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Chief editor of prominent anti-government newspaper shot dead in Sri Lankan capital

Chief editor of prominent anti-government newspaper shot dead in Lanka capital
Sri Lankan hospital staff attend to wounded newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga in Kalubowila, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, January 8, 2009. Gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed the editor of theSri Lankan newspaper critical of the government, the second violent attack on media this week.Photo: Associated Press (AP) / Eranga Jayawardena

Gunmen on a motorcycle Thursday shot and killed the editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper critical of the government, the second violent attack on media this week. Sunday Leader Chief Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was in a car on his way to work when he was attacked, Wickramatunga's brother Lal told Reuters.

"The gunman smashed the window of the vehicle and shot at him," Lal Wickramatunga said. Doctors said he was in critical condition and was being resuscitated before being transferred to the trauma unit at Colombo National Hospital. Police spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police Ranjith Gunasekara said the attack was being investigated.

The Sunday Leader has been locked in a court battle with the president's brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, over stories it published alleging corruption in defence procurement. Rajapaksa has denied any wrongdoing.

It is the second major attack on the media this week, following an assault by more than a dozen gunmen on the studios of Sri Lanka's biggest private broadcaster Maharaja TV's (MTV) early on Tuesday. Attackers shot at and destroyed broadcast equipment, held staff at gunpoint, and attempted to burn down the station's facilities, according to local and international news reports. Three TV channels and four radio stations of MTV's parent company, MBC, were off the air for several hours.

“Sri Lanka has lost one of its more talented, courageous and iconoclastic journalists,” Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said. “President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press. Sri Lanka’s image is badly sullied by this murder, which is an absolute scandal and must not go unpunished.”

RSF continued, “The military victories in the north against the Tamil Tigers rebels must not be seen as a green light for death squads to sow terror among government critics, including outspoken journalists. The international community must do everything possible to halt such a political vendetta.”

President Rajapaksa called Wickrematunga a “terrorist journalist” during an interview with a Reporters Without Borders representative in Colombo, last October.

The printing press of the Sunday Leader media group (Leader Publications), which is located in a high security area near Colombo, was destroyed in an arson attack by a group of gunmen in November 2007. Wickrematunga told RSF at the time the attack was “a commando operation supported by the government.” The police did not carry out a proper investigation.

Sri Lanka was ranked 165th out of 173 countries in the RSF 2008 press freedom index. This was the lowest ranking of any democratic country. Two journalists were killed in Sri Lanka in 2008 and two others, JS Tissanayagam and Vettivel Jasikaran, are currently in prison.

"Even with its condemnations, the government can longer be trusted to act with impartiality when it comes to those who want to silence Sri Lanka's media," said Bob Dietz, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Asia programme coordinator said of the attack on MTV. "Far too often the government or its unofficial allies have been prime suspects behind attacks on journalists and media organizations, and this latest outrage must be fully and clearly explained in an impartial and transparent parliamentary investigation."

Date posted: January 8, 2009 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 441