Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge (5 April 1958 – 8 January 2009) was a Sri Lankan journalist, politician and human rights activist who was assassinated in January 2009.
Wickrematunge was the founder of The Sunday Leader and Leader Publications alongside his brother and was known for taking “governments of all hues to task”, was a “virulent critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksagovernment”, and had been “locked in a legal battle with the president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was spearheading the battle against the LTTE rebels.
Wickrematunge’s assassination caused a national frenzy being the country’s most influential media personnel and one of the biggest political figures and raised questions about freedom of expression in the country. Wickrematunge’s murder was widely condemned across the world. The Daily Mirror called it the “biggest blow” to media freedom in Sri Lanka, and the Editors Guild held the government responsible for the killing as it has failed to stop attacks against media personnel. The government also expressed shock at the killing, pledging to do everything in its power to catch his killers. Wickrematunge had been on Amnesty International’s endangered list since 1998, when anti-tank shells were fired on his house.
Lasantha Wickrematunge was the youngest of six born in Kotahena Colombo to Chandra and Harris Wickrematunge, a prominent politician, who had served as a municipal councillor for 30 years and was former deputy mayor, Wickrematunge was the grandnephew of George E. de Silva. In his childhood Wickrematunge attended St Benedict’s College where he excelled at cricket. Wickrematunge spent his adolescence in Britain, where he graduated high school and eventually returned to Sri Lanka, where he started law school.
Wickrematunge began his career as a lawyer, practicing as a defense attorney for eight years. Whilst practicing law, Wickrematunge made his way into the political scene before entering into journalism starting with the Island and Sunnewspapers. Wickrematunge ran for election from a Colombo seat with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and then became the private secretary to the world’s first female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Wickrematunge then crossed parties moving to the United National Party and was advisor to Ranil Wickremasinghe and was often dubbed as the De facto opposition leader
In 1994 Wickrematunge started the Sunday Leader with his brother Lal Wickrematunge. He reported critically on both the government and the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels, and the Leader soon “became well known as the island’s best independent newspaper”. He later stated that once the paper was started, he had intended to return to law, but found himself unwilling to give up journalism’s excitement. He was also a reporter for Time magazine and was a political commentator and hosted several programs includingGood Morning Sri Lanka.
The paper quickly drew threats and attacks for its reporting on corruption by government ministers. In 1995, men pulled Wickrematunge and his first wife, Raine, out of their car and attacked them with clubs. Raine later stated that the death threats became part of the routine of their lives: “There were so many threatening calls. ‘We are going to kill you. We are going to kill your children.'” In 2000, the government tried Wickrematunge for criminal libel of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, but Wickrematunge received no major penalties. In 2002, Raine left him due to the constant threats against their family, taking their three children to Australia.
The Leader was particularly critical in its coverage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In 2008, Mahinda Rajapaksa, furious over the paper’s reporting, called Wickrematunge and shouted at him that he would be killed if the paper’s coverage did not change; the president had also described him as a “terrorist journalist”. Later, after the assassination of Wickrematunge the paper was allegedly bought over by a Rajapaksa associate and an unconditional apology was made to Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for publishing a series of reports suggesting that he had made corrupt arms deals.
In the weeks before Wickrematunge’s death, a funeral wreath was delivered to him, as well as a copy of the newspaper reading “If you write you will be killed” in red paint.
In an editorial Wickremange had written shortly before his death, and that was published posthumously, he stated, “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”
Wickrematunge was shot while he was on his way to work around 10:30 a.m. on 8 January 2009 few days before he was supposed to give evidence about Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s corruption in arms deals before a judge Four armed assassins riding motorcycles blocked Wickrematunge’s vehicle before breaking open his window and shooting him. He was taken to the Colombo South General Hospital (Kalubowila). It was initially planned with a helicopter on standby to transfer him to the Colombo National Hospital. A specialist team of 20 of medical personnel were called in for the surgery. Despite surgery lasting nearly three hours, Wickrematunge died from his head wounds.