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Sri Lankan Journalist Predicted His Murder

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And you might say the people of Sri Lanka are hardened when it comes to tragedy. Tens of thousands have died there during decades of civil war. Mostly the rest of the world hasn't paid much attention, but the case of one man is an exception. In this letter from South Asia, NPR's Philip Reeves focuses on a journalist whose work cost him his life.

PHILIP REEVES: Lasantha Wickrematunge knew he was going to be murdered. He said so in an article shortly before he died. He also predicted who would do it.

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Wickrematunge was one of Sri Lanka's most distinguished newspaper editors. His paper, the Sunday Leader, repeatedly challenged the government of a corruption and atrocities. The paper is also respected for its even-handed reporting of the island's conflict, a particularly vicious war between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels seeking a homeland in part of the island for the Tamil minority. They finally killed Wickrematunge as he was driving to work last week in the capital Colombo. Two gunmen on a motorbike shot him through the head.

Thousands turned up for the funeral. Now, they, and many others, are demanding the Sri Lankan authorities track down the murderers. Wickrematunge's voice from the grave has joined this outraged chorus. In an article published a few days after his death, he states, when finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The president of Sri Lanka is a man called Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa's government's riding high because its forces are routing the Tamil Tigers from almost all their territory. Wickrematunge, the editor, was no friend of the Tigers. He considered them ruthless and bloodthirsty, and believed they should be eradicated. But he also excoriated the Rajapaksa government for using force at the expense of a political solution. In his final article, he accuses it of trying to win the war with merciless bombing and shooting and of violating Tamil rights.

Wickrematunge was a friend of President Rajapaksa. In that same article, as he imagines his own murder, he addresses the president personally. I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call for a swift and thorough inquiry, he writes, but like all the inquiries you've ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too.

In Sri Lanka, journalists are censored, harassed, beaten and abducted for doing their jobs. More than a dozen have wound up dead. Lasantha Wickrematunge, a father of three, refused to stop writing, although he knew it would eventually cost him his life. He wanted his final article to guide those he left behind. He wrote that he hoped his assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom, but an inspiration, an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts exposing the truth. Let's hope his wish comes true. Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.