Death of an Editor
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
January 8 2016 marked the seventh anniversary of the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the charismatic founder and editor of the Sri Lankan English-language newspaper, the Sunday Leader. Lasantha started out as a lawyer but later turned to journalism and politics. The Sunday Leader was established by Lasantha and his brother Lal (with the silent support of UNP presidential contender Gamin Dissanayake) in 1994 and soon developed a reputation for in-depth investigative reporting and fearless exposure of corruption. Lasantha told Reporters without Borders in an interview that his aim as a journalist was to “denounce the greed and lies of the powerful.” When he died, he was 51 years old and the father of three children from his first marriage. He had only recently married his second wife, Sonali. Wickrematunge and was the recipient posthumously of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2009. He was declared a World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute in 2010.
Despite the promise by then president Mahinda Rajapaksa of a thorough investigation, no one has been charged with Lasantha’s murder. January 8, 2016 is also the first anniversary of the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in a presidential election. The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, also promised a thorough investigation. Still we wait.
On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed on his way to work. He was in his car driving to the Sunday Leader office at Templars Road, Mount Lavinia from his residence at Nugegoda, when four men on motorcycles blocked his car in rush-hour traffic about 100 metres from an air force checkpoint in a high security zone. 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.
Witnesses told police that two of the assailants had stopped their motor cycles at a distance and watched for a while. They smashed the window of his car with a steel bar before shooting him at close range in the head, chest and stomach. After the first man shot him, a second man bludgeoned him with a blunt instrument and fled the area.
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”. Police said: “For a number of days, Wickrematunge’s movements to and from his office had been followed”.
A few years before his murder, Wickrematunge was assaulted when a gang blocked his vehicle on a narrow lane. On another occasion, gunmen attacked his house. The printing press of the Sunday Leader media group 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.” According to police, Wickrematunge had complained that he had been threatened with death over the phone on a number of occasions. 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”.
After Wickrematunge’s death, the Sunday Leader published an editorial purporting to be a prediction of his own death. The editorial drew international attention and was movingly read by distinguished actor Bill Nighy on the BBC. The editorial quotes Pastor Niemoeller and 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.”
Rajpal Abeynayake, who was at the time editor of Lakbima News but later moved on to the Rajapaksa organ the Daily News, was convinced that Lasantha did not write that editorial, claiming that it was written by Rohan Pethiyagoda after Lasantha’s death. No-one, to my knowledge, has challenged Abeynayake’s assertion, although some have said it does not matter who wrote the editorial. Dilrukshi 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 unmistakably Lasantha Wickrematunge.”
There has been much speculation about who killed Lasantha. In July 2009, controversial government minister and Gampaha district MP Mervyn Silva held a meeting where he publicly stated “Lasantha from the Leader paper went overboard. I took care of him.” No action has been taken against Silva who led a charmed life under the Rajapaksa government and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party after doing dirty work for the other main party, the United National Party. He is now out of office and parliament but trying to curry favour with the current UNP-led government by accusing the Rajapaksas. On January 17 2015, Silva filed a complaint with the CID against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brothers, former Minister Basil Rajapaksa and former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Silva told the press that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa intensely hated Wickrematunge.
From early on, there was suspicion of military involvement in the assassination. Seven soldiers belonging to the Sri Lankan Army’s Military Intelligence Unit were detained and held for further questioning by the Terrorist Investigations Department and the Criminal Investigations Department. The seven soldiers were separated from an original seventeen soldiers taken into police custody. All the soldiers were eventually released because of lack of evidence.
In the euphoria after the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in May 2009, a relieved and grateful nation saw president Mahinda Rajapaksa, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army Commander Sarath Fonseka as a triumvirate of heroes and saviours. The Tamil Tigers had been thought invincible for nearly 30 years but these three men had proved the doomsayers wrong. Things soon turned sour as Fonseka became resentful that the Rajapaksas were getting too much credit and side-lining him. In 2010, he ran as the common opposition candidate to Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential election. He lost but won four million votes.
The role of the Sunday Leader in Fonseka’s candidacy was bizarre. The paper was owned by Lasantha’s brother Lal who had heard speculation that Fonseka, as Army Commander, must have had some knowledge about Lasantha’s assassins. According to the Sri Lankan Sunday Times: ”In Parliament, UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said that there was a separate unit in the Army that was carrying out these strikes against the media.” Mangala Samaraweera, a former foreign minister in the Rajapaksa government, who switched to the UNP and is now foreign minister under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership, voiced the widespread suspicion. “It’s an open secret that there’s been a killer squad in the Defence Ministry for the last two years.”
On Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 66th birthday, November 18 2011, Fonseka was sentenced to three years in prison in what became 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 to shoot dead those LTTE leaders surrendering with white flags during the final stages of the Sri Lankan armed forces victory in May 2009.
Jansz and Lal Wickrematunge would also have known of allegations that Fonseka was alleged to be implicated in the near fatal assault 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 Wickremesinghe. 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 and the Sunday Leader supported Fonseka’s presidential campaign.
