Who is Lasantha Wickrematunge?

Lasantha would have been proud, yet humbled that the foremost world organisation for freedom of expression saw in him a fit candidate to receive the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize.

Yet there was in Lasantha a humility and steadfastness of  purpose that transcended superficial achievement. When he wrote in his final editorial that there is, “a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security,” he meant it. He lived it.

Even as Sri Lanka finds itself today enmeshed in the tentacles of a bloody and ruthless race war, Lasantha would not have allowed the slaughter of thousands of innocents without putting on a tremendous fight the only way he knew how - Through his unique brand of fiery journalism. For this, today he lies dead.

But Lasantha wasn't everybody's flavour of the month. For the Mahinda Rajapakse administration he was the biggest thorn in their flesh. Week after week he reported on governmental waste, corruption and excess. He investigated corrupt military procurement deals, spoke out strongly and passionately for a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict and debunked blatant government propaganda on the war.

Lasantha's grouse with a military solution to the conflict as pursued by the present government and its extremist allies was the staggering civilian cost. He genuinely felt  that while it was important to eliminate the LTTE it was important also to respect the lives of minority Tamil civilians.

However by bombing LTTE targets from the air and even treating civilian hospitals in LTTE controlled areas as legitimate targets the government itself was resorting to terrorism. And it is to this that Lasantha objected. These he called war crimes because had these targets been in majority Sinhala areas it is inconceivable that the government would have bombed them. That is what he felt. That is the stand he died for.

Lasantha was a martyr for the cause of free expression. The right to be a dissident.

It is no secret that in the absence of a viable opposition in the country it was he who gave leadership to the cause of dissidents. He spoke on behalf of the underdog. The down trodden. For those who couldn't speak up for themselves. He was a man of deep faith but he spoke up for those with no faith. He died to establish a liberal secular democracy. That was his hope for Sri Lanka. And this was anathema to a govt which is now trying to take Sri Lanka in the direction of a mono ethnic theocracy.

Lasantha knew he was on the government’s hit list, but felt it cowardly to take precautions against an attack. He felt it was impossible to protect himself against the resources of the government, short of abandoning his career as a journalist and fleeing the country he loved.

A pattern of intimidation

LW Wedding Portrait
In the course of the past several years, Lasantha has been the victim of physical assaults, shootings, and attempts to arrest him. Lasantha was constantly under threat. The presses of the newspapers he and his wife Sonali edited were set on fire. There were constant threats over the phone. The newspaper was sealed under emergency regulations. The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) was often sent to question him and his wife to reveal their sources that led to exposes of corruption and excess in government.

In every one of these cases he asked  for police protection, But never got it.

Lasantha was no coward. He did not hide behind a gun or a human shield. He viewed with majestic scorn the risks he ran. And underneath his gentle surface other currents moved. The need to fight for justice and fair play. He knew that if he did not speak out for those who couldn't speak for themselves there will be no one to speak out for anybody in the future.

The man

He may have revelled in the turbulence of politics and plied his art with an almost frenetic energy but in his personal life he was unassuming and easily embarrassed by accolades and praise. Hugely popular and easily recognisable in public he would still shy away from public demonstrations of adulation.

He was a man who thought little of material gain and self aggrandizement.

Running a newspaper that hardly got any government advertising due to his fierce and unrelenting independence was tough. He felt responsible for his staff and would often go without his own salary for months just so that the rest of the staff could be paid theirs on time.  

Though he shunned its perks Lasantha was deeply interested in politics. It was in his blood. His own father, his uncle and his great grandfather had all been vibrant political personalities. His grand uncle had been the first minister of health in an independent Sri Lankan government after Sri Lanka won independence from the British in 1948.  

Lasantha's maternal grandfather was a Sinhala language scholar and Lasantha hailed from a fiercely Sinhala Buddhist family. Nearly 12 years ago Lasantha converted to Christianity through deep conviction.

Undoubtedly however it was to be this majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist bloodline that was to later bestow upon him a voice of moral authority and credibility as he became a lone soldier on behalf of ethnic and religious minorities.

A media giant

Lasantha's murder was to break the backbone of independent reporting in Sri Lanka. He was the fulcrum on which free media rested. He was the standard.  

Today no independent journalists are allowed into the war zone by the Sri Lankan government. With a total black out of defence news save government propaganda the independent MTV/MBC television station has been banned from reporting on defence matters on threat of having their license revoked.

After Lasantha's murder Mr Upali Tennakoon editor of the independent Rivira newspaper narrowly escaped death in a murderous attack in many ways similar to that on Lasantha.

The government owned ITN television channel on the day of Lasantha’s murder made no mention of the assassination despite it having been by any yardstick the top story of the day. The other state media were little different: they relegated the story to a footnote at best.

The so called investigation into Lasantha's murder is not reported in  any newspaper independent or otherwise, THere is no one bold enough to ask questions. In the public interest and for the causes he espoused Lasantha tirelessly  investigated corruption, government esxcess and murder. Today in a country where democracy is all but dead no newspaper is willing to walk down a similar road for him. And as the war ends and triumphalism begins it is as if the government seeks to obliterate Lasantha's name from memory.

It is a fact that the independent media is so terrified of the violence the government is capable of unleashing against them or of the other numerous financial methods that they will not hesitate to use in order to whip them into submission that they do not call the government to account even in the cases where media workers have been victims.

Relentless in its attempt to intimidate journalists and crush the voices of freedom, the government has appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the writings and the contributions of journalists who have been contributing articles to foreign non-governmental organizations, and newspapers that might be deemed “detrimental to the interests of Sri Lanka”.  

A symbol

On hearing about Lasantha's assassination in January a Sri Lankan who himself had fled his motherland to take refuge in a free country wrote to his wife Sonali in despair. 'We feel like orphans today,” he said. 'Lasantha fought selflessly on our behalf'.

A couple of years ago a businessman was heard to say at a public gathering. 'Íf we had but three Lasantha's in this country,' he was to say. 'Just three. We would be a great nation.'

To thousands across the world Lasantha in death as in life has become a symbol of hope.

Perhaps it is through the death of this great warrior and others like him, that the mark of freedom will be seared into the soul of Sri Lanka

Finally Lasantha would have wanted more platforms. More alliances. More conferences. More action. More voices to emerge. He had many dreams. A classless society. Media that existed in the public interest. Politicians that worked for the public interest. Peaceful and negotiated solution to conflict. Lasantha died in pursuit of his dream. But then, so did Martin Luther King."

For the sake of humanity let Lasantha's story be well remembered.