Till we meet again - Goodbye Lasantha
Our Great Leader bids good bye
By Sonali Samarasinghe
It is not immediately apparent that Lasantha is a romantic. He is also incredibly shy for a person so much in the lime light. He would often squirm uncomfortably as scores of people would walk up to him at restaurants, malls, on the street, and admire his life work.
Perhaps in life there is no greater gift than marrying your best friend. And today as I look upon his lifeless frame I feel blessed for that. Little was I to know when we carefully eliminated beef from the modest menu to be served at a small reception for a few relatives and friends that two months to the day my best friend would lay murdered in a pool of blood.
'The trouble with us,' he would often say, 'is that we are both strong personalities.' True. We clashed over everything. He said tomayto I said Tomaato. But in many ways we were much alike. He was the youngest of an amazingly united family of six. Ditto for me. He was left handed. Ditto again. He was a lawyer. Likewise. We both had a passion for writing. We loved kids. We adored animals and yes, we were both bleeding hearts.
And yet, we would sometimes have intense disagreements on a story line, a policy issue at first glance. Ergo the Editor of The Sunday Leader and the Editor of The Morning Leader would have to thrash an issue out in our office and we came to an understanding every time. We always did, but not before some heated words. It was a stimulating journey. Never boring, never predictable.
Lasantha was also an honourable man. Work was work, personal relationship was quite something else. And never the twain did meet. At work we wereÿ neither best friends nor husband and wife. It was this sense of fair play and honour that was to endear him to his staff.
It was this sense of fair play and justice that he would bring to his newspaper and his work.
"Never," a friend told me, "had I seen Lasantha happier than I did at your reception." That was 13 days before he was brutally gunned down. Yes. Come to think of it, I think he may have been. On 31st evening he loudly sang a lengthy medley of songs in a mix of Sinhala and English, some of it quite flat, in the bathroom.
I giggled uncontrollably outside as he warbled on in tremulous tones and quietly reaching for the room phone dialed our best and darling friends Ajita and Khema De Costa to share the moment with them. "He must be happy," whispered Ajita.
It was Ajita and Khema to whom he and I would turn when we were most stressed. It was to their home we would go to relax. To talk of higher things and contemplate on Keats and Byron.
After wedlock it was Ajita who read us a verse from Kalil Gibran on marriage.
"You are a strong woman, don't give up," he would always encourage me when work would sometimes take its toll. Somehow, I don't want to be strong today. I want to think of how kind and gentle he was. How funny and mischievous. How incredibly joyous he could be. Those mushy things he pretended he had no time for.
On January 8, 2009 he and I knew we were being followed. We attended to some other work in the morning he then dropped me home advising me to come to office in my own car as we still had to attend to some domestic matters as he wanted to address the grave situation and also get to office quickly to start on his Suranimala column. I begged him not to go as we had already been alerted about the thugs but to at least allow me to come with him. But he was adamant and determined. Later I got to know he called many people along the way to inform them he was being followed.
It wasn't 10 minutes after we parted that I got the call I had always dreaded. My fingers hurriedly slid over my phone digits as I hastened to call him, more in hope than anything else. In my haste I pressed a wrong button. On the screen appeared a message I had received from Lasantha just hours before.
"Wifely," it said, "I love you."
Lasantha believed in equality: He treated everyone alike
By Risidra Mendis
I had heard about The Sunday Leader newspaper and its Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, but I never thought I would end up working here.
I didn’t know what to expect when I joined this organisation since this was the first time I was joining a media company. But I soon realised that I was working for an exceptional boss — a man who did not even want to be called ‘boss!’
I had no experience in journalism but Lasantha made me a journalist. I cannot forget that first day in office in September 1998, when I met my boss. I was having lunch with my colleagues when he walked into the room.
He said, "You came" and I immediately stood up and said, "Yes, Mr. Wickrematunge," to which his immediate response was "sit, sit, don’t call me Mr. Wickrematunge, call me Lasantha."
Working for Lasantha cannot be explained in words. He always treated his staff like his friends and never expected them to treat him like a boss. He believed in equality among all. He gave everyone of us a chance to shine — to make a difference.
We all have our good days and our bad days, but no matter how tense the situation became, Lasantha would always keep his cool and encourage us to meet our deadlines.
Many were the days when he used to sneak up on us and listen to our private conversations, some of which even included him. That gleeful smile on his face and the horrified look on our faces when we would realise the he had heard every word of our conversation will always remain in my memory.
Then there were the days when he would pounce out of doorways and start singing, scaring us out of our wits. He would also wander out of his room asking whether we had anything to eat and then eat our food, which we gladly shared.
If no one had anything to share, he would pull out some money and ask us to send someone and get food for all of us, most often cake or ice cream, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
Most of us joined the Leader as cubs; we didn’t know anything. It was he who threw us into the deep end and made sure that we learnt to swim. Though he has left the land of the living, he will always live in our hearts.
