A Letter From the Grave

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A journalist’s farewell piece not only explains why another brave journalist would die while trying to publish truths, it is also an indictment of the brutal Sri Lankan government.
Monday, January 19th, 2009

Lasantha Wickramatunga, an extraordinarily courageous journalist, wrote his own obituary. After he was murdered on Jan. 8, his letter from the grave appeared in papers all over the world including his own, The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka.

His farewell piece is not only a painful explanation of why another brave journalist would die while trying to publish truths that most people are afraid to whisper. It is also a powerful indictment of the increasingly brutal Sri Lankan government, which runs one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism,” he wrote in his last editorial, to be published on his death.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, which has reported eight journalists killed in Sri Lanka in the last two years, has called for a nonpartisan investigation and diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to investigate this latest killing. Instead of pursuing those who killed Mr. Wickramatunga, some in the Sri Lankan government have cynically begun suggesting the journalist’s death has benefited the Tamil rebels and others who oppose the Rajapaksa-run state.

Mr. Wickramatunga’s final essay catalogs the troubles journalists have suffered in his country — bombings, killings and coercion — all while trying to tell about corruption in government and civil rights abuses during an extended civil war. But in a larger sense, his farewell helps explain why some people are willing to give up easier lives to pursue the business of truth-telling.

“Why then do we do it?” Mr. Wickramatunga’s farewell letter asked. “I often wonder that. After all, I, too, am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not.” He then explained why he and so many other journalists take on these jobs around the world, even though more than 700 of their colleagues have been killed since 1992 while trying to film, record or write honestly about what was going on around them.

“There is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security,” Mr. Wickramatunga wrote before he died for his principles. “It is the call of conscience.”

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© 2009 The New York Times Company
A version of this article appeared in print on January 19, 2009, on page A24 of the New York edition.