Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, who was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle as he drove to work this morning in Colombo.
“Sri Lanka has lost one of its more talented, courageous and iconoclastic journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press. Sri Lanka's image is badly sullied by this murder, which is an absolute scandal and must not go unpunished.”
The press freedom organisation added: “The military victories in the north against the Tamil Tigers rebels must not be seen as a green light for death squads to sow terror among government critics, including outspoken journalists. The international community must do everything possible to halt such a political vendetta.”
President Rajapaksa called Wickrematunga a “terrorist journalist” during an interview with a Reporters Without Borders representative in Colombo, last October.
This morning's attack on Wickrematunga occurred in rush-hour traffic about 100 metres from an air force checkpoint near one of the capital's airports. The two assailants smashed the window of his car with a steel bar before shooting him at close range in the head, chest and stomach. He was rushed to a Colombo hospital where he died a few hours later.
The Sunday Leader's outspoken style and coverage of shady business deals meant that Wickrematunga was often the target of intimidation attempts and libel suits. The most recent lawsuit was brought by the president's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who got a court to ban the newspaper from mentioning him for several weeks.
Lasantha Wickrematunga, who was also a lawyer, told Reporters Without Borders in an interview that his aim as a journalist was to “denounce the greed and lies of the powerful.” His newspaper specialised in sensational investigative reporting of corruption and abuse of authority in Sri Lanka.
The printing press of the Sunday Leader media group (Leader Publications), which is located in a high security area near Colombo, was destroyed in an arson attack by a group of gunmen in November 2007. Wickrematunga told Reporters Without Borders at the time the attack was “a commando operation supported by the government.” The police did not carry out a proper investigation.
Sri Lanka was ranked 165th out of 173 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2008 press freedom index. This was the lowest ranking of any democratic country. Two journalists were killed in Sri Lanka in 2008 and two others, J. S. Tissanayagam and Vettivel Jasikaran, are currently in prison.