Lasantha: Five Years On, You Are Still Our Hero



Marianne David

8 January 2014, five years since they took Lasantha Wickrematunge away. Who these ‘they’ are, no one knows. Or those who know will not say.

One suspect in his murder died in Police custody, the second has been released due to lack of evidence, and all ‘leads’ have led nowhere. The Police is yet to make a breakthrough in the investigation.

Journalist and founder Editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha was attacked while on his way to work on the morning of 8 January 2009, at around 10:30 a.m. by armed assassins on motorcycles. They blocked Lasantha’s vehicle before breaking open his window and brutally assaulting him.

Lasantha was taken to the Colombo South General Hospital (Kalubowila), where he died from his head wounds, despite a specialist team of medical personnel carrying out surgery lasting nearly three hours. Three hours during which a huge crowd of journalists and others gathered at the hospital, fearing the worst. And the worst it was. Lasantha had been, in his brother Lal’s words, ‘eliminated’.

In a piece published in The Sunday Leader on 5 January 2014, Lal wrote: “Five years have flashed by since Lasantha was eliminated. Five long years and the Police have failed… People often ask me what Lasantha’s stand would have been, had he lived and was yet the Editor during the last stages of the war. I do not think they intended him to be alive at that time and find that question irrelevant.”

Five years since his brutal murder, today, 8 January, a memorial service will be held at Lasantha’s gravesite at Borella Kanatte at 9 a.m. Tomorrow, 9 January, a candlelight vigil has been organised by Samagi at 5:30 p.m., in front of Malagalage Primary School, Attidiya. If you knew him, loved him and grieve for him, come.

Five long years since that dark day, we have not forgotten him, our love has not lessened, our grief has not eased. We gather at his gravesite on the anniversary of his murder and talk about him endlessly. Even in death, Lasantha has kept us together – those of us who worked with him at The Sunday Leader, who remember him all the time, when we cover assignments, when we write, during every small achievement, every big award.

Take for instance when Dilrukshi Handunnetti, who was part of the Leader team back in the day when Lasantha held the reins, was hailed as the ‘Journalist of the Year’ last year at the Journalism Awards for Excellence 2012. At the same awards, the ‘Columnist of the Year’ award was bagged by Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, while the Merit Award for the same went to Dharisha Bastians – both former Leader journalists during Lasantha’s time.

Shortly after receiving the award, in an email to some of us who were her colleagues back then, Dilrukshi wrote: “Lasantha’s portrait still sits on my desk, and the award was quite rightly placed next to it, yesterday. It is his more than mine. We all know that. I would like to very humbly dedicate it to Lasantha’s memory – and to all of you, especially to those who shared that lovely editorial space, at a time when The Sunday Leader truly led.”

“Lasantha certainly drilled into us that journalism can be meaningful and should be made meaningful. Wherever we are today, I still know that the team nurtured by Lasantha remains truly special and they have a different trademark. He not only nurtured individual careers, but also made us a team. That team spirit prevails even today and death has not altered that. And yes, I wish he was here – today, everyday. And I also know, he continues to live within each of us,” she added.

Dilrukshi was responding to an email by Amantha Perera, another award-winning Leader colleague who had written to all of us that morning on how he called Dilrukshi a few hours earlier to congratulate her on winning the Best Journalist Award for 2012, only to hear her blurt out, ‘I only wish he [Lasantha] was here’.

In his email, Amantha continued: “Lasantha’s biggest contribution to Sri Lanka media was not The Sunday Leader, nor the many scoops he got… it will ultimately be the stable of young journos (yours sincerely included, though not so young any more) who he nurtured, mentored, and gave space to work.” No other editor has moulded as many careers as Lasantha has, he added.

No other editor was loved as much either. All of us who worked there loved him deeply – and I know I speak for every single one of my Leader colleagues from back then when I say this. Thank you, Lasantha. A hundred thousand times over, thank you. We are who we are today because we had you.

After his murder, Lasantha was the recipient of many world awards and in 2010 he was declared a World Press Freedom Hero of the International Press Institute.

To those of us who worked with him at The Sunday Leader, he was always a hero. He was our hero when he lived and even in death, he still is.

(Marianne David was a Journalist and Sub Editor at The Sunday Leader for six years under Lasantha’s watch. She is now the Deputy Editor of the Daily Financial Times.)