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Lasantha Wickrematunge, RIP

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism...

Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower. 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. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood ...

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience ...

It has been widely reported but needs to be placed here for the record -- one of the saddest yet most uplifting pieces of writing, by Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, published posthumously in his newspaper, The Sunday Leader, on January 11. Wickrematunge was shot dead on the morning of January 8 in Colombo. He had apparently written this farewell editorial for just such an eventuality:

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism...

Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower. 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. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. ...

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience. ...

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let's face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. ...

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that - pray excuse cricketing argot - there is no point in bowling to the fielding side....

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office....

It is worth reading in full -- and not just by journalists or editors. As Reporters Sans Frontiers put it, “Sri Lanka has lost one of its more talented, courageous and iconoclastic journalists. Sri Lanka has lost one of its more talented, courageous and iconoclastic journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press. Sri Lanka’s image is badly sullied by this murder, which is an absolute scandal and must not go unpunished.”

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