Freedom of the press in Sri Lanka Journalists fear for their lives
They arrived in the morning: When Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor-in-chief of Sri Lanka’s last government-critical newspaper, made his way to Colombo to edit the “Sunday Leader”, his murderers followed him on motorcycles. Then they blocked the way for his car and opened fire. Wickrematunga’s death was the most severe blow yet to the freedom of the press in Sri Lanka, which, like other civil rights, was the victim of the war against the LTTE Tamil rebels. A month after the murder, relatives, friends and colleagues gathered at the journalist’s grave to commemorate him. Wickrematunga had foreseen his death – and left behind a political time bomb.
The 50-year-old had written his own obituary, which was published in the Sunday Leader. “When I am finally killed, it will be the government that kills me,” says the text, which is titled “And then they came to fetch me,” following a poem by Nazi opponent and theologian Martin Niemöller. Addressing President Mahinda Rajapakse, Wickrematunga continued: “I know that after my death you will make all the usual hypocritical sounds and ask the police to investigate quickly and thoroughly. But as with all the investigations they have ordered in the past, they will be without result.”
On the press freedom index on place 165
In fact, even a month after the murder of the family father, investigators have presented neither perpetrators nor backers. Rajapakse rejected all accusations and stressed that his government guaranteed freedom of the press. But Sri Lanka is in bad shape. In 2003, the South Asian country was ranked 89th on the Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom of the Press Index, but last year it ranked 165th out of 173. Only states such as North Korea, Iran and Burma, whose governments, unlike those in Colombo, do not even want to appear democratic, are doing worse.
According to government figures, nine journalists, eight Tamils and Wickrematunga, a Sinhala majority, have been murdered since early 2006, shortly after Rajapakse took office. Amnesty International reports in the period of at least 14 killed media workers. “Others have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and allegedly disappeared while in the custody of the security forces. More than 20 journalists fled the country after death threats.
Sri Lanka more dangerous than ever
A human rights lawyer in Colombo says that Sri Lanka has become a “police state” with a press of the same type. A local reporter who doesn’t want to be named says it’s never been so dangerous to be a journalist. Although there is no official censor, “this is much worse than censorship”. Government critics risk being publicly denounced as LTTE supporters – a life-threatening accusation. The German ambassador Jürgen Weerth also learned how sensitively the government reacts. After a short eulogy at Wickrematunga’s funeral, which Weerth held for the diplomatic corps, he was summoned by the Foreign Ministry.
The last national newspaper in Sri Lanka not to be intimidated is the Sunday Leader. Lasantha Wickrematunga had founded the paper in 1994 with his older brother Lal, eight editors wrote there at the time, at the beginning the circulation was only 7000 copies. Now more than a quarter of a million readers buy the English and Sinhala editions every Sunday. Lasantha Wickrematunga, considered the country’s best investigative journalist, will be sorely missed by the editorial staff. In the office of the murdered editor-in-chief there are still unopened letters, under the glass top of his desk are photos of his three children.
Lal Wickrematunga has taken over Lasantha’s job. He also has three children with whom he never drives in the same car for fear of attacks. On the way to work he takes a different route every morning, he never leaves at a certain time to be unpredictable for assassins. His wife calls him every half hour to know where he is, he says. His parents and his remaining siblings lived abroad, most of them in Toronto, a brother works in Delmenhorst, Lower Saxony. He is the last one to stay in Sri Lanka.
Lal Wickrematunga says that no one from the editorial staff missed Lasantha’s death or even resigned. Even editor Dilrukshi Handunnetti doesn’t think about that. Journalism, she says, is a profession “that I didn’t want to be seized by anyone I love”. But she now considers it her duty to continue. That also applies to Lal Wickrematunga. “I must see to it that Lasantha’s work is done. I will not leave.” Otherwise, the 58-year-old says, “Lasantha would have died for nothing”.