Reporters Without Borders has gathered information from various sources that supports the theory that the Sri Lankan authorities are blocking the investigation into the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in Colombo on 8 January, exactly three months ago today.
Government officials, including Keheliya Rambukwella, said at the end of January that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would announce “very important details” about the murder in February. But since then, there has been nothing to confirm the existence of a political will to solve the case. Wickrematunga’s family and colleagues have been forced to conclude that the authorities have no interest in arresting either the perpetrators or instigators.
“Members of the government have made contradictory statements about the motives and identity of this leading journalist’s murderers,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It would be better if the investigation were given proper resources. We urge President Rajapaksa to assign members of the criminal investigation police to the case and to formally request the help of international experts in solving the murder.”
Wickrematunga’s murder in the capital marked a dramatic escalation in press freedom violations in Sri Lanka and Reporters Without Borders - which is a member of the International Mission for Press Freedom in Sri Lanka - will continue to insist that it is not left unpunished.
Wickrematunga’s widow, Sonali Samarasinghe, herself a journalist, said in an open letter to police inspector general Jayantha Wickremaratna in mid-March that: “There has still been no credible breakthrough in the investigation. No murder weapons, no suspect, no post mortem report has yet been made public.”
Wickrematunga, who has just been awarded a UNESCO press freedom prize posthumously, was never given the police protection he requested.
Wickrematunga was killed by men on motorcycles as he was driving to work. They blocked his car’s path near Malagalage primary school, smashed its window and apparently beat him about the head and body with steel bars. He was taken unconscious to a hospital where he died from his head injuries. Several witnesses said no shots were heard and no bullet impacts were found. Strangely, the autopsy findings have never been released.
The attack took place just several hundred metres from an air force checkpoint but the assailants were able to get away. One of the motorcycles was found by the police but it is still not known if it was of any help in tracking down the assailants.
Wickrematunga knew that he was being watched and was in danger. That morning he had seen two helmeted men near his home. He had told friends about it but finally decided to drive to work anyway. A relative said a motorcycle seen parked near his home belonged to the security forces.
The investigation was assigned to Colombo’s Mount Lavinia police station and a police source it was not given any special priority. The authorities said four teams were assigned to this case and to an attack on MTV, a Colombo TV station, but no significant results have been reported. Several of Wickrematunga’s colleagues have voiced concern that the Criminal Investigation Department was kept out of the case. His widow even filed a court petition for it to be transferred to the CID, but her request was denied.
Police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekara told journalists that the investigation was focusing on the calls Wickrematunga received on the day of his murder. Gunasekara created confusion in early March by claiming that the police had not received the forensic report from the “government analyst” (GA) although the GA insisted in statement to the press on 5 March that he had sent it several weeks earlier to Officer Hemantha Adikari at Mount Lavinia police station.
The police announced the arrest of a suspect but it was just a passer-by who stole Wickrematunga’s mobile phone from the scene of the murder. At the start of this month, a court ordered that this suspect continue to be held until 16 April.
In an interview for an international TV station, Wickrematunga’s widow said he had written several times to the police inspector general to tell him about the repeated threats and to request protection. The police ignored his requests. “Lasantha always said that if he was killed, it would be by the government (...) Our reports about the suffering of the civilian population did not sit well with the patriotism of the military.”
The authorities have made contradictory and in some cases defamatory comments about Wickrematunga. The president’s brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, said in an interview for a foreign TV station: “Who is Lasantha? A tabloid publisher. Why is the world worried about one man? He criticized everybody. So everybody had a reason to kill him.” He went on to make similar comments to the Australian TV station SBS: “He has antagonised so many people. He had criticised and reported wrong things about all persons.”
The Sunday Leader, now being edited by his brother, Lal Wickrematunga, has continued to be subjected to pressure from government circles since his murder. A significant loss of advertising income is now threatening its economic survival.
President Rajapaksa called Wickrematunga a “terrorist journalist” during an interview with a Reporters Without Borders representative in Colombo in October 2008, three months before his murder.
Sri Lanka was ranked 165th out of 173 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2008 press freedom index. This was the lowest ranking of any democratic country.