‘Who is Lasantha?’ | Sunday Observer

‘Who is Lasantha?’

6 January, 2019

The words are still chilling, a decade later. “Who is Lasantha?” retorted a once all-powerful Defence Secretary angrily, when a BBC journalist dared to question him incessantly on the brutal murder of founding editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge who was killed on his way to work 10 years ago this Tuesday.

That was a vastly different time. The lights were going out in newsrooms around the country, as war raged far from the capital and an ugly nationalism was reaching fever pitch. A Government that brooked no nonsense from so-called unpatriotic sections of the media that questioned its execution of the war was at logger-heads with The Sunday Leader newspaper, virtually the last defiant voice in a darkening media landscape as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government approached the zenith of its power.

One might not fault Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for wondering why the world should care so much about one journalist killing, in the fog of war on a tiny island far away. Who indeed, was Lasantha Wickrematunge, this one man the world was mourning, and turning into a symbol of resistance against autocratic regimes seeking to silence the free press?

Tens of thousands of people died in Sri Lanka’s conflict and during the tyranny that followed the defeat of the LTTE. Each life was precious and counted to someone. But there are some deaths that wound the collective psyche of the nation. Some deaths are representative of the horrors this country has endured; and poignant reminders of how easily darkness could descend again.

Lasantha’s killing, the murder of five students on the beaches of Trincomalee 13 years ago this week, the abduction and murder of Tamil youth for ransom in 2008, the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda - these are emblematic crimes. Emblematic of the culture of impunity that pervaded the last decade; emblematic of immunity for brutal killers; emblematic of the struggle for justice by loved ones left behind, and hopefully one day soon, emblematic of the eventual triumph of justice over injustice and cruelty.

A decade after his murder, Lasantha’s killers still roam free. The 10th anniversary of his death coincides with the fourth anniversary of the defeat of the Rajapaksa administration. The current Government was swept to power on the back of victims like Lasantha and Prageeth, using these deaths and disappearances as powerful symbols of the tyrannical rule that had to be defeated in that historic election. At the time it seemed like poetic justice that Rajapaksa was defeated on the day Lasantha fell. Four years later, that victory feels pyrrhic, because Lasantha’s murderers are still free. The investigations – having made headway at first after being handed back to the CID – have stagnated for nearly a year. Politicians who flock to Lasnatha’s graveside year after year on the eighth of January pay no attention to the stalemate in the investigations and the raging pain of a family still waiting for justice a decade later. From interference to prevent action against military suspects, to seedy political deals with the suspected perpetrators, the probe into Lasantha’s murder has continued to hit roadblocks during the tenure of the current Government.

Several pages of the Sunday Observer this week are dedicated to Lasantha’s memory and attacks on press freedom over decades that have changed the way journalists challenge authority and deliver the news in this country. Yes, the press is more free today than it was four years ago. The abductions and arson attacks have mercifully ended. But never was it more evident that the media has far to go than during the 50 days of political turmoil this country just survived. It will be remembered that when democracy was under siege, after what the Speaker of Parliament called a ‘coup without guns’, most of the press with a few stark exceptions, stood on the side of anti-democratic forces seeking to plunge the country into darkness once more.

It is as though we never learn.

Had Lasantha lived, his newspaper, like the few that stood up during the recent political crisis, would have been at the vanguard of every democratic battle in the past 10 years. He would have written reams during the impeachment of the country’s first female Chief Justice in 2013. He would have led the charge for democratic change in 2015 and been in the trenches during the 50-day constitutional coup.

Ten years ago, he was feared by lesser men for choosing to stand his ground. His killers believed that when they ended the life of that symbol of defiance and free speech, the rest would be silenced too. For a short time, the strategy was successful.

‘Who is Lasantha?’ He’s just another murder,’ said the country’s former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa incredulously 10 years ago.

We disagree. The Sunday Leader presses may be silent, but Lasantha’s legacy endures. Why is one dead man so important? Because his murder continues to drive the resistance against tyranny.

He represents all those who have been killed in the effort to speak truth to power. He is every lesser known Tamil journalist killed by the State that labelled them ‘terrorist’, every Sinhalese journalist killed by the State that labelled them ‘traitor’ and everyone in between. He is every citizen fighting for democracy, every old lady standing in the rain at the Liberty Roundabout in October and November last year; every policeman fighting against political forces to keep investigations into these emblematic cases alive; every family member still asking the State to reveal the whereabouts of missing loved ones. He is the tribe that will keep demanding justice for his murder. He is every journalist who vows to remain ‘unbowed and unafraid’ against all odds.

We are all Lasantha.