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Lasantha Wickrematunge

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Lasantha Wickrematunge

Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge
File:Lasantha with co jounalist.jpg
Lasantha Wickrematunge with co-journalist Sunalie Ratnayake in 2007
Born 5 April 1958
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Died 8 January 2009(2009-01-08) (aged 50)
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Other names Surnimala
Ethnicity Sinhalese
Education Law, University of Colombo
Occupation journalist and politician
Organization The Sunday Leader
Spouse(s) Raine Wickrematunge
(1985-2007)
Sonali Samarasinghe
(2008-)
Children Avinash Wickrematunge
Ahimsa Wickrematunge
Aadesh Wickrematunge
Website
www.thesundayleader.lk

Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge (5 April 1958 – 8 January 2009) was a prominent Sri Lankan high-profile anti-government Journalist, Politician, Human rights activist and media personality who was assassinated in January 2009. In an editorial Wickremange had written shortly before his death, and that was published posthumously, he stated, "When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me."[1]

Career

Political career

Wickrematunge began his career as a lawyer, practicing as a defense attorney for eight years.[2][3] Whilst practicing law, Wickrematunge made his way into the political scene before entering into journalism starting with the Island and Sun newspapers. In 1972 Wickrematunge contested in the elections. He then became the private secretary to the world's first female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.[3]

Journalism

In 1994 Wickrematunge started the Sunday Leader with his brother Lal Wickrematunge.[2][4] He reported critically on both the government and the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels,[5] and the Leader soon "became well known as the island's best independent newspaper".[6] He later stated that once the paper was started, he had intended to return to law, but found himself unwilling to give up journalism's excitement.[2] He was also a reporter for Time magazine and host of the television show Good Morning Sri Lanka.[7]

The paper quickly drew threats and attacks for its reporting on corruption by government ministers. In 1995, men pulled Wickrematunge and his first wife, Raine, out of their car and attacked them with clubs. Raine later stated that the death threats became part of the routine of their lives: "There were so many threatening calls. 'We are going to kill you. We are going to kill your children.'"[8] In 2000, the government tried Wickrematunge for criminal libel of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, but Wickrematunge received no major penalties.[9] In 2002, Raine left him due to the constant threats against their family, taking their three children to Australia.[8]

The Leader was particularly critical in its coverage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.[2] In 2008, Mahinda Rajapaksa, furious over the paper's reporting, called Wickrematunge and shouted at him that he would be killed if the paper's coverage did not change;[8] the president had also described him as a "terrorist journalist".[10] The same year, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa filed and won a defamation suit against the paper for a series of reports suggesting that he had made unwise arms deals, and the Leader was forbidden from mentioning his name in print.[11]

In the weeks before Wickrematunge's death, a funeral wreath was delivered to him, as well as a copy of the newspaper reading "If you write you will be killed" in red paint.[8]

Death

Wickrematunge was shot while he was on his way to work around 10:30 a.m. on 8 January 2009.[12] Four armed assassins riding motorcycles blocked Wickrematunge's vehicle before breaking open his window and shooting him.[13] He was taken to the Colombo South General Hospital (Kalubowila). It was initially planned with a helicopter on standby to transfer him to the Colombo National Hospital. A specialist team of 20 of medical personnel were called in for the surgery. Despite surgery lasting nearly three hours, Wickrematunge died from his head wounds.[9]

In an editorial Wickremange had written shortly before his death, and that was published posthumously, he stated, "When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me."[1] The Sri Lankan government denied any involvement in the murder.[14] Opposition Parliament Member Mangala Samaraweera charged that the government had ordered the murder,[15] while government ministers accused the opposition of "trying to make political capital out of a dreadful incident".[1]

His widow, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, a fellow journalist who had married him two months before his death,[16] left the country a month after his assassination, calling herself an "editor in exile".[17] She soon became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in the US.[16]

Awards

In 2009, Wickrematunge posthumously won the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.[4] He was also awarded the Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation[3] the James Cameron Memorial Trust Award, and the American National Press Club's John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award.[18]

In 2010, Wickrematunge was declared a World Press Freedom Hero of the International Press Institute.[19]

Posthumous editorial

Following his death, the Sunday Leader carried a posthumous editorial[20] by Wickrematunge, in which he blamed the government directly[15] for assassinating journalists as its "primary tool" for controlling the media. He wrote:

"No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.... Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last."[20]

The editorial meditated on why Wickrematunge continued his reporting despite threats to his life: "After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children.... Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice. But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.... Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy".[20]

The editorial's publication caused a "furor" in the nation, with thousands of mourners turning out for Wickrematunge's funeral.[15]

See also

References

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