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A Sri Lankan editor who was critical of the administration's war against Tamil guerrillas and often wrote about government corruption was killed last week - just days after predicting his murder, report the Free Media Movement (FMM) and other IFEX members.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of the "Sunday Leader" newspaper, was shot by two gunmen at point-blank range during the morning rush hour in a Colombo suburb on 8 January. According to news reports, he was rushed into emergency surgery for nearly three hours but died of head wounds.

Three days after he was gunned down, Wickrematunge's paper published an evocative, self-written obituary, "And Then They Came For Me", in which he says his writing placed him in danger. He wrote, "When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me."

Wickrematunge accuses the authorities of attacking journalists to curb dissent and protests in the war-torn country. "Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today, it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges," he wrote.

As one of the country's top journalists, Wickrematunge had been a prominent, outspoken critic of Mahinda Rajapaksa's administration. He often accused the government of using the war against the Tamil Tigers to remain in power, and claimed that corruption had become a disease in the defence ministry.

In his editorial, he also criticised opposition leaders for remaining silent on the country's conflict, suggesting that journalists were therefore forced to speak out. "That is why more journalists have been attacked in recent years than opposition politicians," he wrote.

For his work, Wickrematunge was often the target of threats, attacks and libel suits. In 2007 assailants set fire to his paper's printing presses. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the president's powerful brother, is suing the newspaper for defamation.

He also was a proponent of press freedom, often meeting with IFEX members during their international missions. "Lasantha was a steadfast opponent of every threat to press freedom," said IFJ. "Even when other media kept their silence, he would speak out, often as a lone voice. He showed inspiring courage and conviction to all."

Thousands of people attending Wickrematunge's funeral on 12 January turned it into an anti-government protest.

Even as the government boasts of their recent victories over Tamil Tiger rebels, it is facing harsh criticism at home and abroad over attacks on the independent media. Two days before Wickrematunge's death, gunmen raided private television station MBC/MTV, accused by state media of "unpatriotic" coverage of the war, and destroyed much of its equipment.

IFEX members the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch, IFJ, International PEN's Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have condemned the violence and the impunity with which attacks have been carried out.

"This latest attack of 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," said FMM.

The authorities have denied the accusations and promised a thorough investigation.

Sri Lanka was ranked 165th out of 173 countries in RSF's 2008 press freedom index - the lowest ranking of any democratic country. Two journalists were killed in Sri Lanka in 2008 and two others, J. S. Tissanayagam and Vettivel Jasikaran, are currently in jail, accused of being rebel-sympathisers and enemies of the state.

The government has usually been silent about attacks on the press, but the President's office released a formal statement condemning the murder, saying he was "grieved and shocked" by events. "Mr. Wickrematunge was a close friend of mine who I have known for many years as a courageous journalist," read the statement. The government blamed the Tamil Tiger rebels for his death.

In his posthumous column, Wickrematunge mocked the President and predicted that his murderers would never be punished. "In the wake of my death, I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises," he wrote. "But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one."

WiPC is asking that you write messages of support to the "Sunday Leader", whose journalists continue to be under threat. Send messages to: editor (@)

Visit these links:
-Wickrematunge's last editorial:
- FMM:
- CPJ:
- Human Rights Watch:
- IFJ:
- IPI:
- RSF:
- WiPC:
(Photo of Lasantha Wickrematunge, courtesy of the "Sunday Leader")

(14 January 2009)

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