Widow of murdered Sri Lankan journalist speaks at SBU

Sonali SamarasingheTo the government of Sri Lanka, Sonali Samarasinghe is a traitor who published embarrassing things about the women and men who hold or have held high office there.

Her newspaper did not adequately celebrate the victories of the Sri Lankan Army in its advance on the strongholds of the Tamil rebels, a minority at war with the government.

Those who have taken or are taking News Literacy, know her as the widow of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the founding editor of the Sri Lanka Sunday Leader. He was killed after daring to take on the Sri Lankan government and army for what he called human rights abuses and what they called necessary force in the war on the Tamil Tiger insurgents.

On Tuesday, September 13, Samarasinghe spoke at Stony Brook University about her life and the death of her husband.

Each semester hundreds of News Literacy students at Stony Brook hear the obituary Wickrematunge wrote for himself when death threats started to pile up. In it, he declares his own death not a defeat, but an example to others in Sri Lanka, whom he said should continue to speak for the voiceless.

Told last May of this tradition of reading the obituary aloud in the News Literacy course, Samarasinghe agreed to travel to Stony Brook to give the School of Journalism’s “My Life As” lecture to give students more insights into the lengths to which the powerful will go to suppress information.

They had been warned, she told a crowd of 300 students who turned out for the evening lecture. Shortly before the attack, while driving to their home, they had been menaced by men they assumed were government thugs, following them. Later that day, on January 8, 2009, her husband was beaten in the street by men on black motorcycles in black fatigues and black helmets. To protect her from further reprisals, she has asked that the location of her current home not be revealed. She fled the country shortly after Wickrematunge’s death.

She told students that after her husband died of his injuries at the hospital, his body was brought to their home, where it is traditional for mourners to visit the family before burial of the dead. All that day, she said, she was unable to greet her guests because she was on her computer, editing copy for the next day’s edition of the paper.

This was as Wickrematunge would have wanted it, she said. And while some criticized her for not grieving in the traditional way, she said it was the only way she could honor the work he did that she believes led to the attack.
In the two years since, the government has “stonewalled the investigation while it has been passed around like a hot potato from one investigating body to another,” says the Committee to Protect Journalists.

CPJ reports that the Sri Lankan President’s brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is the defense secretary and oversees the police, dismissed as inconsequential the investigation into Wickrematunge’s death that was promised by the President. “Who is Lasantha? A tabloid publisher. Why is the world worried about one man?” he told the BBC. “He criticized everybody. So everybody had a reason to kill him.”

In a short presentation followed by a question and answer period, Samarasinghe told students of her journey from criminal defense attorney back to journalism. The constant, she said was that she was seeking the kind of justice her father, a police official whose fairness she admired, meted out in his bailiwick.

“My Life As” is a School of Journalism tradition started in 2006. Speakers have included Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward and CNN anchor Soledad Obrien.
For photos from the event click here: