Sri Lanka: regime change and the death of a journalist

By Savi Hensman
January 9, 2015

On 8 January 2015, the people of Sri Lanka elected a new president. The date also marked the sixth anniversary of the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, a critic of the regime which has now been replaced.

Joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena was declared the victor on 9 January 2015, replacing Mahinda Rajapakse. The former president – with his brothers Gotabhaya (defence secretary), Chamal (speaker of parliament) and Basil (economic development minister) – dominated the country for a decade.

The outgoing administration was implicated in various human rights abuses. These included mass deaths at the end of a civil war in which both state forces and brutal Tiger rebels disregarded the safety of civilians.

Journalists are not always defenders of justice. Some use their platform to assist the privileged and powerful, or those seeking to seize power for their own ends at the expense of the vulnerable.

Internationally, racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic articles, and writing and cartoons attacking religious minorities, disabled people and opponents of governments, are all too common. However, journalists willing to tell truths which those in power would prefer people not to hear, play a valuable role. It can be risky.

Some today see threats to media safety as reflecting a tension between the ‘free’ west and its allies on the one hand, and authoritarian Muslims and other enemies of freedom on the other hand. This is at odds with reality.

Many current or aspiring governments across the world are prepared to jail or kill those who do not follow their script. For instance, during the 2003 Iraq war, US forces killed several journalists not embedded with their own forces, including cameraman Tarek Ayyoub of Al-Jazeera (feeble excuses were made).

In a remarkable article, completed by his colleagues and published after he was assassinated on 8 January 2009, Wickrematunge blamed the regime, as well as setting out the vision which guided him as editor of the Sunday Leader and warned of the dangers of ‘them and us’ politics. In South Asia, secularism commonly refers not to being anti-religious, but rather opposition to the religious dominance that undermines equality and poisons spirituality. He wrote:

We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty...

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one... That is our calling, and we do not shirk it...

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy... Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are...

...we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism... We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly...

...a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era...

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry... When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

Quoting German theologian Martin Niemöller’s famous poem ‘First they came...’ Lasantha Wickrematunge pledged, “The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled.”

It remains to be seen whether the new Sri Lankan government will live up to this vision. Meanwhile journalists, bloggers and other citizens internationally have a role in questioning the claims of the powerful, sharing truth and promoting justice.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector, and was born in Sri Lanka.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.