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Sri Lanka 1 August 2003

Government minister threatens to kill newspaper editor

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) called today on the Sri Lankan government to disown one of its members, fisheries minister Mahinda Wijeskera, for threatening to kill editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, of the The Sunday Leader, after the paper printed articles accusing him of corruption. The minister claimed he had the prime minister’s support in making the threat.

"We deeply deplore the minister’s behaviour and ask you to take action against him," said Reporters Without Borders in a letter to prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The minister had every right to sue the journalist for libel, the organisation said, but such threats, uttered inside parliament, were a serious blow to the government’s credibility about respect for press freedom.

The paper reported on 27 July that the minister had threatened the editor in front of witnesses, including water management minister Lakshman Seneviratne, who confirmed the incident to Reporters Without Borders. The paper quoted Wijeskera as saying that "very soon I’ll put him in a room and have him shot or he will be stabbed." He claimed the prime minister supported his attitude.

The paper said Wijeskera boasted that under the previous government he had been part of a group that had planned the killing of three journalists, one of whom was murdered. In 1999, during the rule of then prime minister (now president) Chandrika Kumaratunga, Rohana Kumara, editor of the anti-government newspaper Satana, was killed.

Reporters Without Borders called on the government to set up a parliamentary commission of enquiry into the supposed group if the minister confirmed his claims.

Editor Wickrematunga and his outspoken paper, which investigates corruption, has been the target of much harassment and numerous libel suits since 1995. In 2000, the government closed it down for seven weeks.

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