Diplomatic pressure needed to protect journalists

New York, January 8, 2009–With today’s murder of the editor-in-chief of the The Sunday Leader newspaper, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on concerned ambassadors in Colombo to weigh in forcefully and immediately with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to put an end to the attacks raining down on Sri Lanka’s media. 

Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was a prominent senior Sri Lankan journalist known for his critical reporting on the government. A source in Sri Lanka who insisted on anonymity out of fear for his safety told CPJ that Wickramatunga was shot repeatedly with an automatic pistol equipped with a silencer while driving to work in the Colombo suburb of Attidiya. His assailants bashed in the window of the car before shooting him in the chest and head, according to colleagues and local and international news reports. He was pronounced dead shortly after 2 p.m. in Colombo, after three hours of emergency surgery.

This morning’s killing follows the January 6 early morning assault by about 15 masked gunmen on Sirasa TV studios outside Colombo. Earlier, some state media had called the station “unpatriotic” for its coverage of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). CPJ called for an impartial parliamentary inquiry into the attack, saying the government has been a prime suspect in attacks on journalists in the past. Rajapaksa has condemned today’s killing as well as the attack on Sirasa.

“The sheer brutality of the attacks in recent days is a clear indicator of how the war on the Sri Lankan media has moved far beyond the use of threats, intimidation, legal harassment, and sporadic violence to curb the media,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga signals that the government is unable or unwilling to protect the country’s journalists who dare to report critically. The international community in Colombo must act quickly to bring pressure on President Rajapaksa to reverse this murderous trend.”

The Sunday Leader is well known for being critical of Rajapaksa’s government. In a recent editorial, the paper accused the president of stepping up the war with the secessionist LTTE in order to stay in power.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The name of Sirasa TV has been corrected.