Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on the morning of 8 January in the suburbs of Colombo. Sunday Leader had published several articles criticising political interference and corruption in a number of privatisation deals. Its journalists also regularly draw attention to human rights abuses perpetrated in the armed conflict between government forces and the separatist movement of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Lasantha Wickramatunga knew that he was in serious danger, as he and his team had already fallen prey to attacks. In 2007, an armed gang had attacked the group’s printing presses, forcing the employees to get down on their knees before setting fire to the presses and the newspaper edition that had just been printed. In 2006, the editor had been threatened with arrest under anti-terrorism legislation for an article criticising the president.
Since the resurgence of the armed conflict in 2006, threats to the media and to freedom of press have intensified considerably. At least 14 media professionals have been murdered in Sri Lanka since the beginning of 2006. Some have "disappeared" while detained by the security forces ; others have been tortured and arbitrarily detained under exceptional rules giving the government very broad powers. More than 20 journalists have left the country after receiving death threats. In some cases, attacks against media professionals were carried out by armed Tamil groups clearly acting with the connivance of the security forces.
To our knowledge, no investigation has yet led to the arrest and prosecution of those suspected of murdering journalists and other media professionals. The lack of thorough investigations into these crimes means that this kind of attack can happen again and again with impunity.
Respect for human rights in a country is intertwined with the impartiality and quality of the work of its media. When human rights violations are not denounced and public awareness of them is low, attacks on fundamental freedoms can flourish under a veil of secrecy and denial. The climate of impunity enjoyed by those that attack the Sri Lankan media has made it impossible to obtain a clear and impartial image of what is happening in the country.