Prominent Sri Lankan editor shot dead

Colombo, January 8:

The editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper that has been highly critical of the island’s hawkish government and its war on Tamil rebels was shot dead today, in the second attack on the press in a week.

Gunmen on two motorcycles opened fire at Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the Sunday Leader, as he drove to work near the capital Colombo, police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera said.

Wickrematunga, 52, was rushed to hospital but died after three hours of emergency surgery. Colleagues said he had been shot in chest and head.

“We tried our best to revive him but we couldn’t,” said hospital director Anil Jasinghe.

The shooting came just two days after unidentified attackers torched a privately-owned television station labelled as “unpatriotic” by sections of the state media for its coverage of the island’s ethnic conflict.

The Sunday Leader is virulently anti-establishment and regularly lampoons politicians. Wickrematunga, a qualified lawyer, had often fought defamation cases brought by senior politicians.

The paper’s printing presses were also targeted in repeated arson attacks, most recently in November 2007, and in 1998 he escaped another attempt on his life when gunmen sprayed his home with bullets.

In his last editorial, Wickrematunga accused Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse of seeking to stay in power by stepping up the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels in the north of the island.

“Winning the war? Then there must be elections around the corner. It is no secret that the war has become Mahinda Rajapakse’s recipe for electoral success,” he wrote.

Rajapakse quickly condemned the killing, saying it highlighted “the existence of forces that will go to the furthest extremes in using terror and criminality to damage our social fabric”.

Wickrematunga also recently criticised the country’s main opposition parties, saying they had “fallen mute” meaning that “independent media institutions have taken on the job of the opposition”.

“That is why more journalists have been attacked in recent years than have opposition politicians,” he said.

Opposition leaders accused the president of being responsible for Wickrematunga’s death in an attempt to crush dissent.