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The man who changed Sri Lankan journalism

Lasantha Wickrematunge often referred to the well known warning of German pastor Martin Nimoeller - who fell victim to Nazi forces - on the consequences of inaction and passivity in the face of fascist terror.

The tragic irony behind Lasantha Wickrematunge's foul murder is that unlike Nimoeller, he from the very beginning spoke out for one and all who were victims of the forces of fascism and all forms of terrorism. In the 1980s, some Sinhalese (JVPers) were being hunted by pro government vigilantes, he wrote about them and earned the ire of an all powerful personality at that time who promised him to be 'garlanded with a necklace of burning tyres.'

He had to flee the country at that time but came back soon. He consistently stood up for ethnic and religious minorities who were victims of the war on terrorism. That was a cardinal sin in the eyes of many. He exposed bribery and corruption, nepotism, racketeering, gangsterism in all its forms, bureaucratic lethargy and corruption under which the public suffered and even judicial misdemeanours.

Supreme sacrifice

For one such reason or more he was cruelly gunned down on the Attidiya highway, less than a kilometre from his beloved newspaper offices of The Leader. That was the supreme sacrifice he made for independent journalism, for freedom of expression and above all the right of the people to know and say about events going on in society.

˙ Many are those who disagreed with his views, some with great emotion. Even in his last week on Earth he and his organisation were roundly abused. But he was a man who could give what he took. That is the essence of a good journalist. He had the courage of conviction to stand by and sponsor unpopular causes, even though it would have been detrimental to the interests of The Leader publications and also in the face of dire threats to his life and limb.

˙ Some people understood this principle of democratic journalism. Karu Jayasuriya expressed this view on the day of Wickrematunge's demise: 'He was severely critical of me on many occasions and so was I of him. But he was a good and brave journalist,' Jayasuriya said. But such democratic politicians are hard to find.

Wanted him out

˙ The manner in which he was disposed of from life and the political scene leaves no doubt some forces wanted him permanently out of the political scene. Lasantha Wickrematunge created a new variety of Sri Lankan journalism. This was investigative journalism of a variety that left no stone unturned. This was not the kind of mild bottom pinching the so called sophisticated journalism that some English language newspapers indulged in. It was straight, hard punching from the shoulder in the Sunday and Wednesday publications.

The bold hard headlines in black and white - at times spread across two opposite pages - told the whole story. Not for him those coloured boxes with techni-coloured headlines that said little or nothing. In the 14 years of publication of The Leader he brought a new dimension to Sri Lankan journalism. Wickrematunge in effect became a one man opposition to government. He warned the public of the possibility of an impending dictatorship and the need of an unfettered media to prevent such moves.

˙ His death leaves a big void hard to fill. It is all the more regrettable because it comes at a time when other newspapers and electronic media which earlier had been impartial and independent in their news coverage have commenced singing from the same hymn sheet as the state media. The panegyrics published today about the 'great men now in power' and those of their favoured dead will leave a sensitive reader or viewer nauseated.

No clothes

Wickrematunge, quite often was able to show that our modern day emperors often had no clothes, while having feet of clay. That is all the more important to generations growing up to be stimulated into independent thinking about their leaders, people and the country.

˙ With English effectively removed from the school curriculum about 40 years ago, children have been fed on a diet of state propaganda all the while. The effect of Wickrematunge's daring journalism was to make people and the children think for themselves and not be zombies praising the powers that be at any given moment.

Our education system has been mentally crippled to such an extent the children's process of thinking has suffered. Those of earlier generations blessed to be taught in the English medium were told of thoughts of great thinkers and philosophers like Rene Descartes like: 'Cogito ergo sum' - I think therefore I am.

Are today's children taught that if they cease to think, they will cease to exist as individuals? Are they taught that if two people agree on everything, then only one person is doing the thinking? Lasantha Wickrematunge did not preach philosophy in his newspapers. But he did try to convey to the people that what was being drilled into their minds of the people on state radio, TV and the pro-government press had quite a lot of hogwash that could be fatal to the nation in the long run.

Exposed them all

He exposed 'saviours of the nation' as pious frauds; newly arrived messiahs in various fields as absolute fakes; exposed bribery and corruption at all levels;  and the duping of the poor by conmen.

˙ Wickrematunge's assassination came in almost 48 hours after the attack on the MTV central transmitting station by another gang of unidentified goons. At the time of writing these comments there have been no reports of any of the offenders being questioned or arrested. The world awaits to see the outcome of investigations into the dastardly cold blooded killing. Killing and bashing journalists have become a popular sport in Sri Lanka. We have lost count of the many incidents of journalists that have been subjected to and even killed in the north in recent times.

The journalist world has been shocked and aghast at the killing of Sivaram, the internationally known Tamil journalist, the abduction and brutal attack on Keith Noyahr, Deputy Editor of The Nation and now the outrageous killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Earlier attempts were made by once again an unidentified gang to set ablaze the press of Leader Publications.

Impotent?

Are the Sri Lanka police and other security establishments impotent in tracing down the perpetrators of these crimes? Can a respectable democratic government under any circumstance plead to impotence to bring these criminals to justice? What confidence will any independent journalist have in investigating any offence or crime if there is a likelihood of armed goons shadowing them?

˙ Expressions of sadness, claims of friendship and other excuses such as attempts by anti government forces to divert attention from the military victories of the government will not even convince the faithful of the Rajapakse government. Both Wickrematunge and MTV came under virulent attack by government propaganda organs from their coverage and comments on the military offensives in the north, although no unfavourable references were made, at least by Wickrematunge or his publication, on such offensives.

Government leaders and propagandists have the right to make such criticism even though they were wrong in their assumptions but the virulence of the attacks and the attributed motives place these accusations in another dimension. No responsible democratic government can get away with assurances of intensive investigations and justice being done in the future with no tangible results forthcoming.

The many instances of journalists being bashed and the failure to bring criminals to book make the government spokespersons jokers.

˙ Lasantha Wickrematunge in death has also placed a challenge on his journalist colleagues. What action will they take not only to see that justice will be done but that the same tragedy will not happen to one of them? Stirring resolutions calling upon the government to take action and fiery rhetoric in public places such as roundabouts are not enough. The people will want to avenge Lasantha Wickrematunge -  a man who went through hell and high water to safeguard the freedom of expression of the Sri Lankan people.  


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