The stain of Black January

Tuesday, 11 January 2022 02:46 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Thirteen long years ago, Lasantha Wickrematunge – Editor of The Sunday Leader – was brutally murdered in Colombo. Each January, as former colleagues and family commemorate the anniversary of his death, his killing continues to be a symbol of impunity and the systemic failure of the Sri Lankan State to find and prosecute his killers and hold to account those who seek to silence the free press through violence and bloodshed.

While Lasantha Wickrematunge’s brutal murder remains an emblematic case of violence against the country’s independent press, each year, press freedom activists in Sri Lanka commemorate ‘Black January’ – because the month has seen a disproportionate number of attacks against journalists. Prageeth Eknaligoda, a political satirist attached to a critical news website disappeared in January 2010 and was never heard of again. Former Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon was brutally assaulted by bikers who surrounded his car in January 2009, just two weeks after Wickrematunge was murdered on the street. Preceding Wickrematunge’s death on 8 January 2009 by mere days, was the claymore mine attack inside the Sirasa Network’s Pannipitiya studio. The Committee to Protect Journalists, records 19 journalists, mostly working in the Tamil language news media, who have been killed in Sri Lanka since 1992. Some other rights groups estimate this number to be as high as 40. While each of these deaths are heinous crimes against free expression, the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge and the enforced disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda in January 2010 stand out as emblematic of the absolute rot that has set within the criminal justice system.

Many of these attacks took place when the current president served as head of the security establishment, as the powerful Secretary to the Ministry of Defence in his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration. Yet while that portfolio was held for several years after the war ended in the north and east, scribe killers walked free until the fall of the administration in 2015. With the CID taking over these grave criminal investigations in 2015 and 2016, facts came to light about how shadowy sections of the security establishment might have been involved in the murders, assaults, and abductions, led by a team of special forces trained intelligence officers stationed at the Tripoli army base. The CID investigation into Wickrematunge’s murder affords a case study of the corruption that borders on state-sponsored immunity. At least two other persons, innocent Tamils from Vavuniya were murdered in what can only be explained as a cover-up to muddy the waters and cast blame elsewhere for the journalist’s murder. There were numerous other attempts to misdirect investigations. 

Controversy surrounds Wickrematunge’s notebook which was taken from his car on the day of his murder, in which he reportedly noted the licence plate numbers of the bikes on his trail on 8 January 2009. Witnesses have sworn that top police officers ordered the destruction of his notebook. As with several other cases involving violence and brutality against media personnel, including journalists Keith Noyhar, Eknaligoda and Tennakoon, a presidential commission appointed soon after the current President took office has recommended the exoneration of all the military personnel implicated in these crimes, and demanded legal action against the police detectives and prosecutors who sought to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Sandya Eknaligoda’s tireless crusade to find her missing husband found resonance within the Criminal Investigation Department then led by SSP Shani Abeysekera, and a dedicated team of prosecutors at the Attorney General’s Department which filed indictments against several top-ranking military officials implicated in Prageeth’s abduction. Ahimsa Wickrematunge’s relentless pursuit of justice against her father’s killers has taken his case before the US courts, the UN Human Rights Commission and a People’s Tribunal in The Hague. But justice for so many other journalists fallen or battered in the line of duty has fallen through the cracks in Sri Lanka and may never be resolved. The attacks on the free press cast a shadow over both the current administration, and the Yahapalanaya regime which was swept to power on promises of resolution and restitution for these crimes. Even 13 years later, it is in the Government’s best interest to seek to bring Wickrematunge’s killers and other perpetrators who have sought to silence journalists and critics with violence. Until then, Black January will remain a stain on the legacy of every administration – whether it presided over the crimes or failed to deliver justice to the victims.