Thursday’s cold blooded killing of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the Editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, cast a pall of gloom not only within the media industry in this country but over a much larger canvas both at home and in the world outside. The way it was done in broad daylight in a busy suburb of Colombo must gravely trouble all Lankans because it bore all the hallmarks of the deadly work of an efficient and trained goon squad, the likes of which have multiplied in a society militarized and brutalized by decades of war. Who the killers’ handlers and directors are remains to be revealed – if they ever are. There is absolutely no doubt that those who squeezed the trigger/s were acting on orders from elsewhere. Whose? That is the question to which public opinion in this country must demand a swift answer. People are tired of being told that ``speedy investigations’’ and ``immediate reports’’ have been sought. They’ve heard it all before but nothing tangible has ever emerged.
Friend and foe must perforce admit that Wickrematunga, certainly in the English language press, made more waves in contemporary journalism in this country than any other. Victor Ivan does likewise reaching a Sinhala newspaper reading audience. Wickrematunga’s assassination came hard on the heels of the attack on the MTV/MBC studios at Depanama, Pannipitiya, an institution which like the Sunday Leader has rightly or wrongly been perceived by many as pro-UNP and opposed to the ruling Establishment. Wickrematunga, who once served as private secretary to Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike when she was out of office and also ran for election from a Colombo seat also on the SLFP ticket, was undoubtedly a supporter and a key strategist of the UNP for the past several years. He belonged to its inner circle and the discerning viewer would have spotted the fleeting image of Malik Samarawickrema, a previous UNP chairman, protectively escorting Sonali Samarasinghe who Wickrematunga married recently, at the Kalubowila hospital to which he had been rushed with serious injuries. It had been speculated that he would have been the justice minister if the UNP won the 2005 election about which our political columnist has more to say in the accompanying page.
Whatever Wickrematunga’s politics, he served the public interest with his brand of investigative journalism. An adversarial relationship between the press and the government, whatever the political complexion of that government might be, serves the interests of good governance. Exposes, such as the recent one about a madcap attempt by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority to buy the Hotel Ceylon Continental, is a good example of what the media can do to prevent rip-offs from the public purse. There have been many more and we, belonging to a rival Sunday paper, salute what Wickrematunga was able to do in that direction. It was over a year ago, perhaps even longer, that our political columnist wrote that the real leader of the opposition is not Ranil Wickremesinghe but Lasantha Wickrematunga. That certainly rang a bell in many minds as a vibrant media, perhaps even more so than a vibrant opposition, can create the right conditions to require those elected to public office to do the jobs they are paid to do by the people who voted them to power. Wickrematunga, in fact, was due to meet Wickremesinghe the very morning he was killed and the attack on the MTV/MBC station would, no doubt, been on top of their discussion agenda.
Lasantha Wickrematunga, as stated elsewhere in this issue, was very much a political animal. His father, Harris, now living overseas in the winter of his life, was among the most able Municipal Councillors in the sixties when V.A. Sugathadasa ruled the city as the Mayor of Colombo. Harris represented a Kotahena ward, part of Sugathe’s Colombo North parliamentary turf. Had he not fallen out with Sugathadasa, and made up only when Sugathe was on his deathbed, he would have certainly been a powerful figure in a post-1977 UNP government inheriting Sugathadasa’s mantle. While Lasantha moved from the SLFP to the UNP his father moved in the reverse direction.
The Sunday Leader to which Wickrematunga gave exceptional leadership emerged from the Multipacks Group of Companies founded by Haris Hulugalle, a son of Herbert (HAJ) Hulugalle who long edited the Ceylon Daily News during the lifetime of its legendary Lake House founder, D.R. Wijewardene. Lasantha’s brother, Lal, a protégé of Haris Hulugalle, is chairman of Leader Publications Ltd. from which Hulugalle was distanced in the latter years of his life. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, announcing the re-capture of Elephant Pass in a nationally televised address on Friday, made a barely disguised reference to the MTV/MBC attack and Wickrematunga’s assassination that followed saying ``there are efforts to belittle these victories, to turn the attention of the people to other directions.’’ The reference clearly was to a public perception, which the government would like to think has been created by its opponents, that a state agency was responsible for both incidents. We certainly do not think the president was responsible for Wickrematunga’s killing. But he is not unaware of the existence of gorillas in the ``apparatus.’’ It is his job to bring their handlers to heel.
While theories abound of who the perpetrators might be, and these include the LTTE hell-bent on smearing a government hopefully preparing to drive the last nail into its coffin, it is incumbent for the government to bring the guilty to book. As a contributor to this newspaper has trenchantly pointed out, `` There are some mad dogs on the loose. It is incumbent on President Rajapaksa to employ all the many means at his disposal to catch the dogs and lock up their master(s).’’ Nobody can quarrel with that proposition, least of all the president. No matter where the trail may lead, those responsible must be brought to book. Enough is enough. Sadly, a highly politicized police has in recent years lost public confidence of its ability to stand up to demands of its patrons. At least now the Constitutional Council that would constrain appointments of favourites to sensitive positions should be put in place. Lasantha Wickrematunga, we are told, believed that a national government is the country’s only salvation. He was canvassing this viewpoint (to which we too subscribe) with his friend, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government he was bashing in his newspaper, while privately visiting him on occasions.