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Friday, April 30, 2010

Sonali Samarasinghe

For Sri Lankan journalist Sonali Samarasinghe, it was a night to remember when she accepted on 21 April on behalf of her late husband, Lasantha Wickramatunga, the 2009 Freedom of the Press award from the National Press Club in Washington. He was murdered on 8 January 2009 after predicting he would be in a now-famous editorial to run, as it was, after his death. He had been relentless in exposing wrongdoing in the government as editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader in Colombo.

The event was co-sponsored by the ICF’s American chapter. Other sponsors of the occasion were the NPC’s Freedom of the Press and International Correspondents committees. The NPC videotaped the program, now at

Presenting the award, NPC Vice-President Mark Hamrick said Wickramatunga’s newspaper was “hard hitting” in exposing the truth for which he paid a high price. He said the editor’s wife had also paid a high price.  He recalled the first line of Wickramatunga’s editorial: “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.”   Responding, Samarasinghe said her husband would have been “honored and humbled” with the award.

Now a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard, she was editor-in-chief of the Daily Leader and senior investigative journalist for the Sunday paper. She and her husband were a team with the highest aspirations for their profession as for their country.

Small wonder they interested the ICF’s late Founder-President, Bill Porter, who was in Sri Lanka for a media conference years ago. But it was not there that he met the two. “We met in Paris and had lunch together,” said Samarasinghe, a 1996 Caux Scholar at the Initiatives of Change center in Caux, Switzerland, where the ICF had its first meeting in 1991. Bill briefed them on the Forum and its premier mission statement, the Sarajevo Commitment. Copies of Wickramatunga’s editorial, the Sarajevo Commitment and the ICF’s latest newsletter were available at the NPC event.

Samarasinghe described her husband as “a man of great faith… we were both lawyers, but in journalism we felt we were doing more for the public.” Both were accustomed to being threatened. They’d been followed and otherwise harassed.

As part of the program, former NPC President Gil Klein interviewed her. Discussing the murder of her husband, she said, “It was a commando-style operation conducted by eight men doubled up on four motorcycles. They shattered the windshield and windows of the car. When they finished, witnesses found Lasantha slumped in the front seat bleeding from a blow to the head.” She said, “Lasantha was a thorn in the side of the ruling party. Week after week, his newspaper exposed corruption and graft in government and gave voice to minorities.” No one has been arrested for his murder. When Klein asked if the new parliament might do something, she was dubious but held out slight hope.

(At the end, I briefed the audience on the ICF: “Its object is to help media professionals become a far more constructive force in their communities, nations and the world … The American chapter is one of the ICF’s three – the others are in Poland and the UK.  Efforts are underway for chapters in India and South Africa. Their mission is to do in their countries what the ICF does globally.”)

The morning after receiving the award, Smarasinghe was interviewed on camera at the NPC by Clothilde Le Cox, director of the Washington office of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. She was then given a special tour of the nearby Newseum, which features her husband’s story and photo as an inspiration to the annual thousands of students, journalists and other visitors. Significantly, Charles Overby, chairman and CEO of the Newseum who arranged the tour, has had several briefings on the ICF, once by Bill Porter.