Sri Lankan newspaperman condemns absence of press freedom in his country at Press Council lecture

Tuesday, 3rd May 2011
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The high profile killing in 2009 of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Managing Editor of the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader, has generated fear and self-censorship in the Sri Lankan media ever since, the murdered editor’s brother, Mr. Lal Wickrematunge, told a lecture in Trinity College today organized by the Press Council of Ireland to mark World Press Freedom Day.

“My brother Lasantha was Editor in Chief and I was the Managing Director”, Mr. Wickrematunge said. “The newspaper, the fourth national newspaper to be published in the English language, was first published in 1994. The focus of the newspaper was on investigative journalism and highlighting corruption, nepotism and racism. No less than nine attacks have been made on the Editor, the printing presses and even the abodes of the Editor and Managing Director.”

In January 2009 Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed in broad daylight by four men riding military style motor cycles within a high security zone. “Two years have gone by and nothing has been done to bring the perpetrators nor those who ordered such killing before the law.

“The high profile killing of Lasantha has driven fear amongst the media and self censorship is practised since. The war which was concluded in May 2009 had no independent media coverage.

“India which is amongst the largest democracies in the world has a relatively free press. So did Sri Lanka, until the 1960s. There has been a gradual erosion of freedom, and this has reached dangerous levels during the last decade.
“The international agency Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka as the "least respectful" of the countries in the region for democracy and press freedoms. The agency lists the South Asian countries as follows in their Press Freedom Index of 2010:
Maldives 52
Bhutan 64
Nepal 119
India 122
Bangladesh 126
Afghanistan 147
Pakistan 151
Sri Lanka 158

The armed forces, Mr. Wickrematunge said, were made heroes after May 2009 and play a vital role despite the end of war. The President has a brother as the Speaker to the parliament and another as a Minister handling the economy. Yet another is the Secretary of the Defence under whom the armed forces and Police function. His son, too, entered parliament at the last elections. The very visible role of the military in the normal day-to-day functions of civilian life is ominous and casts a shadow over future events.

“Sri Lanka is a working democracy, in appearance. The system includes an executive president, a parliament which legislates and a judiciary which was independent till the beginning of the year when the President changed the constitution. The law requires the approval of two thirds of the representatives in parliament to do so. Though the government fell short of this magical number, defections from the opposition ranks were mustered by the use of smart practices. The President of Sri Lanka by law is the most powerful man on Earth. Legally he is above the law.”

Lasantha Wickrematunge was named a “Hero of Press Freedom” by the International Press Institute following his murder.


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