Lasantha Wickramatunga, top Sri Lankan Editor Killed
Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the major Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Leader and a vocal critic of the Sri Lankan government, was killed by unidentified gunmen on the morning of January 8 as his car was stopped in traffic in Colombo, the nation's capital.
Wickramatunga was rushed to the hospital and died after three hours of surgery. The gunmen escaped on motorcycles.
Wickramatunga, 52, had received death threats before. His in-depth coverage of government corruption put him under pressure throughout his career with the anti-establishment newspaper.
The killing of Wickramatunga has brought new attention to the threats and violence that Sri Lankan journalists endure. The country is one of the world's most dangerous for reporters. Now, with prominent coverage of the story of his death, the Sri Lankan government faces new pressure to ensure the safety of its media.
From The Guardian:
The Sunday Leader is locked in a legal battle with the president's brother, Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is suing the newspaper for defamation over stories it published alleging corruption, Reuters reported. Rajapaksa has denied any wrongdoing.
From the BBC:
[Wickramatunga] was prosecuted for criminal libel of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2000, but escaped serious punishment.
Correspondents say that while some of his stories verged on the salacious, others exposed high-level corruption - he recently reported on an arms procurement deal with Russia in which it was alleged that government ministers were receiving financial "kick-backs".
The Hindu reported that the U.S. and India, two of Sri Lanka's allies, made statements condemning the murder. Agence France-Presse reported that in Colombo, "hundreds of Sri Lankan journalists took to the streets Friday to protest." One news site, LankaDissent.com, closed down in protest of Wickrmatunga's death.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has released a statement condemning the crime and ordered an investigation of the killing of a man he called "a close friend" and "courageous journalist":
"This heinous crime points to the grave dangers faced by ... 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," he said.
Statement by the High Commission of India
"We are deeply shocked and saddened to learn of the demise of the well-regarded Editor of Leader Group of Publications of Sri Lanka, Mr. Lasantha Wickrematunge, following an armed attack in Colombo.
This deplorable incident comes in the wake of the series of attacks on and intimidation of media organisations and personalities in Sri Lanka including the recent bombing of the studios of Maharaja TV. We hold media freedom as an essential element of any democracy and such attacks are detrimental to the idea of democratic freedom in Sri Lanka.
We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate these attacks fully and bring the perpetrators of these reprehensible attacks to justice."
British High Commission statement
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the continuing acts of violence and intimidation against the media in Sri Lanka, including the attack on January 6 on the MTV headquarters and the killing of the Chief Editor of The Sunday Leader. We welcome the stated commitment of the government to investigate these incidents. Prompt action to hold those responsible to account is essential in creating an environment in which people from all communities in Sri Lanka can live without fear and in which progress on a political solution to end the conflict will be possible."
United States ‘deeply concerned’
Statement on assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge and attack on Sirasa TV
The United States strongly condemns the murder of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and the January 5th attack on Sirasa TV. These deplorable acts mark the latest in a series of attempts to quell independent voices in Sri Lanka .
The murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge is a shocking blow to independent media in Sri Lanka. This is the second attack in 48 hours against individuals or media outlets and just the latest in a string of incidents against journalists.
The United States is deeply concerned that such attacks undermine efforts to build a united and democratic Sri Lanka where the rights of all people are protected. We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate these attacks expeditiously, bring the perpetrators to justice, and take all possible measures to protect freedom of expression for members of the press.
European Union condemns killing
Statement by European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner:
"I was deeply shocked to learn about today’s assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the chief editor of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader newspaper. This attack comes just two days after a privately-owned television station was attacked and set on fire and follows several incidents of harassment and threats to journalists in Sri Lanka that have occurred over recent months. Our concerns about the freedom of the media, already under severe pressure from assaults and intimidation, have been exacerbated by the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge.
As in other countries where the safety and independence of people working in the media are under threat, I express my admiration at the willingness of Sri Lankan journalists to continue their work in the face of risks like these.
I call upon the government to put in place protection mechanisms to ensure the safety of journalists in Sri Lanka . It is essential that citizens continue to benefit from media providing free and accurate reporting on national affairs.
I urge the Sri Lankan authorities to take all necessary steps to bring the perpetrators to justice, as there can be no impunity for these terrible crimes."
Reporters Without Borders has said that "“President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press."
Sri Lankan opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe observed that it was part of an anti-democratic conspiracy and accused the government of attempting to silence its critics. The United National Party, Sri Lanka's main opposition party, also staged a demonstration in the parliament on 9 January to protest his killing.