Brother of murdered Sri Lankan editor: 'Yours are the standards we look to'

In a world in which journalists are killed every week for no other reason than that they sought to report the truth, it is easy to become numbed to the slaughter.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 25 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 1992 and it has confirmed that 19 of these were killed because of their work.

One of those victims, Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, is a name which has become famous around the world, because  he had the extraordinary presence of mind to leave an editorial on his computer with instructions that it be published in the event that he was murdered.

‘And Then They Came for Me’ is a piece of writing which is now quoted by journalism schools. Cynical hacks and fresh-faced students alike should be inspired by 49-year-old Lasantha’s explanation of what it means to be a journalist.

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism…

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that.

After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism.

Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood.

Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice.

Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries.

Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”

After a career in journalism which had been dogged by official intimidation, Lasantha knew who would be behind his murder. He wrote: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

I met Lasantha’s brother, Lal Wickrematunge (pictured below) when he stopped off in London on his way to Toronto for an annual trip to visit his mother, father and three sisters.

Lal was the owner of the Sunday Leader and his brother’s partner in various court cases and legal battles with the authorities.

Four and a half years on, there has yet to be a conviction for Lasantha’s murder. This is hardly a surprise in a country, Lal says, where no one has been convicted for the killing of a journalist in recent years.

Two men were arrested for Lasantha’s murder: an army intelligence officer and a garage mechanic.

Evidence from mobile phone networks narrowed the suspects down to five simcards, Lal says, all five of which were bought by the garage mechanic. He claimed he had lost his national ID card and the sims were bought by someone else.

Lal says that in evidence the army intelligence officer claims he was promised by an army commander that he would be “taken care of” after Lasantha’s death.

The mechanic died in prison “of natural causes” at the age of 39, Lal says. The army officer is free on bail still awaiting trial.

The facts of Lasantha’s killing leave no doubt that he was the victim of a targeted assassination. There were eight men on four motorcycles who followed his car.

One of them broke a side window, reached across and shot him through the head with a bolt-gun (the sort of device  used by slaughtermen to kill animals by firing a retractable bolt).

Lal believes that his brother’s killing  was linked to the final stages of the war in the north of Sri Lanka against the separatist Tamil Tigers.

“The war was being prosecuted to its final stages without witnesses,” he says.

“It was widely regarded that Lasantha being the journalist he was he could even obtain secret reports about what was happening on the front line.

“The whole style of the newspaper was investigative reporting.

“After Lasantha was killed everybody just clammed up.”

Lasantha was no stranger to intimidation.

From its launch in 1994 to Lasantha's murder in 2009, the Sri Lankan authorities had often tried to silence the Sunday Leader.

Lal says of his brother: “He was shot at, he was physically assaulted, our presses were set on fire twice, we were shut down under emergency regulations which went to court and we fought successfully.

“He was arrested under the prevention of terrorism act. But he carried on.

“We felt that we should not be cowed.”

He says that he was taken to court by politicians many times alongside Lasantha.

Lal still owns a 30 per cent stake in the Sunday Leader but says that sales have dropped from around 48,000 a week under Lasantha’s editorship to less than half that figure now.

Since his brother’s death he says that Sri Lankan journalists have “all resorted to self-censorship”.

“Nobody goes far enough to criticise the government or the ruling family,” he says.

“What Lasantha felt was that the fourth estate first has to make sure that the information which is required by the people is brought before them so they can self govern. That was his goal.

“Some day when we have a benevolent  leader running the country he or she will restore that right.”

Asked what message he has for journalists in the UK, Lal urges us not to take our freedom for granted.

“Journalists are not on a wage-earning scale which is compatible with other professions, but they stay there because of the position they have and the work they do.

“It is a like the teaching profession, it becomes more or less a vocation after a while…

“Those who are in safer climates must keep the drum beating because these are the standards that other journalists in troubled areas look to.”

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