Lasantha Wickramatunga
Lasantha Wickramatunga

One year later in Sri Lanka, little has changed

Even by Sri Lanka’s standards, January 2009 was a brutal month for journalists.

On January 6, on a quiet road on the outskirts of Colombo, the country’s main independently owned TV station, Sirasa TV, was raided at 2:05 a.m. by 15 to 20 masked armed men working with military precision. At 2:35:31 they detonated an explosion, possibly a claymore mine, a military-style antipersonnel mine set off by an electrical charge through wires leading to the device.

And at around 6:40 a.m. on January 23, according to Upali Tennakoon, editor of the Sinhala-language, pro-government weekly Rivira, four men on two motorcycles forced his car to stop and smashed its window. One attacker used a metal bar with a single sharp point to hit Tennakoon in the face and in his hands when he put them up to defend himself, he said. He and his wife, Dhammika, were driving to his office at the time of the attack.

But by far the worst assault on a journalist came on January 8, two days after the bombing of Sirasa. At around 10 a.m. on January 8, the editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunga, was killed in his car on his way to work on a busy street in a mixed suburban and semi-industrial suburb of Colombo. According to his brother Lal Wickramatunga, chairman of the paper’s parent company, Leader Publications, the editor had been receiving anonymous death threats by phone for months. The weapons used to kill him were the same as those that would be used two weeks later on Tennakoon—sharply pointed metal bars and wooden poles.

The attacks on the two men came in broad daylight on public roads, using weapons deigned to maim and kill. Clearly they were meant not only to terrorize their victims but anyone who might support them.

CPJ’s special report on the incidents, Failure to Investigate, looked closely at the attacks and at the atmosphere of total impunity that surrounds assaults on journalists in Sri Lanka. Our emphasis on impunity was not misplaced. To date, there have been no meaningful prosecutions in any of the cases.

Sonali Samarasinghe, Wickramatunga’s wife, has been conducting a campaign to have the case investigated and his killers brought to justice. Her Web site, UnbowedandUnafraid seeks to keep his case and those of other Sri Lankan journalists alive. Fearing for her safety, she no longer lives in Sri Lanka. On the anniversary of her husband’s death, she has sent an open letter to President Mahinda Rajapkasa calling for a full investigation

CPJ has already made the case that the government has not brought his killers or the perpetrators of any other acts of violence against any journalists to justice. Ever. Sonali Samarasinghe’s letter calls on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to address those injustices, just as we have been doing. 

Read a pdf of the letter