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
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.
information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific
on +612 9333 0919
The IFJ represents
over 600,000 journalists in 123 countries