Days after the midday murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, the cold blooded crime continues to raise questions. Questions not only about the shoddy investigation into the murder (which has so far apparently thrown up zero leads) but also about media freedom and the future of free debate in country where reporters need to either impose self-censorship or continuously watch their backs.
Not that being alert helps much. A new group on the social networking site, Facebook, called Protesting Killing of Journalists in Sri Lanka, circulated lists of dozens of journalists who have either been killed or assaulted in the last few years.
As the numbers reveal, the island country continues to be pretty high up in the list of countries dangerous for journalists. Killed, abducted, arrested or simply thrashed — occupational hazards that reporters, especially with local newspapers, have had to contend with other then deadlines; allegedly because they were critical of the government.
Reporters without Borders did not mince its opinion after Lasantha was shot dead from close range while on way to work.
“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.'”
Rajapaksa of course brushed aside allegations at an interaction with foreign correspondents on Monday evening. “We are at the peak now,” he said meaning that the government was doing good after winning stretches of the war against the Tamil rebels. “Why should we attack journalists? Let the police do its job. They have only just begun investigations,” he said.
The press freedom organisation had its own take and added: “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.”
When asked why a single person has not been arrested for attacks on journalists, Rajapaksa claimed that it was because none of the victims gave statements.
“What can we do without evidence? Should we just pick up someone and show him to the media as the person responsible,” Rajapaksa asked.
The situation here is complicated by the presence of quasi-political but armed groups active in parts of the country.
Known to attack people, especially those critical, with impunity, some allege that these groups enjoy political patronage.
What clearly emerges that it would take more than social networking for journalists to stay safe in Sri Lanka.