Sri Lanka’s woeful January way-points

For Sri Lankan journalists, January might be the cruelest month. In January 2011, Sonali Samarasinghe wrote about the death of her husband Lasantha Wickramatunga two years earlier on January 8, 2009. In January 2010 I reported in “Sri Lanka: A year later, still failing to fight media attacks” about the government’s inactivity in investigating Wickramatunga’s death one year on. That was a follow up to the February 2009 “Failure to Investigate,” in which CPJ had investigated his death and two other January attacks — one a bombing raid on an independent television station and the other — an attack similar to that on Wickramatunga, though not fatal — on Upali Tennakoon, the editor of a Sinhala newspaper.

Now, three years after Wickramatunga, the editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader, was killed by eight men on four motorcycles who attacked him with metal and wooden poles after cutting off his car on a busy street near a police checkpoint and air force base in a suburb of Colombo, the court hearing periodic reports from police in the investigation has made no substantive movement toward bringing any of the perpetrators to justice.

Samarasinghe has released a wide-ranging indictment of the government’s inactivity and the continuing onslaught against independent media in Sri Lanka. The Free Media Movement released its statement Sunday. The Sunday Leader‘s remembrance, “Lasantha Was Murdered 3 Years Ago …Remembering Lasantha,” noted that “three years later and with over sixty dates in court, the Police have still not made any headway with the investigation.”

And coming up on January 24 is the second anniversary of the disappearance of Prageeth Eknelygoda, a cartoonist and pro-opposition journalist – another case that remains tied up in court hearings with no substantive movement. Eknelygoda’s wife and two sons have gotten no word from any official body of the Sri Lankan government, from the lowest police desk to the highest levels of the ministry of justice, about what happened to Eknelygoda.

In 2011, Sri Lanka ranked fourth worst in the world in terms of allowing murders of journalists to go unpunished, according to our global Impunity Index. As we noted in our report, “President Mahinda Rajapaksa has presided over a dark era of targeted media killings and complete law-enforcement failure in addressing the crimes. All nine journalist murders in the past decade have gone unsolved, leaving persistent questions as to whether authorities have been complicit in some of the crimes.”

The government has made public its report from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which has been rejected internationally as a whitewash of conduct in the decades-long conflict with secessionist Tamil movements, notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. As we noted in a November 15 blog, “Sri Lanka’s savage smokescreen,” “A March 2011 report by a panel of experts appointed by [UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon] called the LLRC ‘deeply flawed.’ It recommended that the government should end practices that limit freedom of movement and freedom of expression ‘or otherwise contribute to a climate of fear.’

The result of all this mayhem is that Sri Lanka’s independent media has been largely restrained, though voices still speak out on occasion. The government’s attempt to rewrite the history of one of the most brutal civil conflicts in modern times has been challenged, but not yet discredited, by any independent international body of any stature.

In that context, the January 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga and the January 2010 unexplained disappearance of Prageeth Eknelygoda are only two way-points along Sri Lanka’s route to abandonment of its international standing as a country with a rule of law. And, of course, a free press.