SRI LANKA: Major daily withholds information about Tamil journalist's killer

The Sunday Leader claims it has information that police have solved the case; the paper's editor-in-chief says they will publish the suspects' identities on Sunday if no arrests have been made by then

By Arthur Rhodes
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Colombo -- On June 5, Sri Lankaís Sunday Leader published a report claiming that it possesses information suggesting that police have "cracked the murder" of prominent Tamil journalist Dharmaratnam Sivaram. According to the Leader, the police are withholding information regarding the identity of those allegedly involved until all suspects can be arrested.
Sivaram was found shot to death on the morning of Apr. 29. He had been abducted the previous evening as he returned home from dinner with colleagues.

The Leader article reports that the murder was carried out by "a political party supportive of the government and with close links to another political party which is holding a ministerial office in government."

The paper says it is not publishing further details of the investigation in order to allow for all necessary arrests to be made. It will, however, release the remaining information on Sunday if it believes that the police department is attempting to "hush the investigation because it will embarrass any persons or political parties."

The breakthrough in the investigation "came after the assassins left a vital trail which lead to material evidence in the case being unearthed."

Contacted by AsiaMedia, the Director of the Colombo Crime Division, D.S.S Lugoda, would not comment on the progress of the case. "Revealing too much information now would compromise our investigation," he said. He did, however, state that he is absolutely confident that the person or persons responsible for the murder of Sivaram will be brought to trial.
"I am personally involved in this case," said Lugoda. "It is very important for Sri Lanka that this case be solved and that those responsible are brought to trial. The victim was an internationally renowned journalist. The world is watching the outcome of this investigation."

Lugoda would not comment on the validity of the Leader article, but said, "If the paper is in possession of such details it should not release them until we can complete our work-up of the case."

"The media has a role to play in these sorts of things," he said. "If there is a potential for a cover-up it is important that they make sure it does not happen. But I am not a political man. There will not be a cover-up of this investigation. If in a few weeks there is still no arrest made, then they should publish these details. But for now they should keep quiet and wait."

"Just the fact that they do not deny our article means that they have a breakthrough and that arrests should be already made," says Lasantha Wickrematunge, Sunday Leader editor-in-chief. He told AsiaMedia, "Our material shows that they have unequivocal evidence pointing to one or more suspects. We will let them do their jobs, but we will not allow them to sweep this under the carpet. There are many cases of such cover-ups in the history of the Sri Lankan police department."

"If no public arrest is made this week, we will publish the remaining material in our possession," said Wickrematunge.

Lugoda worries that media interference with the on-going investigation may lower the chance of an arrest being made. "If the people under investigation learn that they are suspected for murder before the police have all of the evidence to arrest them, they can flee the country or go into hiding," he said.

"It is typical for the police to try to blame the press in such circumstances," said Wicktematunge. "It is one of the reasons we did not run the full details. We want to make sure that they cannot say it was because of us if something goes wrong."

Two weeks after Sivaramís murder a note claiming responsibility was sent to a number of Sri Lankan journalists. The letter was a death threat intended for "sinful and traitorous" members of the press. Lugoda believes that the document was intended to distract investigators. There was no mention of the letter in the Leaderís latest report on the Sivaram investigation.