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Journalists in the cross hairs of Sri Lanka war

Some suspect a government role in the deaths of several journalists, including Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, who was gunned down in January.

March 01, 2009|Mark Magnier

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — The news editor at Sri Lanka's investigative Sunday Leader newspaper was driving to work in January when she ran into a traffic jam a few hundred yards from the office.

Naturally, she investigated. Almost immediately, she saw the body of her boss, friend and editor in chief, Lasantha Wickrematunge, being loaded into a white van near his battered, bloodstained car. Witnesses later reported that several gunmen on motorcycles had carried out the attack.

Wickrematunge, an uncompromising journalist known for his hard-hitting articles on corruption and military accountability, had many powerful enemies. But the 52-year-old had survived attacks before.

This time, his luck ran out.

"Walking into the office the next day was so hard," the news editor, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, said, sitting at her computer beside a picture of him. "All we could do was hug each other."

The Sri Lankan government hasn't commented on its investigation into the Jan. 8 killing, saying only that it is continuing.

The government has nearly doubled the size of its armed forces since 2006, altered military tactics and devoted enormous resources to winning its 25-year civil war against the Tamil Tiger rebels, who seek a separate state. Although the military has chalked up a long line of victories, nine journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka in the last three years, a government minister told parliament shortly after Wickrematunge's death.

Echoing a global debate over the balance between human rights and the fight against militants, some suspect that paramilitary forces or others closely associated with the government may have played a role in the attacks.

Critics charge that the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which came to power espousing human rights and benefits for the downtrodden, appears outright hostile to journalists who don't toe the government line, contributing to a climate of fear.

Anyone who speaks out against the government is accused of demoralizing the troops, being a traitor or supporting the Tigers, said Lal Wickrematunge, chairman of the Sunday Leader, sitting at his desk beside a picture of his slain brother.

"There's a fear psychosis among the media," he said. "There's self-censorship."

Humanitarian organizations, opposition groups and other independent voices also feel a chill, some said.

"Democracy in this country is in peril," said Ravi Karunanayake, an opposition lawmaker, who said he feels personally threatened. "The government has tied up the media, so it only reports what they say."

International human rights and media groups have condemned Wickrematunge's killing, and the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka near the bottom of its 2008 press freedom index of 173 nations, just above North Korea, Myanmar, China and Cuba.

At the broadcasting center of Maharaja TV, Sri Lanka's largest independent network, known for investigative reports on politicians and the police, employees recount the attack they suffered two days before Wickrematunge's death, when about 20 men with machine guns arrived at 2:10 a.m., assaulted the guards and demanded to be taken to the master control room.

There, they shot up the equipment and set off an explosive device that decimated the network's multimillion-dollar digital nerve center.

"The way they shot at the TV screens, the way they shot the monitors, it was quite evident they were trained marksmen, not some gangsters," station director Asoka Dias said, standing amid the debris.

After the attack, Maharaja TV staff rushed to the center and within hours patched together enough old equipment to get back on the air.

Weeks later, the smell of burned chemicals remains. Carbon from the fire coats the walls, desks and melted computer servers. A clock's hands are frozen at 2:35, the time of the explosion.

Sonali Samarasinghe, Wickrematunge's widow, said her husband told her that the station attack was meant to intimidate him and other independent journalists.

"Lasantha always felt, if he was killed, it would be the government," she said, speaking by phone from a European country, which she asked not be disclosed because she feared for her safety.

Lakshman Hulugalle, director general of the official Media Center for National Security in Colombo, the capital, strongly disputes any suggestion of government involvement.

"On Lasantha, an inquiry is going on," he said. "The easiest way is to accuse the government, but we can totally reject it." And Maharaja TV may have destroyed its own station for insurance money, he added.

Wickrematunge appeared to be expecting his death. He prepared a final editorial, published posthumously, that lays out in detail why the government would want him dead. He told his brother that this was the time they might come for him, after a series of military victories when public approval was high. And he told his wife the morning of his death that he knew he was being followed.

Wickrematunge was no stranger to danger. A year after he and his brother started the Sunday Leader in 1994, several men smashed up his car while he and his family were inside. Two years later, his house was sprayed with gunfire. In 1998, the paper was shut down under emergency rule. Shortly after he appealed and won, the paper's presses were set on fire; in 2007, they were set on fire again.

The paper's staff is shaken but says it remains resolved.

"He made a huge difference. Even in death we need to reflect that," said Abeywickrema, the news editor. "Now when I have a tough decision, I look at his picture and ask, what would Lasantha have done?"

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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