Death of an Editor

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed on his way to work in Sri Lanka.

He died after three hours of brain surgery by a team of twenty surgeons. It was initially assumed that he died of gunshot wounds to the head but there was later speculation that the immediate cause of death was a metal spike rammed into his brain through his eyeball.

Lasantha started out as a  lawyer but turned to journalism and politics. His Good Morning show on  Sri Lankan MTV was very popular. Wickrematunge was founder and editor of the Sunday Leader  newspaper. The Sunday Leader had a reputation for in-depth investigative reporting and fearless exposure of corruption. He  told Reporters without Borders in an interview that his aim as a journalist was to “denounce the greed and lies of the powerful.”

He was 51 years old and the father of three children, Avinash, Ahimsa and Aadesh. He had only recently married his second wife, Sonali. He was in his car driving to the Sunday Leader office at Templars Road, Mount Lavinia from his residence at Nugegoda when assassins on motorcycles blocked his car in rush-hour traffic about 100 metres from an air force checkpoint near one of the city’s airports.

Eye witnesses told police that two of the men stopped their motor cycles at a distance and watched for a while. The assailants smashed the window of his car with a steel bar before shooting him at close range in the head, chest and stomach. He was shot at around 10.45 am at Attidiya Road, Ratmalana. After the first man shot him, a second man bludgeoned him with a blunt instrument and fled the area.

The victim was rushed to the hospital by the police with the assistance of residents of the area. Wickrematunge had severe brain damage at the time he was admitted to Kalubowila Teaching Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries at around 2pm.

Police said that there was evidence he had been trailed by his killers all the way from Nugegoda and pounced on after he reached the particular spot near the Malagala Model School on Attidiya Road, which is “a lonely area”.

“For a number days, Wickramatunge’s movements to and from his office had been followed by certain elements,” police said.

Previous Threats

There were many suspects. Wickrematunge was an exceptionally brave man who had made many enemies. He managed to upset all the political parties, presidents, ministers, corrupt businessmen, criminal elements and all the various factions of the terrorist groups. The paper exposed internal rifts and sexual scandals in the Marxist JVP.

A few years before his murder Wickrematunge was assaulted by an unidentified gang which blocked his vehicle on a narrow lane when he was returning after work. On another occasion, gunmen attacked his house.

The printing press of the Sunday Leader media group, which is in a high security area near Colombo, was destroyed in an arson attack by a group of gunmen in November 2007.

Wickrematunge told Reporters without Borders at the time that the attack was “a commando operation supported by the government.” The police promised a thorough investigation but the result is still awaited.

Wickrematunge was often the target of intimidation attempts and libel suits. The most recent lawsuit had been  brought by the president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who got a court to ban the newspaper from mentioning him for several weeks. President Rajapaksa called Wickrematunge a “terrorist journalist” during an interview with a Reporters without Borders representative in Colombo.

According to police, Wickrematunge had complained that he had been threatened with death over the phone on a number of occasions.

Tributes  [i]

Prabath Sahabandu

Prabath Sahabandu, editor of another Sri Lankan newspaper, The Island wrote a moving editorial.

“The tragic death of Editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge has diminished us beyond measure. Our sorrow and consternation know no bounds. Gone is a fearless newspaperman who did not give a damn about his personal safety in putting forth his bold views and taking on the high and mighty.

Having cut his journalistic teeth on political writing at a relatively young age, Lasantha stood political writing on its head in this country and made an invaluable contribution to The Sun, The Island and The Sunday Times before moving on to edit the Sunday Leader.

An exuberant maverick, he represented the new vitality of Sri Lankan journalism, braving the political turbulence and social upheavals of his times. His penchant for controversy was monumental and he made waves of tsunami proportions in political and journalistic circles, sailing as he did at times close to the wind. His racy style was truly remarkable and made him stick out like a sore thumb. His pungent columns spiced with juicy gossip, trenchant comment and caustic criticism were the hallmark of the paper he edited with a zealous passion.