During the White Flag trial, Frederica Jansz, then editor of the Leader, said that in an interview she had directly asked Fonseka if he knew who had killed Lasantha but could not get him to give an answer. On the 6th of October 2010, in the High Court, according to the Sunday Times (October 10 2010), she said she went to another interview with Fonseka accompanied by a “trainee reporter”, a photographer and Lal Wickrematunge. At one point, Lal had asked the trainee 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”. Ms Jansz was a very experienced investigative journalist who over the years had been the scourge of many a corrupt businessman and countless criminals. Her paper had been running a long campaign to bring to justice the killers of Lasantha.
Jansz admitted in an article of 6 June 2010 that the UNP was paying the Sunday Leader one million rupees a week to increase the number of copies printed in order to support Fonseka’s presidential campaign. Jansz claimed: “The financial transactions of a privately owned newspaper/publishing house are nobody’s business.” Jansz claimed that she was receiving death threats but received little sympathy from other journalists because most of her editorials were full of complaints against them and against the Editors’ Guild.
In September 2012 Asanga Seneviratne, an ally of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, bought a 72% stake in The Sunday Leader. Shakunthala Perera was drafted in as Editor to replace Frederica Jansz. Perera had tried to continue the Leader’s tradition of exposing corruption. On Friday the 13th February 2015, Seneviratne forced her resignation. Despite his previous ties with the Rajapaksas, Seneviratne had been seen consorting with members of the new government had had asked Perera to forward critical articles to him before publishing. In her letter of resignation Perera wrote: “I am therefore surprised that while any pressure from the previous political regime has ceased, I am being asked by you as the publisher, to curtail from carrying on my duties as the Editor of the newspaper, and engage in practices that go against the principles and ethics I have hitherto exercised.” Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema became editor on June 29, 2015. On September 2013, an armed group had barged into her home, searching for a dossier and holding her family at knifepoint. One intruder was killed during crossfire with the police. Following the incident, Mandana and her family left the country before returning last year and contributing much to the attempt to oust the Rajapaksa regime.
This is what the Sunday Leader said on Lasantha’s third death anniversary in 2012: “The investigation into his death is floundering. Kandegedara Piyawansa, a soldier with the Sri Lanka Army Intelligence Unit taken into custody … 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. … 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.”
When Sirisena was elected president, Lal Wickrematunge called on him to bring the investigation back to life. Sirisena seemed to agree to do this. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliates the Free Media Movement (FMM) and the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) welcomed the new Sri Lankan government’s decision to reopen investigations into Lasantha’s murder. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index 2014, Sri Lanka is ranked fourth in the world for failing to address impunity in the nine murders of journalists in last ten years. The high level of threat against journalists also forced many journalists into exile.
Cynics might have some doubts about the new government’s true intentions. Knowing the allegations surrounding Fonseka, nevertheless, they created a new rank especially for him and promoted him. He is now Field Marshall Fonseka.
The Rajapaksa regime blocked a number of websites, such as Colombo Telegraph, operating from abroad. The ban on critical websites was lifted after Sirisena came to power but Sirisena now complains about them criticizing him. In opposition Wickremesinghe spoke up for media freedom. Now in power, he abuses journalists who criticise him. He has warned a newspaper against contravening the Parliament Powers and Privileges Act by discussing the COPE bond report and said that the former chairman of COPE, DEW Gunasekara, could also be punished under the same law. Sirisena has threatened to sue critics for defamation and has re-introduced a Press Council which will allow his appointees to jail journalists and publishers. Ranil was prime minister before and agreed a cease-fire with the LTTE. Many believed that he made too many concessions to the Tigers. An English journalist, Paul Harris, was deported from Sri Lanka by RW at the behest of the LTTE. The new government is dragging its feet on a promised Right to Information Act.
Some action has been taken in the investigation into the disappearance of Prajeeth Ekneligoda, a cartoonist who dabbled in politics. He has not been seen since two days before the Presidential Election of January 2010. In January 2015, fresh inquiries were initiated and investigators have found evidence that Ekneligoda was taken to the Giritale Army Camp. A Sunday Leader editorial on December 13 2015 said that many of the abductions and murders during the Rajapaksa years had the “whiff of barrack rooms” about them.
On 27 December 2015, the Sunday Leader reported that the CID had questioned former Inspector General of Police Jayantha Wickremaratne and several other senior police officers over the loss of Wickrematunge’s notebook at Mount Lavinia police station following the assassination. Pages of police records with details about the notebook had also gone missing. The paper reported that military intelligence officer Kandegedara Piyawansa was to be interrogated again and that “Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka is likely to be questioned by the Criminal Investigations Department”.
The December 13 2015 Leader editorial said: “Policemen or officers of lower ranks in the armed forces do not go about dragging suspects out of houses or trailing editors and killing them on highways. Killing of journalists has not been a blood sport of those of lower ranks in the forces but they might do so under orders – overt or covert. On this hypothesis it could be presumed that there are high ranking officials that may have passed the orders given to them by their VIP bosses to be carried out by their minions. On this basis, loyalty could even stall investigations under the new regime and that may be the reason why murderers of journalists still remain free.”
Watch this space!