn one of its finest sons, who died fighting for the country that he loved.
I mourn Lasantha Wickrematunge. You should too. Until justice is done and someone starts giving a damn about Sri Lanka, a nasty stain remains on the conscience of the world.