Belfast Telegraph

Chilling message from journalist who paid for bravery

By Paul Connolly

The excellent Culture Night returns tonight to Belfast and a host of other towns and cities around the Province. If you fancy something that lends support to a worthwhile cause, you could do worse than come along to the Tele tonight for an Amnesty International reading and discussion.

Several local journalists will be telling the stories of the international brethren who have been threatened, maimed and killed in the line of their work.

One story, in particular, resonates with me. It is the story of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader newspaper, who was shot dead by two motorbike gunmen in 2009.

I know a little bit about Sri Lanka, having attended a conference there about the media and conflict resolution several years ago, where I met journalists from the Sunday Leader.

People were very interested in the Northern Ireland situation, not least because their country had some resemblance to Ireland in that there were two main protagonist groups, Sinhalese and Tamils, and the violence was mostly concentrated in the north of the country.

Like India, it had a British colonialist history and, in some respects, retained elements of British law and governmental practice. There the comparison with Northern Ireland pretty much ended, however. The divisions, the intensity of the violence and the poverty were stark and seemingly unresolvable.

Tamil terrorism and state repression were the main issues at the time. Since then, much has changed in Sri Lanka. Not all for the better.

The Tamil insurrection was defeated. But repression against journalists has intensified and many have been killed.

Lasantha Wickrematunge predicted his murder and left a 1,600-word article to be printed in his paper when — not if — he was killed. It is a deeply moving and insightful document, which will form part of tonight’s Amnesty event. Its headline, after the famous anti-Nazi plea by the theologian Martin Niemoller, states simply: ‘And then they came for me ...’

The opening reads: “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art, save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed.

“It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.”

It is an incredibly powerful document, which makes deeply uncomfortable reading and is a vivid and moving reminder of the freedoms we enjoy — and which are absent in many parts of the world.

Journalists on the Frontline is at the Belfast Telegraph tonight (5pm-7pm).

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