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Slain Sri Lankan journalist honoured with UN press freedom award

Slain Sri Lankan journalist honoured with UN press freedom award

Mourners light candles near a portrait of Lasantha Wickrematunge (file)
Sri Lankan journalist and editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was assassinated on 8 January this year, has been named as the laureate of the 2009 World Press Freedom Prize by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Mr. Wickrematunge was an attorney who also began working as an investigative reporter for the Sun/Davasa newspaper, according to a news release issued by UNESCO.

In 1994, he started the Sunday Leader with his brother and used the publication to campaign vigorously against the war between the Sri Lankan army and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In 2000, Mr. Wickrematunge secured a court victory which led to the abolition of the law that allowed the Government to curb the media. In November 2007, the Sunday Leader was damaged in an arson attack that Mr. Wickrematunge said resembled a “commando action.”

“He expected to be assassinated and went so far as to write an editorial for publication after his death,” UNESCO noted. In the editorial, which appeared in the Sunday Leader three days after he had been murdered, Mr Wickrematunge voiced his commitment and readiness to die for press freedom: “[…] there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”

Mr. Wickrematunge was chosen by a jury of 14 professional journalists from around the world, and is the second reporter in the award’s 12-year history to be honoured posthumously. Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and outspoken human rights campaigner who was killed in 2006, was awarded the prize in 2007.

“Jury members were moved to an almost unanimous choice by a man who was clearly conscious of the dangers he faced but nevertheless chose to speak out, even beyond his grave,” said Joe Thloloe, President of the jury and Press Ombudsman of the Press Council of South Africa, referring to the laureate’s posthumous editorial.

“Lasantha Wickrematunge continues to inspire journalists around the world,” he added.

UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura will present the award in a ceremony on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, which the agency will celebrate this year in the Qatari capital, Doha.

“In awarding the 2009 World Press Freedom Prize to a committed journalist who opposed war, UNESCO, along with media professionals from all over the world, recognizes the important role that freedom of expression can play in fostering mutual understanding and reconciliation, the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day celebration,” said Mr. Matsuura.

Created in 1997 by the Paris-based agency’s Executive Board, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize is awarded annually to honour the work of an individual or an organization defending or promoting freedom of expression anywhere in the world, especially if this action puts the individual’s life at risk. Candidates are proposed by UNESCO Member States, and regional or international organizations that defend and promote freedom of expression.

The $25,000 prize, financed by the Cano and Ottaway family foundations, is named after Guillermo Cano, the Colombian newspaper publisher assassinated in 1987 for denouncing the activities of powerful drug barons in his country.

Previous winners include Lydia Cacho (Mexico, 2008), Anna Politkovskaya (Russian Federation, 2007), May Chidiac (Lebanon, 2006), Cheng Yizhong, (China, 2005), Raúl Rivero (Cuba, 2004), Amira Hass (Israel, 2003), Geoffrey Nyarota (Zimbabwe, 2002), U Win Tin (Myanmar, 2001), Nizar Nayyouf (Syria, 2000), Jesus Blancornelas (Mexico, 1999), Christina Anyanwu (Nigeria, 1998) and Gao Yu (China, 1997).