The Sunday Leader
Lasantha cut his teeth in journalism at the now defunct Sun newspaper in the early seventies and moved to Upali Newspapers where he made his mark as a journalist covering politics. His writing style and probing pen caught the appreciative attention of opposition politicians and the ire of those in government. He moved to the Times Group to write the political column and in 1994 started The Sunday Leader and was it’s Editor- in-Chief till he was murdered. Lasantha, a lawyer by profession was practising in the chambers of President’s Counsel Ranjith Abeysuriya when he decided to take a break from Law to practice another art which was his first love, journalism. He set a trend in investigative journalism which became the benchmark for other journalists in the country. His Good Morning Show with MTV was very popular and he enjoyed doing that programme immensely. Lasantha was physically assaulted, shot at, the printing presses burnt down twice, and the newspaper shut down under the draconian Emergency Laws prior to being murdered in January, 2009. Not a single of these crimes have been solved.
The public view of Lasantha the journalist differed from the very private man. He was fun to be around with and was constantly making people laugh. Never one to pull rank in office, Lasantha would often whistle out of pitch to make his colleagues giggle. Though a teetotaller himself, he would offer his friends and colleagues a tipple from his vastly untouched but well stocked bar at home. He would give his last penny to people in financial distress nary a thought.
Given an opportunity to settle down in Australia, which many would have grabbed eagerly, he barely kept his qualification alive by visiting when necessary and darting back to be at his desk at the Leader. Being the youngest in the family Lasantha was dealt with leniently by his father who was a stern disciplinarian and like his journalism he used to fly close to the wind playing truant. But with pen in hand Lasantha the journalist was a different man. He favoured none nor feared any. Even relatives were fair game when it came to playing a straight bat. Many a time his father would speak to him to play down an article he was working on without success. Those holding high office became friends when they relinquished their positions. Many raised an eye brow when Lasantha was seen in the company of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge after she finished her second term. Lasantha was her most harsh critic when she held office but was able to separate the official CBK from the private citizen she became after she relinquished office.
Simple acts such as these demonstrated Lasantha’s personality, but many were the doubting Thomas’, even amongst the industry, who fuelled hate campaigns against him. Lasantha was known beyond the shores for his courage even before his demise. He was awarded the very first Integrity Award by Transparency International in the year 2000 for his fearless pursuit of the truth and in exposing corruption, through his writings.
He was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Award in 2009 .
The Director General stated, “In awarding the 2009 World Press Freedom Prize to a committed journalist who opposed war, UNESCO, along with media professionals from all over the world, recognizes the important role that freedom of expression can play in fostering mutual understanding and reconciliation, the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day celebration.”
On November 17, 2009 Lasantha was posthumously awarded the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.
Lasantha and David S. Rohde were awarded with the 2009 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Awards at the National Press Club (USA). The awards were bestowed on one international journalist and one American journalist who embodied the principles of a free press.
In 2009 he was also awarded the Sepala Gunasena Award for Defending Press Freedom in Sri Lanka.
Lasantha was awarded the special James Cameron Award in 2009 and in the same year he was also awarded the Guardian Journalism Award Wickrematunge was also awarded the 1st Asia Media Award for Press Freedom.
In 2010 Wickrematunge was posthumously declared an IPI World Press Freedom Hero.
The investigation into his death is floundering. Kandegedara Piyawansa a soldier with the Sri Lanka Army Intelligence Unit taken into custody together with Pitchai Jesudasan was released on bail after he accused senior officers in open court. A statement he made in chambers to the magistrate prior to being granted bail by a higher court was forwarded to the Inspector General of Police for a report which is yet to be filed. Pitchai Jesudasan died in remand custody and the JMO has returned an open verdict. Fifteen army intelligence officers held previously by the TID handling the investigation were released when an adviser to the government informed high officials that the soldiers would “sing” about other operations by the Army.
Ministers have given dates starting from March 2009 when the perpetrators would be brought to book. Three years later and with over sixty dates in court, the Police have still not made any headway with the investigation.
The governments of the day ignored one exposé after another which Lasantha published over the years. The Sri Lankan public does not hold a government or a Minister to account over newspaper reports unlike their counterparts in the developed world. The international recognition he received posthumously reflects the unparalleled impact Lasantha had in defending the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.
“ We would trade all of this for our father’s life,” words expressed by Ahimsa, Lasantha’s daughter, says it all.
© The Sunday Leader