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UNESCO's World Press Freedom Prize has been posthumously awarded to a Sri Lankan editor who was critical of his government's war against the Tamil Tigers and predicted his own murder.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, the hard-hitting editor-in-chief of the "Sunday Leader" newspaper, was assassinated in a Colombo suburb on 8 January.

The jury, comprised of 14 professional journalists from around the world, praised Wickrematunge as "a man who was clearly conscious of the dangers he faced but nevertheless chose to speak out, even beyond his grave."

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. "Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced," he wrote. "Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last."

He added, "When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me."

UNESCO Director-General Koichi Matsuura will present the prize in a ceremony on World Press Freedom Day (3 May), which UNESCO will celebrate this year in Doha, Qatar under the theme "The Potential of Media: Dialogue, Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation".

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says it nominated Wickrematunge for the prize "in recognition of his outstanding contribution to independent journalism and unwavering commitment to journalists' rights."

Wickrematunge was also the winner of the first Asia Media Award for Press Freedom, given out by the Asia Media Forum at its annual conference in Bangkok last month.

His widow, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, was due to accept the award on his behalf but fresh threats to her life prevented her from attending the conference.

In a statement thanking the forum for the award, Sonali said that despite numerous threats and physical attacks before his death, Lasantha continued his work undeterred. "His publicly stated motto was, 'Unbowed and unafraid'," said Sonali, a lawyer who is also former editor-in-chief of "The Morning Leader".

"It has been over two months since my husband was killed and there has still been no credible breakthrough in the investigation. No murder weapon, no suspect, no post-mortem report has still been made public," wrote Sonali in her letter.

Sonali urged journalists to use the power of their pens to urge the President to allow an independent inquiry into her husband's death and 16 other media workers who have died under the present government. "I can only but implore you... to see through the face of democracy panted by President Rajapakse and his government, to the failing democracy in Sri Lanka," she said.

Visit these links:
- World Press Freedom Prize 2009 to be awarded posthumously to Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge (UNESCO):
- Journalist's widow accepts posthumous award "in hiding" (Asia Media Forum):
- "And Then They Came For Me" (Sunday Leader):
(Photo of Lasantha Wickrematunge, courtesy of the Sunday Leader)

(8 April 2009)

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