No freedom at 'Sunday Leader'

Wed, May 4, 2011, 01:00

BOTH THE editor and the journalists of Sri Lankan newspaper, the Sunday Leader, are working under death threats, and its former editor has already been murdered, a public meeting heard yesterday.

Lal Wickrematunge was addressing a meeting organised by the Press Council of Ireland to mark World Press Freedom Day. His brother Lasantha, the paper’s previous editor, was killed in January 2009 by four men riding military-style motorbikes in a high security zone following a number of death threats and assaults. Nothing has been done to bring the perpetrators to justice, Mr Wickrematunge said.

He told the meeting that Sri Lanka was prosperous and enjoyed freedom of the press in the 1950s and 1960s, but then the government began to discriminate against the Tamil minority in relation to access to third-level education, land ownership and employment in the public service. A large group of young Tamil men wanted independence for the north-eastern area of the country, home to about two million Tamils, while about 500,000 lived in the capital, Colombo.

The Tamil Tigers militant organisation killed a number of soldiers, members of the majority Sinhalese community, and when their bodies were brought home this unleashed a wave of attacks against Tamil civilians in Colombo, who were forced out of their homes or killed. “Tamils left in droves,” he said. “There was no remorse, no investigations.”

While the Sunday Leader, founded in 1994, did not support the Tamil Tigers, it did describe what the majority had done, or failed to do.

The newspaper also fought to expose corruption and promote good governance and Lasantha Wickrematunge had such good contacts among both the government and opposition parties that he could carry detailed reports in the Sunday paper of discussions at the Cabinet meeting which had taken place the previous Wednesday, his brother said.

The editor wrote to the president asking her to verify the accuracy of the academic qualifications she claimed. A letter came back from her office stating that “a letter to Her Excellency the President is only forwarded to her when it is sent from a human being and not an insect like you”.

The following week the paper published this correspondence, and the week after it carried a letter from the French university she claimed to have attended stating it knew nothing of her.

“Two weeks later armed people walked into our printers, held staff at gunpoint and set fire to the premises,” Mr Wickrematunge said. The presses were burned a second time and the home of Lasanta sprayed with machine gun fire. He continued to receive death threats, and wrote a final editorial for the newspaper in anticipation of his death. This came in January 2009. The editorial was published the following Sunday and republished around the world.

Those responsible have never been brought to justice, his brother said and the newspaper is now facing a defamation action from the minister for defence who is suing it for 200 million rupees.

* In a statement to mark World Press Freedom yesterday the National Union of Journalists called for secrecy surrounding the operation of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) to be lifted.

Irish secretary of the union Séamus Dooley welcomed the commitment of the Government to reform Freedom of Information law but said the regime should be extended to cover Nama. “Irish citizens deserve to know how Nama makes decisions, why Nama makes decisions and the cost of these decisions,” he said.