A cowardly act
Media Freedom in this country was dealt a cruel double blow
last week: The attack on the Sirasa network headquarters
followed by the horrific killing of the Editor of The Sunday
Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga.
If the former was seen as an organised and professional attempt
to stifle the voice of a network that pursued a somewhat
unconventional approach towards broadcasting, the latter
incident was even more barbaric – a brutal killing carried out
with impunity and a brazenness that ridicules the notion of law
That the Sirasa network was under threat was evident; only days
before the arson attack, petrol bombs were flung at its offices
causing minor damage. But the ‘real’ attack was catastrophic,
causing equipment worth millions of rupees to be reduced to
rubble and taking the network off the air for a few hours.
It was an attack that deserved all the condemnation that
followed. We too denounce the incident and urge that the
authorities apprehend those responsible speedily, although we
know from past experience that this hardly becomes a reality:
There is a real possibility that the incident is more likely to
enter the annals of unsolved media mysteries.
But the attack on Sirasa pales into insignificance with the
killing of Wickrematunga. The Editor of The Sunday Leader had
been threatened on many occasions. He had been assaulted by
goons and been shot at. His newspaper had been sealed and his
press set on fire. Wickrematunga soldiered on, toeing a line
that was widely seen as being anti-establishment.
This country has seen many assaults on media freedom. The
Independent Newspapers group, publishers of the Sun and Dawasa
newspapers was sealed by the Sirima Bandaranaike government, J.R.
Jayewardene had an editor ‘tried’ by Parliament for publishing
an erroneous caption, Richard de Zoysa was infamously abducted
and killed during the R. Premadasa era and several editors –
including Wickrematunga himself –were tried for criminal
defamation during the Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency.
But such differences of opinion should be confined to the realms
of decency. A party which is aggrieved by what is perceives to
be false reporting by the media can always seek recourse from
the courts of law. There is no need to drag such disputes to the
denigrating level of committing murder on the streets.
That is why it could be argued that Thursday’s killing of
Lasantha Wickrematunga was the most dastardly attack on media
freedom in Sri Lanka. Wickrematunga was no small fry – he was
the editor of a national newspaper, an outspoken critic and a
vociferous advocate in the causes that he believed in.
He took on the high and mighty and had been doing so for many
years. He had a style of his own, and as a result, had many
detractors. Some questioned his impartiality but even his worst
critics would concede that he was arguably the most courageous
editor to continue doing what he did, for as long as he did
without recoiling in fear or fleeing to a foreign land.
To have Wickrematunga gunned down in broad daylight, therefore,
questions the very fabric of democracy that we believe we are
ensconced in. The reaction of shock and horror which his killing
generated will also reverberate for a long time.
It will have many other repercussions as well: This country’s
already tattered reputation as a peace-loving democracy will be
further damaged and the world will question our commitment to a
free and just society.
It will also generate a fear psychosis in the media. The
assassination will create an assumption that media freedom no
longer exists in this country and that dissent is taboo. This is
not an image we would wish for at a time when the nation is
defeating terrorism militarily and needs all the support it can
get from the international community to convince the world of
its bona fides.
For all these reasons, Wickrematunga’s killing must be condemned
in the strongest possible terms. It is a cowardly act committed
by persons who feared The Sunday Leader Editor’s tenacity and
determination and his commitment to the causes he espoused.
We have been assured the killing will be probed. We appeal to
all those responsible for the inquiries to act promptly and
independently, with fervour rather than fear or favour. To bring
the culprits to book and shed light on who is responsible would
be the only means of salvaging Sri Lanka’s reputation as a law
abiding nation – or else, we would descend to the level of a
Banana Republic that disposes of dissent with summary
The media, for its part, will need all the courage it can muster
at this critical hour. It must not shirk its responsibility and
it must continue to be the watchdogs of the nation.
After all, what the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunga ultimately
proves is that the pen is mightier than the sword.