President Mahinda Rajapaksa was a friend of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Years ago, when Lasantha took over the news desk at The Sunday Times during the absence of the then News Editor Lalith Alahakoon, I was privy to a conversation he had with Rajapaksa before he sent a female journalist to interview the then opposition politician from Hambantota. They discussed various things that ranged from politics to jokes. Their friendship bloomed and the bond became so strong that when Lasantha became the editor of the Sunday Leader, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga accused Mr. Rajapaksa of being the reporter for his friend’s newspaper.
Lasantha was gunned down on Thursday morning. The killers dared not show their faces. It was left to us, the journalists and the people who believe that media freedom is essential for a vibrant democracy, to close our eyes and visualize the face of terror that took Lasantha’s life. Sadly, among those faces of terror was the government, however much we try to erase that image.
A longstanding friendship between them notwithstanding, Mr. Rajapaksa and Mr. Wickrematunge had their differences. One such incident was when Mr. Wickrematunge charged that the President used abusive language to chide him for publishing a story about his family in the Sunday Leader.
Mr. Rajapaksa must be as sad as -- or sadder than -- we ourselves are after he heard the news around 2.15 p.m. on Thursday that his friend Lasantha Wickrematunga was no more.
But he also would have blamed himself, like we too blamed ourselves, for not taking adequate steps to promote a media culture where dissent was tolerated and journalists felt safe.
When we question ourselves as to who killed Lasantha, also among the faces of terror was that of ours -- the people of Sri Lanka. The killer was made of our lack of commitment to democracy and media freedom and our failure to question or check government politicians’ brash moves to label even democratically-spirited criticism as attempts to undermine the war effort. For most of us democracy means regular elections to the presidency, parliament and various councils – nothing more. Therefore, there was little or no countrywide protest when good governance, media freedom, transparency, justice and human rights were buried in the name of war. Even those who value these ingredients of democracy hold their voices of protest for the sake of the war, for they are being told in a hope-stirring manner that victory is nigh and therefore one must learn to sacrifice -- even democracy.
There were a few who saw that democracy can co-exist with and contribute positively to the war against the LTTE – and questioned corruption in the government but they were quickly labelled terrorist supporters and gagged.
At the beginning of Eelam war IV, President Rajapaksa had a word for editors. He said he respected the media’s right to criticize him or his government and he even welcomed such criticism, and he would also welcome media’s cooperation in fighting the war against terrorism. He was probably true to his words. But only a few media personnel saw the thin line between what is permissible and what is not. Sadly, most journalists either became government vassals or exercised self-censorship.
The vassals – embedded types -- won kudos while others became bad guys despite their self-censorship. The media became virtually silent.
Our silence has killed Lasantha and, before him, several media personnel, some in the south but most in the north. During the 1988-90 reign of terror, journalist Richard de Zoysa paid the price for exercising the people’s right to information. Months before the Rajapaksa era began, someone killed journalist Dharmaratnam Sivaram. The good name of Rajapaksa, who was once known more for his human rights activism than politics, was sullied when global media activist groups last year branded Sri Lanka as one of the most dangerous places for journalists.
Remember Keith Noyahr? He was assaulted and almost killed for exercising his democratic right to freedom of expression. Journalist Jayaprakash Tissainayagam has been behind bars for ten months for his writing. Though, Tissa was not killed, his spirit has been, as he hopelessly waits for the freedom which is becoming more elusive with each passing day.
The killing of Lasantha, the assault on Noyahr, the blast last week at the MTV/Siriasa station raise another serious question: Is there a state within the state? If there is, then we are hurtling towards a failed state, unfortunately at a time when the armed forces are liberating territory after territory in the north and taking the country towards a final victory. Let’s learn to tolerate dissent.