Sri Lankan editor shot dead, Rajapaksa condemns murder (Second Lead)

January 8th, 2009 - 8:40 pm ICT by IANS  

Colombo/New Delhi, Jan 8 (IANS) Gunmen on a motorcycle Thursday shot dead an outspoken editor in Sri Lanka as he drove his car in rush hour traffic. President Mahinda Rajapaksa condemned the slaying even as an international body of journalists said the government was “directly to blame”.Lasantha Wickramatunga of Sunday Leader was attacked in Dehiwela locality and wounded seriously by the killers who smashed the window of his car with a steel bar before shooting him from close range in the head, chest and stomach, media organisations said.

A profusely bleeding Wickramatunga was rushed to a Colombo hospital where he died a few hours later.

Police sources said the two assailants were unidentified. Television channels showed visuals of the bullet-hit windscreen and blood-splattered Toyota car that Wickramatunga was in.

The shooting came two days after unidentified men armed with assault rifles and petrol bombs stormed a private television station and destroyed the main studio by setting it on fire.

Media right groups, activists, senior media personnel and leaders of political parties vehemently condemned the latest attacks on Sri Lanka’s media.

“Sri Lanka has lost one of its more talented, courageous and iconoclastic journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“President 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,” it added.

President Rajapaksa “most vehemently and unequivocally” condemned the killing of Wickramatunga, whom he described as “a close friend who I have known for many years as a courageous journalist”.

“This heinous crime points to the grave dangers faced by the democratic social order of our country and the existence of forces that will go to the furthest extremes in using terror and criminality to damage our social fabric and bring disrepute to the country,” he said.

The president said he had directed the police to conduct “the most thorough investigation to bring to book any and all persons responsible for this act of brutality with maximum speed”.

But Reporters Without Borders said that Rajapaksa had called Wickrematunga a “terrorist journalist” in an interview with its representative in October.

The Sunday Leader’s outspoken style and coverage of shady business deals meant that Wickrematunga was often the target of intimidation attempts and libel suits, it said.

The printing press of the Sunday Leader media group, located in a high security area near Colombo, was destroyed in an arson attack by a group of gunmen in November 2007.

Sri Lanka was ranked 165th out of 173 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2008 press freedom index. Two journalists were killed in Sri Lanka in 2008 and two are now in prison.

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