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 and order.

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 executions.

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.