A forum titled ‘10 Years after Lasantha: Whither Investigative Journalism in Sri Lanka was held on January 8 in Colombo
emocracy depends on the ability of journalists to speak truth to power, investigate abuses and provide people with information about the world around them. Every attack on a journalist, every threat or undue restriction is an attack on every citizen.
Perpetrators enjoying impunity
Sri Lanka, ranked 131 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, starting from former chairman of Independent Television Network (ITN) Thevis Guruge, who was killed in 1989 to former Editor of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge who was murdered on January 8, 2009 in Colombo, there are dozens of unsolved crimes against journalists who have been murdered, harassed and threatened.
Despite promises that President Maithripala Sirisena made to end impunity for crimes against journalists, especially the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the perpetrators still enjoy impunity.
"They took Lasantha, but we’re still here and will keep fighting” -Dharisha"
January 8, 2019 marked a decade since the brutal murder of one of the bravest journalists in Sri Lankan journalism industry, Wickrematunge. Journalists, activists, politicians, diplomats along with his family gathered at his grave at Borella Cemetery and held a service, remembering him. Those who gathered at the service also paid tribute to other journalists whose voices have been silenced for their journalistic work.
10 Years after Lasantha
On the same day, a forum and a panel discussion titled ‘10 Years After Lasantha: Whither Investigative Journalism in Sri Lanka?’ was held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, Colombo 7 to mark the 10th anniversary of his assassination.
The panellists of the forum included AFP Sri Lanka and Maldives Bureau Chief, Amal Jayasinghe, Sunday Observer Editor and former Sunday Leader journalist Dharisha Bastian, Nikkei Asian Review Regional Correspondent and former Sunday Leader Features Editor, Marwaan Macan-Markar and Groundviews Editor and former Sunday Leader journalist, Raisa Wickrematunge.
The forum began with a Skype call by the brother of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Lal Wickrematunge.
CID is prevented from taking legal action: Lal
He said by today, the perpetrators, the names of the motorcyclists, and those who gave orders to kill his brother have been identified by the CID, although the CID is prevented from moving ahead in the inquiry.
“The investigation into Lasantha’s murder was stuck in Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) for six years. After the Government change, the inquiry was handed over to the CID. The evidence has been tampered with. “It becomes so clear for even someone who doesn’t have a legal background as to why senior police officers tamper with evidence of the murder to cover up someone higher to them,” Lal Wickrematunge said.
Perpetrators will gain power to cause more terror: Ahimsa Wickrematunge
A voice recording of Ahimsa Wickrematunge, the daughter of Lasantha was also played at the forum. In the recording, Ahimsa asked what kind of a monster would kill an innocent person just because you were afraid of his pen?
She further said that if the CID is not given necessary support to bring her father’s killers to justice, the perpetrators will gain power to cause more terror.
“I want those who are responsible for my father’s murder to be behind bars before they harm someone else,” said Ahimsa.
Ensuring safety of journos
AFP Bureau Chief Amal Jayasinghe said that apart from the very few names including Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Ekeneligoda, whom we talk about every day, there were so many journalists who have been killed or abducted during the past three decades. Unfortunately, there is no database available as to how many journalists have been killed and further information with regard to such cases, he said.
He posed a question as to what the journalistic community has done to push authorities to make sure the investigations into crimes against journalists are brought to a logical conclusion.
“Do the journalists in Sri Lanka have minimum protection in case of threats to their lives? Is there a mechanism to ensure the safety of journalists? These topics should not be forgotten in a week or so because when the journalists are in trouble, their families are left without any support,” said Jayasinghe.
Speaking about the inquiry into the murder of Lasantha, he said that after the change of government, they witnessed a tremendous progress in the investigation with the new found energy of the CID, who have identified the killers and those responsible for tampering the evidence of the investigation.He further said that although the CID has been able to find much details into crimes, political interference is holding them back.
He opined that in addition to the Constitutional reforms, we also need to look into the reforms into the criminal judiciary system of Sri Lanka.
Lasantha, beyond a tough investigative journalist
Meanwhile, Nikkei Asian Review Regional Correspondent and former Sunday Leader Features Editor, Marwaan Macan-Markar explained what kind of a courageous and supportive editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was.
“He was an inspiration to those who were less courageous than he. Behind this investigative journalist who went after corrupt government officials and political establishments, there was a very lovely human being,” he said.
‘Truth is the right you deny and the wrong you justify’
Just before the end of the forum, an amazing speech was delivered by one person in the audience. He was none other than veteran journalist Vijitha Yapa, first Editor of Lasantha when he served The Island.
Yapa reminisced how he first met Lasantha as an inexperienced legal reporter.
“Lasantha had an uneventful life at The Island. At that time, there was no one to do to investigative journalism. He had been receiving threats even when he was working at the Sunday Times. Once he wrote a story regarding Former President Premadasa and Sirisena Cooray. There were threats to his life due to that article. That was when he decided to leave journalism for a little while and leave for Australia for his safety.
Later, President Premadasa said that he had nothing against Lasantha and asked him to return to Sri Lanka. There are so many stories about Lasantha and right now I cannot go relating them,”
However, Yapa emphasised that there has to be institutional support to train journalists and guide them towards investigative journalism.
“One of the main problems regarding journalism in Sri Lanka is that we do not have an institution to train journalists whether it be for investigative journalists or others. There is an attempt being made by Sri Lanka College of Journalism, but such effort did not exist in the 1980s” he said.
Yapa recalled a well-known Daily Express journalist saying that ‘the truth is the right you deny and the wrong you justify’. Even today it is very easy to hide behind power and all other things. But, the truth will surface one day,” Yapa concluded his speech amidst a round of applause.
In fact, there are important roles to be played by political leaders, opinion makers and influencers to make a safe background to exercise journalism, fight impunity and to protect press freedom. Sunday Observer Editor and former Sunday Leader journalist Dharisha Bastian said at this discussion, although “they” took a great journalist like Lasantha Wickrematunge, we are still here and we will keep fighting.
a section of the audience
Pics by Pradeep Pathirana