Sri Lanka Journalists Still on Edge After Editor's Death

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Buddhika Weerasinghe / Reuters

Lasantha Wickrematunge, a freelance reporter for TIME, was shot on Jan. 8, 2009, while driving to work

A year after the murder of the prominent Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, the island's independent media is still under siege. An investigation into Wickrematunge's death has gone nowhere, and at least half a dozen other journalists, including his widow, have left the country in fear since his death.

Wickrematunge, who was also a freelance reporter for TIME, was shot on Jan. 8, 2009, while driving to work. His car was followed by two motorcycles, which blocked his path as the gunmen shot him through the driver-side window, when he was just five minutes away from his office. He was rushed to the hospital but died after surgery. Wickrematunge was a staunch critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, and his murder came in the middle of the government's final offensive to crush the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The government did not brook any criticism of its conduct of the war, but even since declaring victory last May things are little improved for journalists.

The exodus of journalists and media activists from Sri Lanka has been partly due to the failure of the murder investigation to make any progress. Soon after the shooting, police recovered the mobile phone used by Wickrematunge that had gone missing after he was taken to the hospital. Since then there has been no real breakthrough, though the investigation has been taken over by the Criminal Investigation Department. There have been no arrests so far, nor are there any suspects. Journalists from Sri Lanka's minority Tamil ethnic community have long felt under threat, but Wickrematunge's death sent a clear signal that even journalists from the majority Sinhala community, like Wickrematunge, were not safe.

In August 2009, eight months after Wickrematunge's murder, Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Tissainayagam was sentenced to 20 years in prison when he was found guilty of aiding terrorism. Later that year, Poddala Jayantha, a prominent media-rights activist, left the country due to ongoing threats. "It is not only where the Lasantha Wickrematunge investigation has progressed, but also where all the investigation into the assassinations, assaults and intimidation of journalists have progressed," says Lakshman Gunasekera, president of the national chapter of the media-rights group South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA). "The manner the investigation has moved does not give any reason to feel safe. Things have improved, but most certainly I would not advise those in exile to return just yet."

Wickrematunge was one of the loudest and most persistent critics of the administration of Rajapaksa. Although he considered Rajapaksa an old friend, he criticized him over the conduct of the war and lack of safety for the civilians trapped by the fighting. A posthumous editorial that appeared in the Sunday Leader, the paper that Wickrematunge founded, immediately after his murder addressed Rajapaksa directly: "In the wake of my death, I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too." The widely circulated piece sent shockwaves beyond Sri Lanka. "You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch," it read.

The widespread condemnation of Wickrematunge's murder did little to change the restrictions on the media. For months after the civil war was declared over, journalists were not permitted to travel to or report in the former conflict zone in the island's north, and they still need permission to visit camps where those displaced by the war remain, or to speak with those who have returned to their former villages. Similar authorization is required to visit and write on the accelerated development and resettlement process now under way in the Vanni, the former conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka will hold its first postconflict presidential election on Jan. 26, in which Rajapaksa faces a stiff challenge from his former army commander, Sarath Fonseka. There has been some spirited journalism published during the campaign. On Dec. 13, the Sunday Leader carried an explosive interview with Fonseka in which he alleged that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's Defense Secretary, had ordered the shooting of surrendering LTTE members. Rajapaksa has denied the allegation, and Fonseka has since backpedaled on the allegation. Several news organizations have also reported on the burgeoning black market for rations distributed in displaced-persons camps. But with a few exceptions, the coverage of the elections has been limited to the shifting alliances of players in the major parties. Only a handful of stories have seen print about the resettlement of people displaced in the war, the provisions to ensure free and fair voting in areas once controlled by the LTTE, or the country's serious economic challenges, all of which are major issues for voters.

If he had lived to see the end of the war, Wickrematunge surely would have been disappointed. I began my career as a writer at the Leader, and the seasoned editor's passion was infectious. His writing style and exposés were not for the faint-hearted. There were many fans and an equal number of critics who felt that the Leader's brand of journalism was salacious. But all agreed that he had brought something totally new to Sri Lankan media. He was threatened, sued and beaten up, and his house was fired at with automatic weapons. Still, he kept going. "I credit him for creating the space for those less courageous than him to work," says Marwaan Macan-Markar, another of Wickrematunge's young hires who now works as Asia correspondent for Inter Press Service. "His regular exposés defined the parameters of free expression in an environment hostile to the media. His murder has seen that space shrink."

The usual hustle and bustle of the Sunday Leader newsroom will be broken on Jan. 8 when colleagues, friends and family gather at the office for a memorial service. Wickrematunge's family is no longer in Sri Lanka, and some of the writers who worked closely with the late editor have also left the newspaper. As the anniversary of his murder approached, I found myself thinking of the hours I spent almost alone in the newspaper's offices on the day of his death. Though several of his colleagues went to the morgue, I did not want see him lying lifeless on a trolley, so I walked around aimlessly. Sometimes I still hope to hear that booming voice call out, "Ah bugger, there you are. So what have you got for me?" The sad truth is, not much.