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A January that demands justice for messengers

It has been said, that a great writer is similar to a second government in his country, and for that reason, no regime has ever loved great writers– only minor ones.
Four years ago, on 8 January, the radical editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga was murdered in broad daylight, just a few hundred metres away from his newspaper office situated in a high security zone, in close proximity to the Ratmalana airbase. Yesterday marked his fourth death anniversary.

The year 2009 had gone down the annals of Sri Lankan history as Sri Lanka’s annus horribilis, the bleakest 12 months for journalists in recent times. The year was marred by violence, including murder, abduction, assault and intimidation of journalists and damage to property owned by media houses.

The violence journalists remained exposed to at that time was summed up Wickrematunga himself in his final editorial, published posthumously in The Sunday Leader, in which he stated: “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism”.

The year 2009 is remembered by most, for the government’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But journalists remember 2009 as the worst year for their own kind– as a year that killed the message along with the messenger. The government waged two wars – one against the LTTE, and the other – against the dissenting media. The victors and the victims are all too known.

A year later, Prageeth Ekneligoda, a political cartoonist disappeared from the face of the earth, making January a month that is remembered for its unprecedented violence against journalists. Since 2005, 34 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka, and not a single killer has gone to jail. Media activists hold demonstrations and vigils, trying to stir the memory of the slain and highlight the need for justice to no avail. Every murder, assault and abduction since 2005, is said to be under investigation. So far, there had been no finality to any such investigation, reinforcing the belief that the government is not interested in ensuring justice. Or worse, there is complicity on its part, the more likely theory at least in certain instances.

Ironically enough, the craft of journalism makes its practitioners to often take up the cause of others; highlight injustices committed against average citizens; to be the listening post and also the messenger. In Sri Lanka, it has now become tradition to silence the messenger – violently.

This lawlessness may be a general malady in Sri Lanka and the denial of justice now almost habit for those wielding power, but 8 January is a day that reminds this nation of the brutality with which spirited journalism had been crushed in this country by the jackboots of authoritarianism.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in its latest situation report titled, “Media Freedom- A neglected dimension of post-war politics” suggests that media freedom is a neglected dimension in Sri Lanka’s post-war politics. It adds; “Within the wider landscape of diminishing hopes, marked by the fading of early optimism of a peace dividend accruing from the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in May 2009, the country’s media practitioners continue to face formidable difficulties. Overt measures of coercion are less conspicuous than during the war years. But there are fears that free speech is falling victim in a media environment in which political and financial power is deployed to silence dissent.”

In another assessment, the “South Asia Media Monitor” on 5 January noted that though no journalist was killed in Sri Lanka in 2012, journalists in the Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka continued to face challenges and hazards.

The UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 1738 in 2006 recognizes the need to protect journalists in dangerous areas, violence against journalists, and physical security of journalists– a major issue for South Asia and certainly for Sri Lanka. Yet, journalists continue to be harmed.

Four years after Wickrematunge’s murder, it remains a mystery, at least officially. So are the other 33 murders of journalists, the many disappearances, assaults and incidents of threat and intimidation.

The Sri Lankan society’s focus may currently be on the tug of war between the Legislature and the Judiciary and the predicament of the Chief Justice. Yet, there are many other issues that deserve justice and the unresolved murders of these journalists committed since 2005 are as important as other governance issues that plague the country. It is however, not because we too are journalists but because, when messengers are killed, soon there would be no space for the message. A society that lacks the space for messages and messengers are destined to perish and fall ultimately, into the hands of dictators


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