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SRI LANKA: In Honour of Slain Editor, They Keep Writing

IPS Correspondents

COLOMBO, May 3 2009 (IPS) - At the end of the long editorial room of ‘The Sunday Leader’ hangs a large sketch of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the late editor of the newspaper, who was assassinated on Jan. 7. He was shot in his car, just five minutes from his office.

It is a familiar pose of Wickrematunge’s, leaning back in his chair, smiling; yet his raised fingers make it clear that he is making a point, like he always did. Since his assassination, Wickrematunge, who was posthumously named recipient of the 2009 UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, has become a rallying point for journalists, especially those he nurtured.

“He was a very courageous person, he never wavered from his beliefs, no matter what came his way, even death,” said Arthur Wamanan, a young journalist who began his career under the late editor.

“He used to say that the worst that could happen is for you to get killed,” Wamanan said, recalling his editor’s words. Many at ‘The Sunday Leader’ and outside of it agree that Wickrematunge was a courageous individual whose feisty nature was reflected in his newspaper.

“You look around, there are not many people who go out and speak what they believe in and stand by it,” Mandana Ismail Abeyawickrema, the news editor of ‘The Sunday Leader,’ said in an interview.

The slain editor’s courage in the face of imminent danger is acknowledged by his widow, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, herself a journalist who worked very closely with her late husband.

“Despite threats and the physical attacks on him and the newspapers he and I edited, Lasantha never ran scared. He continued to expose graft and corruption, wastage of public funds and gross excesses on the part of the administration,” she told IPS from an undisclosed location.

She left Sri Lanka a month after Wickrematunge’s death and now calls herself an editor in exile.

“He was political, but there was more to Lasantha than that. He was the only editor of his time that could galvanise his audience and those who worked with him in equal measure,” Abeyawickrema said.

She believes that Wickrematunge’s biggest achievement, aside from his long list of investigative stories, is the stable of mid-level journalists which he built.

“He had this uncanny ability to spot talent, at a very raw age,” says Dilrukshi Handunnetti, the investigations editor at ‘The Sunday Leader.’ She told IPS that Wickrematunge detected a hidden ability in her years after she had begun her career as a journalist.

“I never thought I would be an investigative reporter, I always considered the political beat as my main line of work. It was Lasantha who brought out the investigative reporter in me,” Handunnetti said. “I have worked with three editors in this country, this man was by far was the best, he was very special.”

Following Wickrematunge’s insistence, Handunnetti began working on and writing investigative pieces long after she had made a name for herself as a lobby correspondent. She eventually rose to head the investigations desk of ‘The Sunday Leader.’

“Lasantha was like a reflector, he would take in all the pressure and the intimidations and not let them affect his writers. You were always sure that he was going to look after you and give you the freedom to work,” Wamanan told IPS.

On Apr. 6, UNESCO announced Wickrematunge was the recipient of the 2009 UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize. The jury of 14 professional journalists from around the world lauded him as a man who faced imminent threats with courage rarely shown by others.

“Jury members were moved to an almost unanimous choice by a man who was clearly conscious of the dangers he faced, but nevertheless chose to speak out, even beyond his grave,” said Joe Thloloe, president of the jury and press ombudsman of the Press Council of South Africa. “Lasantha Wickrematunge continues to inspire journalists around the world.”

For those who worked with him, the award is bittersweet, like so many other accolades that have come after the murder. “He should have been recognised well before all this. We can now feel his value by default, because of the vacuum he has left behind. His assassination has opened a huge chasm in local journalism and there is no one on the horizon to fill that,” Abeyawickrema, ‘The Sunday Leader’ news editor, said.

Wickrematunge’s widow echoed the same sentiments – that it would not be easy to fill her late husband’s shoes. “Following his death, independent media took a tremendous blow. So terrified are the independent media of the violence that is capable of being unleashed against them that they have engaged in self-censorship and dare not even call to account the perpetrators in cases where media workers have been the victims.”

Wickrematunge was also awarded the 1st Asia Media Award for Press Freedom in Bangkok, Thailand in March and Handunnetti accepted the award on his behalf. “I was proud and sad, proud to represent a great journalist, sad because his achievements are only recognised posthumously.”

“As much as this posthumous award is a personal honour to both Lasantha, and myself as his widow and colleague, it also serves as a reminder to the world of the horrific circumstances of my husband’s death,” the widow told IPS.

The journalists at ‘The Sunday Leader’ are driven by their late editor’s zeal, to keep writing. “That is the best honour we can bring him, to keep reporting,” Wamanan said.

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