Lasantha Wickrematunge was the cofounder of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader newspaper. He was assassinated in January 2009. Three days later, the newspaper published his last column, which he had written to be released in the event of his death. This is that column.
No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces — and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the last few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print institutions have been burned, bombed, sealed, and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories, and now especially the last.
I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be the Sunday Leader's 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. 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. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.
Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood.
Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognizing the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries.
Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.
But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre, and security. It is the call of conscience.
The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: Whether it be a spade, a thief, or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.
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. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.
The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let's face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For instance, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urge government to view Sri Lanka's ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope 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 labeled traitors; and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.
Many people suspect that the Sunday Leader has a political agenda: It does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition, it is only because we believe that — excuse cricketing argot — there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the United National party was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred.
Indeed, the stream of embarrassing expositions we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.
Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE is among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organizations to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dharma is for ever called into question by this savagery — much of it unknown to the public because of censorship.
What is more, 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 you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the postwar era. The wounds of war will scar them for ever, and you will have an even more bitter and hateful diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my compatriots — and all the government — cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.
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 into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended.
In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.
The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and I have been friends for more than a quarter-century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining to routinely address him by his first name and use the familiar Sinhala address — oya — when talking to him.
Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President's House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics, and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.
Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the Sri Lanka Freedom party presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well-known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air.
Then, through an act of folly, you got involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, urging you to return the money. By the time you did, several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.
You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: It fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well, my sons and daughter do not have a father.
In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry.
But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life but yours too depends on it.
As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: Most are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: You will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice.
As for the readers of the Sunday Leader, what can I say but thank you for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I — and my family — have paid the price that I had long known I would one day have to pay. I am, and have always been, ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remained to be written was when.
That the Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be — and will be — killed before the Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanize forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your president to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish.
People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: It is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemöller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold of Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was. It was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemöller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, he wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.
If you remember nothing else, let it be this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident, or disabled.
Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: They are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.
This article was republished in The Last Column, a collection of the final articles and photos of journalists killed in the service of news gathering, compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.