In a country embroiled in a protracted conflict which has brought about a culture of intolerance, violence and impunity, bravery comes with an exorbitant price. Lasantha, therefore, had his fair share of enemies. He became a target of several goon attacks during the past two decades. He was roughed up, his house bombed and his press burnt.

Investigations into those despicable incidents predictably drew a blank. But, he was unstoppable. Each time an attempt was made to frighten him into submission, he bounced back more fiercely than ever much to the disappointment of the sinister forces that sought to break his will.

There may have been people who had problems with the brand of journalism Lasantha practised. But, none of them had a right to silence him violently. We don’t intend to indulge in prejudgment but we have reason to believe that Lasantha was felled because of what he wrote.

The government has undertaken to probe Lasantha’s violent death. We only hope at least that investigation will be conducted to a successful conclusion. Since there were some government bigwigs among those who were at the receiving end of Lasantha’s scathing criticism and sensational exposes and launched venomous attacks on him, the government will remain a suspect in his killing, until and unless his assassins are brought to justice and it is proved that they are without government links.

Unfortunately, two acts of barbaric violence committed by unidentified gangs in quick succession this week in the South – the arson attack on the MTV and the brutal killing of Lasantha – have come to eclipse the spectacular victories the country is achieving in its war against terror in the North. Hence, it behoves the government hunt down Lasantha’s killers and the arsonists responsible for the attack on the MTV, if one is to believe that it has nothing to hide.

Goodbye dear friend, Lasantha!” [ii]

Rajpal Abeynayake

Rajpal Abeynayake is currently editor of Lakbima News.

“My initial encounter with Lasantha was when I was working in The Island. We were both very new to the field then but even as a young reporter, he showed much promise. Even at that time, he was showing tendencies of reporting many controversial stories. As a journalist, he was very much of an inside player and was very popular for his own brand of investigations. Whatever he worked on, he did it with a lot of passion and energy. He brought out a lot of issues and his objective was to expose the misdeeds of the country. His greatest strength as a journalist was the drive which he possessed to go to any length in order to obtain a story.

This assassination will certainly have a tremendous negative impact on the field of journalism. First, it was the abduction of Keith Noyahr and this year it’s this assassination; a cold-blooded murder in broad daylight. It is evident that the situation keeps getting worse. After this point, every journalist will certainly think twice about publishing a controversial topic and the news stories would often be censored, after all everyone is concerned about his life.” [iii]

Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Handunnetti once was a Sunday Leader staffer but now writes for Ceylon Today, a new  paper founded by wealthy businessman Tiran Alles, who is negotiating to get former Army commander Sarath Fonseka released from prison.

Handunnetti  described Lasantha thus: “A buoyant and mischievous editor with the largest heart and a brilliant mind, the heartbreaking fact is that while his many colleagues were becoming statistics, it was Lasantha who would not let the targets of media violence die without cause by creating a fiery media debate around their murders. To most, that is why he was the elixir of hope and an antidote to their woes.

Lasantha was an epoch-making investigative journalist, the fiercest government critic and the most courageous man I ever knew. The man who single-handedly revolutionized Sri Lankan journalism and made a conscious decision to lose much advertising revenue in the name of the Sunday Leader’s motto: to write Unbowed and Unafraid…. This editorial room is silent today, ominously so. We do not hear his infectious laughter. But the journalists resolutely go about doing their daily work with a body language that strangely appears to signify that his spirit still lingers: Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.” [iv]

DBS Jeyaraj

David Jeyaraj is a freelance  journalist in Canada. He is a Christian Tamil from Sri Lanka’s northern province who has been critical of the government but also received death threats from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and a beating in which his leg was broken.

