The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. ... Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.
Lasantha Wickrematunge, a leading journalist who faced up to corruption at the highest levels in Sri Lanka's leadership, knew his life was in danger. Shortly before his murder in January 2009, he wrote an extraordinary editorial in which he predicted his death.
Wickrematunge, a leading journalist who faced up to corruption at the highest levels in Sri Lanka's leadership, knew his life was in danger. Shortly before his murder in January 2009, he wrote an extraordinary editorial in which he predicted his death. He foresaw how there would be impunity for his killers and that, on learning of his murder, the government would make the "all the usual sanctimonious noise" but would have "no choice but to protect my killers".
On 8 January 2009, Wickrematunge was shot dead in his car as he was driving to work. His killers, men on motorcycles, got away.
Wickrematunge was the founder and editor of the Sunday Leader. He was an outspoken critic of the Sri Lankan government, which he accused of corruption and of having used the long-standing war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) to hold onto power. He was equally critical of the LTTE. As Wickrematunge himself said: "The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism."
Press freedom in Sri Lanka is severely curtailed, with journalists confronted with defamation suits, intimidation, bans and smear campaigns. Since 1999, Nineteen journalists have been killed, and no one has been brought to justice for their murders. Wickrematunge was at the forefront of the campaign to stand up for freedom of expression, prepared to speak out despite the danger.
Death threats became the norm for Wickrematunge. There were phone threats, copies of the newspaper splattered with red paint, even a funeral wreath, left at his office entrance. In 1994, soon after founding the Sunday Leader, he and his wife Raine were set upon by attackers with sticks pierced with nails. On another occasion the family home was sprayed with gunfire. Fearing for her family, Raine eventually left with their children for safety in Australia.
Wickrematunge was a lawyer who was engaged in politics before turning to journalism. He had stood for election as an MP and served for a time as private secretary to former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. He was a friend of now ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, describing in his final editorial evenings talking politics and exchanging jokes with him. Yet this did not stop his vocal criticism of the president as being unwilling, or unable, to address the acute problems in his country. Rajapaksa referred to Wickrematunge as a 'terrorist journalist' in interviews in the months before the murder. At the time of his death, Wickrematunge was embroiled in a legal dispute with the president's brother, then-defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whom the journalist had accused of corruption over the purchase of second hand military equipment.
For six years after the murder, there was no outcome to the promised investigation, leading to accusations of impunity for the killers, and even government complicity in his death. Then, in January 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in presidential elections. Within days, the new government announced that it would be reopening the inquiry into Wickrematunge's murder, following a public complaint by a former cabinet minister that the president's brother and former minister of defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, had ordered the assassination, alongside that of three others - two Tamil MPs, and a government minister. The government announcement stated that the investigations into the killings of Wickrematunge and three others, and been 'stalled or abandoned without credible conclusion', raising hopes that there will finally be an end to the impunity enjoyed by the killers.
Eighteen months later, in September 2016, Wickrematunge's body was exhumed as part of an investigation into his death. Earlier, in July, a military intelligence officer had been arrested on accusation of the journalist's murder. Five more military men were then arrested in January 2017 and evidence that they may have been involved in the abduction of another journalist in 2008 implied that there had been a 'death squad' headed by a top military officer. In March 2017, a court heard that a police report pointed to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as being involved in Wickrematunge's killing, suggesting that he had controlled a secret unit outside of the military structure that targeted journalists and government critics. The investigation continues.
Wickrematunge was posthumously granted several honours, among them the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize in 2009 and, in 2010, the International Press Institute's World Press Hero Award.