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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2967

Murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga: Another Nail in the Coffin of a Free Country?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Mr Lasanatha Wickrematunga may have, as some seem to be saying, been one of the worst kinds of gutter journalists. He may have been a mud-raker who exposed many shady deals of various government ministers and officials. Others may accuse him of a vendetta against the current President and his government, forgetting that he was an absolute irritant to the former President and her government as well. He may have been, as some would say a brave investigative journalist who was alone in exposing scandals that otherwise would have been swept under the carpet. Some would say he was a fool and had he been more accommodating, he would have been still living and enjoying a luxurious lifestyle.

Whatever he was, and whatever he did, he should not have been killed for what he was or what he did or did not do.

Even for the worst criminal tried and convicted by the justice system of the country, there is no death penalty in the country. In Sri Lanka, obviously there is a summary justice system that is above the law of the land, and some person/s that have this power have acted as vigilantes and decided Lasantha Wickrematunga should be executed.

Lasantha Wickrematunga’s murder is not just the murder of an individual, and neither is he the first journalist to be killed or the last to be killed as these vigilantes are still at large, free to roam the country and target others. None can forget the heinous murder of Richard De Zoysa and the fact that no one was ever caught for committing that dastardly crime. The fear and trepidation in the country today is that no one will ever be brought to justice for killing Lasantha Wickrematunga.

Suspicion at the time of Richard De Zoysa’s murder, was that very powerful people were behind it and therefore no one was ever caught for that. Similar suspicions exist today about this killing.

Attacks on journalists, and in general on press freedom, has been increasing very alarmingly, generating fears of a Haiti like environment in Sri Lanka where anyone who is “not with us need not be with us” could be eliminated by motor cycle riding assassins like the ‘Tonton macute’ of Haiti. When some government ministers, government Parliamentarians, Opposition politicians and even some sections of the Buddhist clergy behave as thugs, and nothing happens to them, it is a clear indication that the society has or is getting very ill.

This is even more frightening when deplorable things like this happen in a country which likes to call itself the cradle of Theravada Buddhism, the purest form of Buddhism. Incidents of murder, thuggery, disappearances and where law enforcement authorities are either incapable or not given the freedom to do their job and interfered with direct and subtle interferences, are clear indications of a society in trouble.

The Jekyll and Hyde attitude of some people, even some who call themselves Buddhists, suggests that Buddhism is like a coat one hangs somewhere, puts it on when needed to display to the public one’s Buddhism, and taken off thereafter to be the thug or the murderer or intimidator one really is. Every society, whether it is a Buddhist, Christian, Islamic or other, will have such despicable elements. The difference between a society that is sick and not sick, is where such elements can be caught and punished through the justice system of the country.

Lasantha Wickrematunga might be one individual who has met a terrible fate and there may be many others of less prominence who have met a similar fate and gone unnoticed. Every life is valuable and every such instance has to be brought to book. However, having said that, it is important to remember what Lasantha Wickrematunga represented. He represented more than himself. He was a voice that exposed failings of society and individuals that needed to be exposed as no one else was doing so. He may not have done it in a manner that endeared him to everyone. He may have over stepped boundaries of journalistic codes and ethics at times. The country’s justice system should have been employed to call him to answer and pay for his actions if and when he was out of line. No one had the right to silence him the way they did.

Perceptions of involvement or complicity in the killing will be on political leaders and the government in power as Lasantha Wickrematunga was a harsh critic of this government, particularly its alleged shady deals. In order to overcome such perceptions and bring credibility to the government and renew faith in the law enforcement ability of the government, President Rajapaksa has to take measures to bring the perpetrators to justice as soon as possible, whoever they might be.

In the event some powerful elements that have some support from government quarters are implicated, it is unlikely that the Sri Lankan law enforcement authorities will be able to bring the perpetrators to justice. Equally, if other forces like the LTTE or some Opposition elements have had a hand in this to discredit the President and the government, as suggested by some, it is unlikely that Sri Lankan law enforcement authorities will be able to undertake a credible investigation as there will always be some suspicion that it would be a cover up to exonerate some who have support from government quarters.

In this environment, the best course of action for the President and the government would be to institute an independent Judicial Commission with full powers, headed preferably by an eminent judge from the International Court of Justice and invite a body like Scotland Yard to undertake all investigative activities.

Lasantha Wickrematunga’s death is not the death of just one person. It could be the death knell of things we must cherish, democracy and press freedom.

- Asian Tribune -

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