Jeyaraj wrote: “Lassie Boy, as I called him, was one of the bravest journalists I ever knew. It was he who single-handedly changed the nature of journalism in Sri Lanka. Lassie belonged to that dwindling tribe of scribes who believed in speaking truth to power. His death or the way in which he was killed has brought about a great void in Sri Lankan journalism. Yet the Sunday Leader follows the path chartered by Lassie ‘unbowed and unafraid’. The staff remains loyal to his principles and memory and continues amid very difficult circumstances.

Lasantha’s brother Lal is now the managing Editor while Frederica Jansz (another gutty journalist) has taken over as Editor.” [v]

Rohan Pethiyagoda

Pethiyagoda is a biologist, founder of the  Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka and Cambridge graduate who also has written for the Sunday Leader.

“Lasantha Wickrematunge often referred to the well-known warning of German pastor Martin Niemoeller-who fell victim to Nazi forces-on the consequences of inaction and passivity in the face of fascist terror….In the 1980s, some Sinhalese (JVPers) were being hunted by pro-government vigilantes, he wrote about them and earned the ire of an all-powerful personality at that time who promised him to be ‘garlanded with a necklace of burning tyres.’

He had to flee the country at that time but came back soon. He consistently stood up for ethnic and religious minorities who were victims of the war on terrorism. That was a cardinal sin in the eyes of many. He exposed bribery and corruption, nepotism, racketeering, gangsterism in all its forms, bureaucratic lethargy and corruption under which the public suffered and even judicial misdemeanours…. Wickrematunge in effect became a one-man opposition to government. He warned the public of the possibility of an impending dictatorship and the need of an unfettered media to prevent such moves.” [vi]

Dayan Jayatilleke

Dr Jayatilleke is currently Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Paris.

“Lasantha had guts, which is more than I can say for the cowardly barbarians who murdered this unarmed man….

I do not know who killed him, but I must disclose that I do know something about his killers and those who ordered the killing. They were cowardly barbarians. They were cowards because they killed an unarmed man, and anyone who intentionally kills an unarmed man or woman is a coward. They were barbarians because they expressed their disagreement with what Lasantha wrote and did, not by opposing his ideas with the same weapons of words, but by butchering him. That conduct places one outside the borders of humanity and universal values of civilization.”[vii]

Malinda Seneviratne

Seneviratne has been a prolific freelance journalist and is currently editor of the Sunday newspaper The Nation. He wrote a moving poem about Lasantha’s death.

“And I, hardly a friend or fellow-traveller,

salute him,

for I prefer word to silence

in the matter of political engagement.

There is a finger that is itching to point,

let us point it at ourselves

at least in the manner of a question.

Who are we, who am I in these times

of omission and commission?”[viii]

“I lament the death of a fellow journalist but more so a citizen whose assassination says something serious about the law and order situation and possibly says a lot about our political culture.”

Manik de Silva

Currently editor of the Sunday Island: “I don’t think that anyone else has created more waves in contemporary journalism than him. He attracted a lot of information and I think his legal training as a lawyer also drove him into venturing deep into a story. However there is this perception that he was a politically partial journalist, with which I do not agree since I believe that he was politically neutral.”

Frederica Jansz

The current editor of the Sunday Leader: “The public view of Lasantha the journalist differed from the very private man. He was fun to be around with and was constantly making people laugh. Never one to pull rank in office, Lasantha would often whistle out of pitch to make his colleagues giggle. Though a teetotaller himself, he would offer his friends and colleagues a tipple from his vastly untouched but well stocked bar at home. He would give his last penny to people in financial distress nary a thought.”

Posthumous Editorial

After Wickramatunge’s death, the Sunday Leader published an editorial purporting to be a prediction of his own death. In it Wickrematunge quotes Pastor Niemoeller:

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

He  addresses President Mahinda Rajapaksa as his friend of long-standing: “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. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too depends on it.”

The editorial drew international attention and was movingly read by distinguished actor Bill Nighy on the BBC.