A tribute to Lasantha
The voice of an outspoken critique was brutally stilled on January 8 — a critic who was never afraid of speaking the truth and consequently putting those words of truth into writing. Lasantha’s untimely death has saddened innumerable people from all quarters and spectres — both locally and internationally.
That he was charismatic and inspiring with those who have had the opportunity to interact with him in the profession of journalism was a facet known to all. His extensive and vast knowledge of men and matters further enhanced the newspaper he represented — The Sunday Leader — from day one.
Having been a regular reader of the newspaper, the offer to work at Leader Publications, when it came, could not be turned down. In my short stint with The Leader I have had the highest regard and respect for Lasantha as an editor who certainly knew anything and everything to lead a team of journalists and the supporting staff to bring out news that were based on facts in the overall interest of the readership that kept growing — yet another fact proven by the continuous demand in circulation which the company at times found hard to meet for genuine reasons.
The pen is certainly mightier than the sword. Whilst the words that would flow from Lasantha — verbally and on paper— may be stilled, his infectious spirit will be there at Leader Publications to inspire one and all to carry on, relentlessly, as he would have, had he lived, putting truth before self — for in doing so that he had to pay the ultimate price of being heartlessly murdered by those who cannot accept the truth.
Farewell Lasantha. That you will be missed, is an understatement.
A fearless journalist — United Nations
The United Nations in Sri Lanka is saddened and dismayed over the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor-in-Chief of The Sunday Leader, last Thursday.
We respected him as a fearless and indefatigable journalist and an unrepentant defender of the freedom of expression.
His untimely demise reminds us all of the dangers still faced by the media and journalists in exercising the fundamental right to inform and to hold and express opinion as recognised by the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The United Nations firmly believes in a free press as essential to democracy and consistently stands for free, independent and pluralistic media worldwide. It is our conviction that Wickrematunge fought with his pen for those ideals.
The Office of the Resident Coordinator, United Nations, Sri Lanka extends its condolences to the grieved members of Wickrematunge’s family.
Thai press dismayed by ‘pre-meditated murder’
H.E. President Mahinda Rajapakse
Office of the President
Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka
The professional membership of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand wishes to place on record its unreserved dismay at the apparently pre-meditated murder of yet another distinguished Sri Lankan journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of The Sunday Leader, on the morning of Thursday, 8 January.
While all loss of life in the complex political and ethnic strife afflicting Sri Lanka is to be deplored equally, it should be noted that the targeting of journalists, as well as other critical local observers, dates back almost to the start of the conflict in the 1980s. One of the more widely known journalist murders— that of Richard de Zoysa — in early 1990 during the political violence in the south, remains officially unsolved.
Full and independent inquiries into those responsible for attacks on the press and associated murders have not been carried out. There is concern that death squads are in play in Sri Lanka, and that a culture of impunity has emerged. Within the overall population, more than 50 extrajudicial killings have been recorded in the month of October alone, last year.
Between ten and 15 journalists and people working in media have been killed in the last two years. Many more in the industry have been arrested or otherwise harassed by the police and those in authority. Tactics used against them include curtailed broadcasting licenses and torched presses. These constitute a grave assault on a free and objective press.
By all accounts, Thursday’s killing of Wickrematunge was well planned. It followed a military-style assault two days earlier on the premises of MTV/MBC in Colombo that obliterated the facility’s radio and television infrastructure. Concerns have already been raised that some kind of covert campaign to suppress the media and others is under way with no prospect of anybody being officially called to account.
We respectfully urge you to initiate an immediate, independent and transparent investigation into this sustained attack on individuals who are committed to press freedom and the right of ordinary people in Sri Lanka to know the truth about what is happening in their land.
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand
Commonwealth Journalists’ express outrage over Editor’s killing
The Commonwealth Journalists’ Association is outraged at the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of The Sunday Leader, on Thursday, January 8.
Wickrematunge has been a fearless journalist, working under difficult circumstances in a country wracked by conflict. He, is one of the journalists in Sri Lanka, who has been resolutely professional in his work.
His newspaper has been slated as ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘pro-Opposition’ for investigating certain questionable deals of the government, and he has also had to fight several defamation suits brought against him by senior politicians.
We note that the Government of Sri Lanka has ordered an investigation into his death and urge that it also include the wider context of violence against the media in Sri Lanka which includes the burning of the printing press of The Sunday Leader in 2007 and the attack on the privately owned Maharaja TV station and causing extensive damage to its equipment on January 6.
Amnesty International reports that at least 10 media employees have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2006. We deplore the atmosphere of intimidation that has been whipped up against the media which has led to this violence and to the deaths of Editor Wickrematunge and others.
The Commonwealth Journalists’ Association calls on the Sri Lankan Government to arrest and punish those responsible for Wickrematunge’s death. It also urges the Government to ensure that the media be allowed to operate freely and without fear of retribution as it should in a flourishing democracy, and that journalists and others who work in the media be given the protection they require to do their jobs without fear.
Chairman, Commonwealth Journalists’
‘Bring to justice those responsible’
I am writing on behalf of the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom, of which I am Chair, to express the Association’s grave concern at the killing of the Editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge.
We are deeply concerned that journalists in Sri Lanka who speak out clearly and fearlessly against various abuses not only face constant intimidation and threats but also actually put their lives at risk. We call on the Sri Lankan government to take immediate and decisive steps to bring to justice those who committed this appalling crime and to end impunity for violence against journalists.
I would be grateful if you could convey our concerns to your government.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick
Chair of the UN Association of the United Kingdom
Former British Ambassador to the United Nations (1990-1995)
Attacks against the media must stop
The past week has seen two attacks against the media the first, an armed attack and destruction of the MTV/MBC studios and second, the killing of The Sunday Leader Editor. We condemn these attacks unreservedly, because they strike at the very foundations of a free society. Any society worth living in must be one where we can "speak truth to power." As university academics we are committed to the pursuit of truth. Our academic freedom consists in the ability to conduct free inquiry and the space for free expression of ideas it is a tradition that goes back to Socrates and beyond.
The government itself, inclusive of the highest in the land, has called for a full inquiry into these incidents. While we welcome this, we wish to assert that the mere calling for inquiries will not be enough. If a speedy and credible conclusion to such inquiries is not forthcoming, the government must appreciate that its own credibility is at stake, since both the recent attacks have been directed at entities that were critical of the status quo. The silencing of dissent is not a hallmark of a democratic society.
Professor Priyan Dias (Moratuwa)
Dr. Ranil Abayasekara (Peradeniya)
Dr. Sarath Dasanayaka (Moratuwa)
Dr. Suresh de Mel (Peradeniya)
Shantha Fernando (Moratuwa)
Dr. Hans Gray (Moratuwa)
Dr. Dileni Gunewardena (Peradeniya)
Dr. Romaine Jayewardene (Colombo)
Dr. T.S.S. Jayawardene (Moratuwa)
Dr. Chulantha Kulasekere (Moratuwa)
Rushira Kulasingham (Colombo)
Professor Amal Kumarage (Moratuwa)
S.N. Niles (Moratuwa)
Dr. Asoka Perera (Moratuwa)
Dr. Ranjan Perera (Moratuwa)
Dinesha Samararatne (Colombo)
Professor Vasanthi Thevanesam (Peradeniya)
Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe (Colombo)
Professor Sunil Wickramasuriya (Moratuwa)
Dr. Suren Wijeyekoon (Moratuwa)
Dr. Shehan Williams (Kelaniya)
‘Lasantha, you were the greatest’
It over 14 years since The Sunday Leader came into being. Over this long period of time we have faced many obstacles, difficult times and unhappy events. But we, the Computer Department of The Sunday Leader, have never been affected by these problems since were under the able leadership of Lasantha Wickrematunge.
Times without number we have approached the Editor-in-Chief with our problems, individually and sometimes as a group seeking solutions. He was very receptive and provided the much needed solutions after giving us a patient hearing.
Although he was busy attending to his many duties, he never for a moment considered us a disturbance or a nuisance, and ask us to come back when he was free. In the midst of all his work he found the time to provide a solution to all our problems, to our satisfaction.
When a problem was presented to him he instinctively knew our intentions, our needs and desires and strove to provide a solution tailor made to meet our requirements. The solutions provided by him really made a difference in our working life. This ability made him an extraordinary person. His readiness to help, his radiant smile, his deep rooted honesty and extraordinary integrity made everyone in the organisation flock to him.
Everyone in the computer room felt his warmth when he was around. A friendly tap on the shoulder, an encouraging pat on the back or affectionate stroking of the head were methods he used to boost our morale which made us team up and finish the work in hand with vigour.
Dear Boss, we mourn your loss and from the bottom of our hearts we wish you eternal bliss.
‘We admire his courage and determination’
Everyone in the P.E.A.C.E. Campaign including the Core Committee and the Chairperson, myself send you and all others at The Leader our deepest sympathies at the invaluable loss of Lasantha. I personally knew him when as a very young man and joined the Sun in Editor Dhanapala’s time (The Davasa Group). But Lasantha went further and became a lawyer.
Lasantha and The Sunday Leader have given a lot of publicity to the work of P.E.A.C.E. (Protecting Environment And Children Everywhere). We are so thankful for that.
We have admired his courage and determination, and his constant desire to promote the truth. Naturally such a person will have countless enemies and they have taken away that most precious thing, his life and put an end to his vision and his work. We regret this very much.
I am sure The Sunday Leader will continue, as it is a great team and we look forward also to seeing The Morning Leader on Wednesdays.
With all blessings once again from Maureen and all at P.E.A.C.E.