IFJ Pays Tribute to Campaigning Editor Killed by Assassins in Sri Lanka

The International Federation

of Journalists (IFJ) expressed shock at the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga,

one of South Asia's leading journalists and

press freedom campaigners, who was shot dead yesterday in a targeted


Lasantha, editor in chief of

the Sunday Leader in Sri

Lanka, was shot after has car was ambushed

by two assassins on motorcycles. They blocked his car, used crowbars to smash

the windows and shot him at a busy intersection in Colombo as he was driving to work.

Sri Lankan president Mahindra

Rajapaksa reacted sharply to the murder and suggested that it may be part of a

conspiracy to discredit his government.

"This brutal attack and

murder of a great fighter for press freedom strikes at the heart of democracy,"

said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "We welcome the President's concern,

but given the history of personal attacks that Lasantha and his newspaper group

have suffered at the hands of the authorities it is impossible to ignore the

fact that the government bears some responsibility for creating the climate

that led to this outrage."

In October last year Lasantha met with an international mission of IFJ

members. At the time he was in combative action successfully mobilising public

support against Sri Lankan government attempts to grab sweeping powers of

cancelling broadcast licences and censorship over the content of news channels.

"Lasantha was a steadfast opponent of every threat to press freedom,"

said White. "Even when other media kept their silence, he would speak out,

often as a lone voice. He showed inspiring courage and conviction to all."

In May 2000, the government of Chandrika Kumaratunga closed down the Sunday

Leader after military setbacks in the war against Tamil insurgents in the

north of the country. Lasantha fought the closure and secured a court victory

striking down law allowing government to curb the media.

Later that year Lasantha was sentenced to a suspended term of two years imprisonment

on charges of "criminal defamation" against the president over a Sunday

Leader article that accused the president of not delivering on election

campaign pledges.

In June 2006, the Sunday Leader accused the governor of the Sri

Lankan central bank of blocking investigations into a pyramid savings scheme.

The newspaper was raided by tax authorities early in 2007 and the reporter

responsible was summoned for interrogation in May 2007.

Later that year Lasantha was in court defending another reporter with

the Sunday Leader who was detained on charges of extortion after publishing

a story exposing expenses irregularities involving a minister's wife and in

November 2007, the printing press and other facilities of the Sunday Leader were damaged in an arson

attack that Lasantha said resembled a "commando action."

"This unrivalled record of duty and service speaks for itself," said

White. "Sri Lankan journalists and society at large owe a great debt to a man

who always stood up for democracy and freedom."

The IFJ fears that attacks on critical voices in media may increase

following the Sri Lankan government's recent military successes against

Tamil Tiger fighters. On January 6, the studios and transmission facilities of

the network Sirasa TV were attacked by armed men. This raid followed a series

of attacks on the channel's coverage by officials in the Sri Lankan government

and state-owned media.

"A climate of triumphalism can be toxic for press freedom," said

White.  "This is why we welcome the

initiative of some political parties in Sri Lanka to hold a wide-ranging

public debate on current threats to media freedom."

The IFJ says civil society and the media community in Sri Lanka

should unite to agree an action plan to end the culture of impunity for attacks

on media staff. "This latest tragedy underscores why the safety of journalists

must become a top priority," said White.

For further

information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific

on +612 9333 0919

The IFJ represents

over 600,000 journalists in 123 countries