Rajpal Abeynayake is convinced that Lasantha did not write that editorial: “So why not Rohan Pethiyagoda the ghost writer of the ‘They are going to kill me soon’’ so-called Lasantha Wickrematunge editorial, (written of course by Pethiyagoda categorically after Wickramatunge’s death…) now come out from his hiding place and ghost write another editorial for Fred about not bowling to the fielding side? Shoosh! Entire factories of corny humbug — only at that silly rag they are capable of it.”  No-one, to my knowledge,  has challenged Abeynayake’s assertion, although some have said it does not matter who wrote the editorial.[ix]

Handunnetti wrote: “Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote a powerful editorial which was published posthumously. It does not matter if he wrote the whole of it or only a part of it or even none of it – the style, spirit and panache of it is unmistakeably Lasantha Wickrematunge.”

Dissenting Voices

Dayan Jayatilleke

“Let’s say it straight out. Lasantha’s paper was, in stridency of tone, a tabloid masquerading as a broadsheet. More controversially, he and his paper were not merely soft on the LTTE but were arguably pro-LTTE. None of that justifies his murder. Lasantha did not kill anyone. He did not even carry a weapon. If his paper was objectionable, it should not have been read. Perhaps it should have been boycotted. If his writing was distorted, as indeed it often was, it should have been subject to withering criticism in writing. If he had dubious connections and was engaging in political conspiracy he should have been exposed. If he was acting subversively he should have been taken into custody and prosecuted in accordance with our tough anti-terrorist laws. Nothing he said or did warranted his murder, nor can be used to justify it.”

Rajpal Abeynayake

“He was a young man who was very ambitious and energetic. As he was once working as the Private Secretary to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, [the world’s first female prime minister and leader of the left-wing SLFP] he had a lot of political contacts and was actively involved in politics. While he was working, he even contested [as an SLFP candidate] in the elections in Colombo North. ..I personally do not agree with his idea of journalism because I feel that he was partial and only exposed one side of a story. I would call him more of a politician than a journalist. But there were people who agreed with it and all these things should have space in society.”

Ajith Randeniya

“The fact that Wickrematunge belonged to the Christian fundamentalist cult ‘The Assembly of God’ was kept secret from the public until the day before his burial. People in the US will be well aware that the ‘Assembly’ is a cult often attracting attention due to questionable ‘heretical’ belief systems and allegations of child sexual abuse and forcible fund collection. Disgraced tele-evangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were the fronts of this cult in the 80s.” [x]

Peter Casie Chetty

“In my time I have always wanted proof of some nature before I went into a story that was questionable of libellous. Something that Lasantha and Frederica Jansz never thought of. They ruffled a lot of feathers and then sold out. Frederica is still alive thanks to the regime she was trying to topple. She is not nor, is Lal with pro LTTE ideas fanned by a spineless opposition, change anything as long as the poor man hears what he wants to hear and sees the development in the land. Lasantha died for a cause. Unfortunately it was the wrong one.” [xi]

Blog comments

“He did not believe in confronting this evil [LTTE terrorism] or exposing its true nature to the world. Instead he believed in negotiating with evil, compromising with evil, appeasing evil, and actually covering up evil behind NGO terms such as ‘confidence-building’. If any of you truly support what Lasantha W. stood for, then I advise you not to condemn his murderers but to advocate co-habitation with them. If you don’t like Mahinda or Gotabhaya, write platitudes about how the only way to neutralize them is to flatter and co-opt them. If you’re afraid of getting killed, sign a CFA with Fonseka and throw away any shred of self-dignity to save your skin.”

“This guy was no saint. He represented gutter journalism and he was asking for this end for long time.”

“At a time when the government is engaged in a battle that could determine the future of Sri Lankans of all persuasions and backgrounds for a long long time to come, the Editor seemed singularly and purposefully determined to denigrate and discredit the efforts of the government to bring an end to this misery and curse that has visited us and ruined our lives for decades. To that end I would always remember the man as an unpatriotic person driven by other people’s agendas and not genuinely the welfare of our nation to which he also belonged.”

