“Thus ended the saga of one of the bravest human beings I have ever known,” wrote D.B.S. Jearaj, a columnist for The Daily Mirror. “Thus ended the life of a fearless scribe, crusading for justice and peace. An irredeemable loss for journalism and Sri Lanka. Cry, the beloved Country!!”
Vijitha Yapa, a former newspaper editor and owner of the country’s largest bookstore chain, wrote in The Sunday Times: “When they shot him, did they not realize that it is not red blood which would pour out of his body but blue ink.”
Several journalists described the armed men on motorcycles who surrounded Wickrematunge’s car and shot him as the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The columnist Ayoma Wijesundera wrote, “Today, the fire of insatiable journalists who do not succumb to greed of bribes or the fear of threat is finally doused by the bullets.”
Commenting on the flood of impassioned remembrances, editorials, and tributes to Wickrematunge in the local media, one editor explained to me that, in Sri Lankan culture, when somebody passes away they immediately become “the best person who ever lived and who will ever live on this earth.”
But some worried that such treatment inevitably buried a deeper conversation—about journalistic standards, truth, politics, and objectivity—that could have been instigated by his death.
For instance, Wickrematunge’s sustained political connections to Sri Lanka’s opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) have been largely overlooked in the press.
Wickrematuge had once been a parliamentary candidate for the UNP, and was on the phone with the party’s ex-chairmen when he was shot. “He liked to be in the thick of the policy-making and decision-making process of the UNP, and had his own likes and dislikes among the hierarchy,” said one anonymous political column in The Sunday Times.
These connections served both to make Wickrematunge a glaring target for the Rajapaksa government and, in the eyes of some journalists, to cast a measure of doubt on the editor’s motivations for exposing corruption and criticizing those in power. In a recent column for The Daily Mirror, M.S.M. Ayub wrote: “…journalists have not only to be balanced but also to be seen as balanced. That is not only to uphold their professionalism, but also to protect their lives.”
To some journalists with whom I spoke, Wickrematunge’s political connections, compounded by his outspokenness, amounted to foolery that resulted in an unnecessary martyrdom, possibly risking the work and safety of fellow journalists by raising the stakes in the ongoing hostilities between the government and the media.
“When the playwright and journalist Richard de Zoysa was abducted and his body finally found,” said one journalist to me, speaking carefully, “there was a sense of relief among some. Not because he was dead but because the risks he took…” The words trailed off.
Nothing can minimize the horror of Wickrematunge’s death and the situation faced by journalists here, where free speech is often suppressed at the barrel of a gun. But it does raise some bleak questions that can transcend the Sri Lankan context: Do political convictions have a place in one’s work? Are truth-telling fellow journalists at risk? Are there stories worth giving one’s life for?
No matter how these questions are answered in the future, the media in Sri Lanka has been dealt a violent blow—one that has worsened an already dire situation. As journalist Jehan Perera wrote for The Daily Mirror, “[Wickrematunge’s] long survival as a journalist, while breaking his stories and expressing his views without inhibition, gave rise to an illusion. This illusion was that there were indeed broad parameters of freedom within which the media could function.”