01/13/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA

Strong anti-government protests at funeral of journalist murdered in Colombo

by Melani Manel Perera
More than 8000 people take part in the funeral of Lasantha Manilal Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper. “Waves of anger, fear and desperation” are sweeping “across the country,” says Colombo bishop. Everyone wants to know who is behind the murder. President Rajapaksa blames international elements for the assassination, claiming that it was carried out to eclipse the country’s military victories against Tamil Tigers.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – The government is being held responsible for the death of Lasantha Manilal Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, who was killed on 8 January by two unknown gunmen on his way to work. The funeral of the slain journalist was held yesterday, attended by more than 8000 people, including fellow journalists, human rights activists, religious and political leaders, as well as ordinary people.

Many people point the finger at President Rajapaksa’s government, whom Wickramatunga harshly criticised for its role in the war between the army and Tamil Tigers that is causing so much bloodshed in northern Sri Lanka.

“The government is making considerable if criticisable efforts at uprooting terrorism from the country, trying to capture LTTE leaders alive; and yet so far no one has been able to catch anyone involved in the murder of hundreds of prominent people in the media, politics, arts, religion; not to mention civil society activists involved in the fight for justice, peace and democracy in our country,” said one of those who attended the funeral.

Some of the colleagues of the murdered journalist carried the coffin in the funeral procession that was accompanied by songs and, despite the fact that Wickramatunga was Christian, by multi-faith appeals.

Local commentators said that the ceremony saw the highest number of participants ever participate in the funeral of a journalist. 

Some of those who took part in the ceremony carried placards calling for an “End to tyranny; defend democracy.”

An effigy of President Rajapaksa was also set on fire.

“This death is a serious blow to democracy and media freedom,” opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe said.

“Killing Lasantha sends signals, not to hundreds, but to thousands of other journalists who want to write critical stories, not to mention investigative reports into large-scale corruption and the ongoing war,” said Sunanda Deshapriya, head of the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asian Free Media Association.

For Mgr Duleep de Chickera, archbishop of Colombo, the editor’s assassination has sent “waves anger, fear and desperation across the country.”

“This deliberate and senseless act must be condemned by all Sri Lankans who value life and media freedom,” the prelate noted.

Wickramatunga’s death, like other acts of violence against journalists and media organisations, “is part of a wider and worsening strategy to suppress and silence the media,” he added.

Even the National Peace Council (NPC) and various civil society organisations have complained about the climate of intimidation in which media must operate and the overall lack of freedom of expression in the country.

Everyone, including the Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, has called on the government to quickly find the culprits.

Some human rights groups have also demanded an independent inquiry into the affair to find out what really happened to Wickramatunga.

Conversely, President Rajapaksa has blamed international forces for the assassination, bent in his opinion on drawing attention away from the two major military victories his government scored against Tamil separatists in the last two weeks.

The United States, the European Union, Canada and India slammed the murder, calling on the Sri Lankan government to rapidly shed light on the affair.

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“Continuing trend” towards stifling free media
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Not every Tamil is a fighter, says Anglican bishop
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Senior peace adviser to the president resigns
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