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 assassination.
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