Who Did It? Who Didn’t Do It?

According to the Sri Lanka Sunday Times: “In Parliament, UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe went to the extent of saying that there was a separate unit in the Army that was carrying out these strikes against the media. He asked the Cabinet of Ministers themselves to be careful. What was patently noticeable to parliamentary lobby correspondents was that there were no denials or protestations from the front benchers of the Government.”

Mangala Samaraweera, a former foreign minister in the Rajapaksa government, now an opposition politician, voiced the widespread suspicion that it was the Defence Ministry or the Army. “It’s an open secret that there’s been a killer squad in the Defence Ministry for the last two years.”

Dr Jayatilleke absolved the government: “Lasantha wasn’t running for office and the incumbent President is hugely popular. Lasantha posed no threat to him. As for exposes of financial turpitude, Lasantha’s English-language and therefore limited circulation newspaper had little effect. Another writer had opined on how perfect the timing of the killing was, oblivious to the irony that the factor of timing works precisely against the hypothesis of high level governmental guilt. On the one hand, the wave of military successes and the prospect of electoral triumph rendered utterly needless any violent measures against domestic dissenters and critics while on the other hand, the murder could only dull the glow of the President’s success and work to his discredit.” [xii]

In July 2009 controversial government minister Mervyn Silva held a meeting where he publicly stated “Lasantha from the Leader paper went overboard. I took care of him.” [xiii]

Police arrested two suspects at five a.m. on Saturday 31 January 2009. The first suspect, a 22-year-old three wheeler driver, was taken in with Wickrematunge’s  mobile phone in his possession. Under interrogation, he  revealed that he purchased the phone from the second suspect for Rs. 4,000, the police said. Police Spokesman SSP Ranjith Gunasekera said both suspects were under interrogation by a special team. The second suspect, he said, had a history of drug peddling and murder. Asked whether the police could rush to a conclusion that the suspects in custody were responsible for Wickramatunge’s murder just because the victim’s phone had found its way into their hands, SSP Gunasekera said he could not comment further as investigations were continuing. “This is all the information we have got so far,” he said, “and we expect more vital clues as interrogation proceeds.”SSP Gunasekera said the phone recovered from the suspect contained telephone numbers of key ministers and VVIPs. Nuwara Eliya garage owner Pichchei Jesudasan, who was remanded for alleged involvement in the assassination died of a “heart attack”  at the National Hospital in October 2011 while in police custody. Jesudasan was arrested after CID stated that he had purchased five SIM cards which were allegedly used by the assassins using his national identity card.

Seven soldiers belonging to the Sri Lanka Army’s Military Intelligence Unit were detained as investigations and  held for further questioning by the Terrorist Investigations Department and the Criminal Investigations Department. The seven soldiers were separated from an original seventeen taken into police custody as evidence unfolded which may link the soldiers to the murder of Wickrematunge. All the soldiers were eventually release because of lack of evidence.[xiv]

Fonseka and the Sunday Leader

On President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 66th birthday, November 18 2011, former Army commander Sarath Fonseka was sentenced to three years in  prison in what has become known as the White Flag case. Fonseka  was accused on three counts including inciting violence by  violating the Public Security and Emergency Regulations Acts. In an interview given to Frederica Jansz of the Sunday Leader, published on December 13 2009, Fonseka claimed that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had ordered Brigadier Shavendra Silva (now Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN) to shoot LTTE cadres surrendering with white flags during the final stages of the Sri Lankan armed forces victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

The role of the Sunday Leader has been puzzling in the extreme. No-one has been charged with the murder of the Leader’s founder, Lasantha Wickrematunge. There have been strong rumours that a shadowy military unit was responsible and that Fonseka was involved. Fonseka was also alleged to be behind the assault, which almost killed him, on Keith Noyahr, deputy editor of The Nation Sunday newspaper, and assaults on Namal Perera of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and Mahendra Ratnaweera, of the British High Commission. The Leader has been thought of as a UNP paper and Lasantha was thought to be close to UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe. Ranil told the Working Committee of the UNP that Lasantha’s murder was carried out by a special team reporting directly to Fonseka. Ranil and Lasantha were considered to be close friends. Despite this, Ranil agreed to Fonseka being the opposition candidate for the presidency.

