Sri Lanka’s reporters are constantly at the mercy of the whims of the country’s powerful elite, says Uvindu Kurukulasuriya
Lasantha Wickrematunga faced his last moments at an unusual time at an unusual place. From the moment he left home the day he was murdered, he was aware that he was being tailed. He informed his friends of this fact on the phone. One friend had advised him to immediately go to a safe place. Lasantha’s reply was ‘…at most, I will be killed’.
He had realised that if he had gone to a safe place, it would only be postponing his death for a few more days. He was an unarmed man driving his own car. There is no safety for the civil population of Sri Lanka. If someone decides that another should be liquidated, it is a dead cert that it will happen any time.
The moment I heard Lasantha was shot, I went to the Kalubowila hospital accompanied by a person whose name appears at the top of the hit list: Dr Saravanamuttu. On my way, I was reminded of the trip I took to the same hospital on a similar occasion when I heard that another editor, Rohana Kumara, was shot. That day, I was accompanied by the Ravaya editor, Victor Ivan, who was also top of the hit list at that point of time.
Rohana Kumara was shot dead during the tail end of the first presidential period of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, on 7 September 1999. That was the time when her regime frequently exercised brutal activities against the media of the country and against democracy. A minister who was sidelined in her cabinet wanted to show he was shocked, and in secret, to do something for the freedom and safety of journalists. I had discussions with him and paved the way for him to make it up with Victor Ivan, the convener of the Free Media Movement.
This minister was induced to publicly take the lead in establishing a broad front to re-establish democracy in the country.
One evening during that period, that minister, together with Hemasiri Fernando, who had held the position of secretary to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Victor Ivan and myself were at Hemasiri’s house, when I received a telephone call: ‘A journalist has been shot at Delkanda.’ Hemasiri made several telephone calls and identified the journalist as Rohana Kumara. ‘This is the work of Chandrika and Sanath,’ the minister said. This minister, who had been sidelined by Chandrika, and who had promised to come forward to safeguard democracy and media freedom, was none other than the current president, Mahinda Rajapakse. The accusation he levelled against Chandrika that day has boomeranged on him. For the first time, following Lasantha’s assassination, slogans have appeared accusing him of murder: Ghathakaya Satakaya.
During the period of this president’s regime, 17 journalists and media workers have been killed. Two years ago, when the Free Media Movement officially met the president, we requested him to bring before the law, symbolically, the murderer of at least one journalist. At a personal meeting a few months ago, I reminded him of that request. So far nothing has happened.
President Rajapakse called Lasantha a ‘terrorist journalist’ during an interview with Reporters Without Borders last October.
He said the same thing to us last September, when we met with him. The president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, Sanath Balasuriya, and it’s secretary, Poddala Jayantha, accompanied me as the convenor of the Free Media Movement to this meeting with President Rajapaksha. Mahinda Rajapakse called Lasantha ‘Kotiyek’ (a tiger) during that meeting. He made the same remark about MTV head, Raja Mahendran as well. After the meeting the president asked us to join him for dinner, but we politely declined the invitation.
The same night I phoned both Lasantha and Raja Mahendran and told them what the president had said.
After Lasantha was killed this same president said Lasantha Wickramatunge had been a very good friend of his, and that Lasantha and he had dinner together.
This is like the legend about the dinner invitation to those marked out for assassination by the Mafia. I don’t know whether Lasantha had dinner with the Mafia or with Mahinda Rajapakse. But I know one thing: he never went to the breakfast meetings with the president like all the other editors. It seems that if a Sri Lankan journalist is to survive, he or she should never miss breakfast with the president.