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SRI LANKA: Outrage, Helplessness at Editor’s Murder

COLOMBO, Jan 8 2009 (IPS) - A controversial but powerful newspaper editor was assassinated Thursday even before outrage and dismay had died down over the ransacking of the premises of a popular radio and TV broadcaster by masked, armed men.

Lasantha Wickrematunga, the respected editor of the English-language ‘Sunday Leader’ weekly newspaper, was shot in the head by unknown gunmen riding a motorcycle as he drove to his office at Ratmalana, south of Colombo, on Thursday morning. He died in hospital within hours.

“We are in shock. It’s useless,” said opposition legislator Dayasiri Jayasekera, echoing the general view across the journalistic fraternity and among many politicians in this violence-racked country.

“We may not agree with his views but you don’t shoot a man in cold blood,” said a shocked journalist from a state-owned newspaper.

The assassination comes just two days after a group of masked gunmen ransacked the broadcasting complex of Maharaja TV (MTV). Wickrematunga was among those who had publicly condemned the attack and blamed pro-government elements for it.

On Wednesday, media analysts said protests and demands for justice against the brazen intimidation of Sri Lanka’s most popular channel will not deter those who seek to muzzle the media.

No one – like in the dozens of previous attacks on the media – has claimed responsibility for the killing of Wickrematunga, but suspicion immediately fell on pro-government elements since the shooting was carried out with precision and, according to some reports, using silencers.

Ravi Karunanayake, another opposition legislator from the United National Party (UNP), said Wickrematunga’s killing was a tragic loss to the media and the country at large. “We are all in shock.”

The Leader Publications group also published the Sinhala-language ‘Irudina’ newspaper which was equally critical of the government. The newspaper group was generally seen to be supportive of the UNP.

Wickrematunga, 50, co-founded The Sunday Leader newspaper with his brother Lal, the publisher, more than 10 years ago and very soon grabbed the attention of the nation with stunning exposes on corruption, scams and scandals.

He won both bouquets and brickbats for his fearless work, but typically government politicians would condemn him for ‘one-sided reporting’ while opposition legislators and the public praised him.

“We are speechless,” exclaimed J. Weliamuna, executive director of Transparency International (TI)’s office in Sri Lanka.

Weliamuna, a fearless human rights campaigner and himself the survivor of a grenade attack at his home in September, said Wickrematunga was the first Asian to win the Global Integrity Award in 2000 awarded by the Berlin-based TI.

“Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard,” he said.

Most media professionals and politicians were stunned by the killing and said the extent to which dissent is being quashed was unbelievable. “This is something no one bargained for,” one analyst, who declined to be named, said.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which two days ago raised the alarm on the possibility of more political assassinations in Sri Lanka, said it was saddened by the confirmation of their prediction in less than 48 hours.

AHRC reported that Wickrematunga had noticed two men following him on a motorcycle and even informed several friends over his mobile telephone.

Wickrematunga had become the primary target of the regime of President Mahinda Rajapakse, and particularly of his brother and defence secretary Gottabaya Rajapakse.

An attempt to arrest Wickrematunga failed after senior police officers refused to comply and also because of the intervention by journalists who had gathered around him.

Thereafter, the printing press of the Sunday Leader, which was situated close to a security zone, was attacked and burned by a group of unidentified persons who were never arrested. It is widely believed that the group was sent by the ruling party and was probably from some section of the armed forces.

AHRC described the attack on the MTV broadcasting station as ‘’gloomy predictions of things to come in the very near future to a country which is already bedevilled by lawlessness, violence and corruption”.

‘’If there was to be political assassinations of opposition leaders, trade union leaders, journalists, human rights activists and others who stand for democracy, rule of law and human rights it would be the natural course of things arising out of a build up which has already taken place,” the AHRC predicted, somewhat eerily.

On Thursday, following the assassination of Wickrematunga, the AHRC said: ‘’In all likelihood many other unidentified gunmen must be lying in wait for opposition members of parliament, for independent journalists, for lawyers appearing against the government or against prominent leaders of government in courts and for judges making unfavourable decisions against the government.”

‘’Many spokesmen for the opposition parties have blamed the government for using the war against the LTTE as a propaganda ploy to suppress and eliminate the opposition,” AHRC said.

‘’The army victories in Kilinochchi seem to be leading to a celebration of the shedding of the blood of the government’s opponents,” the AHRC statement said.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a leading independent think tank expressed outrage and ‘revulsion’ over the attack. Its executive director, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, said in a statement: ‘’This latest attack on one of Sri Lanka’s best known and most senior journalists confirms fears of a planned terror campaign against critical voices, conducted with complete impunity.”

Saravanamuttu, a columnist for the ‘Morning Leader’, a mid-week newspaper published by Wickrematunga’s group, said the legitimacy of the war against terror rests on government respecting the norms and values of democracy and human rights, of which the tolerance of criticism is a fundamental facet. “Those responsible for this egregious violence are enemies of democracy and become terrorists themselves.”

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