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Slain Sri Lankan Journalist was EWC Jefferson Fellow
(HONOLULU) Jan. 9 -- Prominent Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was gunned down yesterday in Colombo, was a 1995 participant in the East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowships for journalists. Wickramatunga, the editor of the weekly Sunday Leader newspaper, was shot by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles as he drove to work.

“Our deepest sympathies go out to Mr. Wickramatunga’s family and loved ones,” said East-West Center President Charles E. Morrison. “His tragic death underscores the courage with which so many of the international journalists who have participated in Center programs pursue their vital work at great personal risk.”

In an editorial he penned to be published in the event of his murder, Wickramatunga wrote: "No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last...

"Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not... But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience."

In 1995, Wickramatunga was part of a Jefferson Fellowship group that toured the U.S. mainland. Former EWC staff member Larry Daks, who coordinated the Jefferson Fellowships at that time, remembers him as being “a very bright, able and outspoken kind of guy,” who had already had to leave Sri Lanka for a time after receiving threats.

Wickramatunga was a strident critic of the Sri Lankan government. His murder comes as the government is pursuing a major offensive in its civil war against Tamil separatist rebels, and just two days after gunmen ransacked the offices of the largest private TV broadcaster in the country, the MTV group. Another Jefferson alumnus, Susil Kindelpitiya, is a news director on one of MTV's channels. He was quoted as telling the BBC that the attack was due to "our unbiased reporting” on the war.

The organization Reporters Without Borders currently ranks Sri Lanka as one of the ten worst countries in the world for press freedom. Amnesty International said recently that at least 10 media employees have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2006.

Wickramatunga is not the first alumnus of an East-West Center media program to be killed in the line of duty. In 2004, Jefferson alumnus Ersa Siregar, an Indonesian television reporter, was taken captive along with his cameraman by rebels in Aceh Province, and six months later Siregar was killed during a skirmish between the rebels and government troops.

Just recently, several other EWC media alumni have been the victims of prominent attacks or intimidation:

  • On Dec. 21, Kunda Dixit, director of the English-language weekly Nepali Times and a panelist at the EWC’s international media conference in Bangkok last year, was beaten along with a number of other staff when members of Maoist trade unions allied with Nepal’s ruling party attacked the newspaper’s office. Dixit called the assault “a direct attack on press freedom.”

  • Imtiaz Ali, a Washington Post stringer and former BBC reporter in Peshawar, Pakistan, and a 2006 Senior Journalists Seminar participant, has been threatened in a Taliban publication identifying him as an American spy for the reporting he did from the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. According to a recent op-ed article by the Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ali has been in the U.S. as a Yale World Fellow, and is “facing hard decisions about returning home” after the Taliban publication threatened him and two other journalists with execution.

The East-West Center salutes these and the countless other brave journalists worldwide who regularly face personal danger in the pursuit of truth.

As Lasantha Wickramatunga himself writes in his final column: "I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish."