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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge now carries the title “Editor in Exile”. In September of 2008, she was the second winner of the Global Shining Light Award in Norway, presented by the International Conference of Investigative Journalists for exposing how a government minister “used his power and connections to the President of the country to run roughshod over the media and the justice system.” Less than four months later her husband of two months, the well known editor of the Leader newspaper, Sri Lanka, was brutally gunned down as he drove to work and Sonali was forced to flee the country, along with other members of her family—hence her unusual title. 

Sonali, a 1996 participant in the Caux Scholars Program, trained first as a lawyer and then shifted to journalism, believing “journalism is more fulfilling personally, and I am able to act according to my conscience and try to impact society.” In a letter written at the end of January 2008, she said, “I am happy in my work and feel I can offer something to a country that is becoming more racist by the minute. It is hard to imagine how pugnaciously nationalist we are becoming, especially the politicians.”

She went on to say that many extremist politicians hated her guts and that they had even burned her newspaper press the previous November, along with “a large consignment of my papers about to be distributed.” “I am often threatened,” she wrote, “and sometimes I see police surveillance near my house. But if we give in to this intimidation, we cannot restore democracy, because I remember a time of abundance, of peace, of progress.” “I am often called a traitor to my race because I give voice to the minorities,” she said, but “I am inspired to go on, because I know I want the best for this country, because I too was a racist who thought exactly like them and changed and because, apart from the awards, a validation of one’s work, the numerous people who come up to me and say ‘thank you for your bravery’ is so touching.”

Sonali’s husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge, knew that his life was in danger and in fact wrote a final editorial entitled “And Then They Came for Me,” in which he said, “It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.” (Read the editorial)  

Sonali says that the most important lesson she has learned through her connection to Initiatives of Change is “a simple but powerful one: ‘Be the Change You Want to See.’ Through my writing, my work as a journalist, my work as an Editor of a national newspaper, I try now to bring this message of change.”

She and her husband have paid a terrible price for their courage—with Lasantha losing his life and Sonali her country, and they are not alone. From her initial exile in Europe, Sonali sent a message to Doha in May of 2009, where Lasantha was awarded the World Press Freedom Prize. In it she said, “no less than 16 dissident media professionals have been assassinated—all of them in commando-style attacks—since President Mahinda Rajapakse took office in November 2005 . . . Presses and television stations have been destroyed in these raids, as indeed have the newspapers Lasantha and I edited.” Other journalists, she said, “languish in Sri Lankan prisons with no charge, or with only the flimsiest and most childish of contrived charges pressed against them.”

She concludes her acknowledgement of the award with her husband’s last words: “We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves. We have made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I—and my family—have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am—and have always been—ready for that.” On November 18, Sonali was awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award at The Hague in recognition for her courage in raising difficult issues around power abuse and corruption.

Sonali, now a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, will not give up either and will surely find new ways to fight for the truth and the right as she sees it and for her dear country, Sri Lanka.