It would be extremely unlikely that those running the Leader today had not heard rumours of Fonseka’s involvement in Lasantha’s death. Nevertheless, the paper supported Fonseka’s presidential campaign.

During the White Flag trial, Frederica Jansz, the current editor of the Leader, said that she had directly asked Fonseka if he knew who had killed Lasantha and could not get him to give an answer.

This did not  come out in Jansz’s answers under cross-examination in the High Court. On the 6th of October 2010, according to the Sunday Times (October 10 2010), she said she went to the interview with Fonseka accompanied by a “trainee reporter” (she denies this, saying it was Raknish Savan Wijewardene, a journalist at the time and not a trainee), a photographer and Lal Wickrematunge , chairman of Leader Publications (Lasantha’s brother). The “trainee journalist” had “taken down notes of the interview, except on the question about the ‘white flag’ issue”. (My emphasis.)

At one point, [Lal] Wickrematunge had asked Wijewardene and the photographer to leave as he wanted to raise a personal issue with Fonseka. Lal asked Fonseka who was responsible for killing Lasantha. Jansz said in response to questioning in the High Court that she “did not pay attention to what was said by Fonseka in response to that question”. (My emphasis.)

Ms Jansz is a very experienced investigative journalist who over the years has been the scourge of many a corrupt businessman and many criminals. Her paper has been running a long campaign to bring to justice the killers of Lasantha. Lasantha’s brother directly asked a man linked with the crime who killed his brother and Frederica drifts off like a distracted teenager!

She said that she normally did tape recordings of interviews but the paper’s recorder had been given to someone going to interview the Western Provincial Council minister. Does the paper’s budget not run to buying a second recorder? Is the interview with the provincial minister more important than an interview with a presidential candidate who is accusing his own soldiers and government of a war crime and who is also suspected of involvement in the murder of the paper’s editor?

Jansz said in an article of 6 June 2010 was that the management of the Sunday Leader that the UNP was paying the newspaper one million rupees a week to increase the number of copies printed in order to support Fonseka’s campaign . This contributed to Fonseka’s conviction. Jansz claimed: “The financial transactions of a privately owned newspaper/publishing house is nobody’s business.” [xv]

No Conclusion, No Closure

Three years have passed and no-one has been charged with Lasantha’s murder. This is what the Sunday Leader says on the third death anniversary:

“The country grieves for the apathy shown  by the law enforcement authorities in bringing the perpetrators to book. It is evident to all and sundry why the investigation is at a standstill. They whisper but dare not speak out loud.”

“The investigation into his death is floundering. Kandegedara Piyawansa, a soldier with the Sri Lanka Army Intelligence Unit taken into custody together with Pitchai Jesudasan,  was released on bail after he accused senior officers in open court. A statement he made in chambers to the magistrate prior to being granted bail by a higher court was forwarded to the Inspector General of Police for a report which is yet to be filed. Pitchai Jesudasan died in remand custody and the JMO has returned an open verdict. Fifteen army intelligence officers held previously by the TID handling the investigation were released when an adviser to the government informed high officials that the soldiers would ‘sing’ about other operations by the Army.”

Lasantha’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge writes: “I believe my father could have achieved and done so much more if only his life had not been so cruelly taken. I have so many unanswered questions. Not a day goes by that I do not think of him. It breaks my heart that my little brother will grow up without a father. But I believe he is watching over us. They say it gets better with time but it has not got any easier. I miss him every day, and today especially, I share the pain of loss with my mother and my two brothers who loved him so much.”[xvi]

[i] An array of tributes in many forms was presented on the blogsite Groundviews: