Journalist's 20-year sentence casts chill in Sri Lanka

Tamil columnist J.S. Tissainayagam, whom US President Barack Obama had recognized as an example of a persecuted journalist, was charged with fomenting communal disharmony and sentenced to hard labor.

By , Correspondent

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    Sri Lankan prison guards escort ethnic Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam out of the High Court premises in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Monday.
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NEW DELHI – The imprisonment of an award-winning Tamil journalist has heightened fears that freedom of speech in Sri Lanka is fast disappearing, even as the government promises to bring lasting peace to the island.

J.S. Tissainayagam, editor of the now-obsolete Northeastern magazine and respected columnist for other newspapers, was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor Monday on charges of violating the island’s antiterror law. The move was widely condemned as unjust and repressive.

Mr. Tissainayagam wrote articles in 2006 and 2007 that were critical of the government’s treatment of the island’s Tamil minority during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May.

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International observers, Western governments, and aid agencies have also criticized the government’s conduct, especially during the last four years of the conflict, which began in 1983, when the LTTE began their fight for a homeland for the island’s ill-treated Tamil minority.

The Sri Lankan government has stood by the sentence, saying that Tissainayagam was given a fair trial, and that his sentence did not affect press freedom in the country.

An unknown number of Tamil civilians were killed during the particularly bloody last months of fighting in the north of the island. Both rebels and the military have been blamed for the heavy death toll. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, an ardent Sinhalese nationalist who came to power in 2005, has also been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses against Tamils, including the abduction and murder of hundreds of young men in the capital, Colombo.

During World Freedom Day in May, President Barack Obama said Tissainayagam, who was arrested in March, was an “emblematic example“ of a persecuted journalist. Amnesty International has declared the journalist a prisoner of conscience.

On Monday, a high court judge said Tissainayagam’s articles had broken the law because they were intended to foster communal disharmony.

Journalists living in fear

"The imposition of this extremely severe sentence on Tissainayagam suggests that some Sri Lanka judges confuse justice with revenge," said Reporters Without Borders, adding that it was "appalled" by the sentence.

Indeed, Sri Lanka has become an increasing dangerous place for journalists in recent years.

In January, newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was shot dead on his way to work, days after gunmen destroyed the main studio of MBC, Sri Lanka's largest private broadcaster. Two weeks later, another editor was stabbed and beaten.

Others have been harassed, detained, and threatened with death. Tissainayagam signed a confession, but later told the court he did so under duress.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says that at least 11 Sri Lankan reporters were forced to flee the country in the past year. Amnesty International says at least 14 journalists and media workers have been killed since 2006.

Tissainayagam’s defense lawyer, Anil Silva, said in his defense filing that his client had always fought for human rights.

"He was never a racist and he at no time tried to arouse hatred," he wrote. "Now he has been punished for what he wrote as a journalist. This will be a lesson to other journalists, too."

But it is not only media freedoms in Sri Lanka that are at stake.

Stamping out dissent

In a recent report, the Economist Intelligence Unit noted that “increasing intimidation of opponents of the government is a worrying trend” in Sri Lanka.

“The government basically silences any dissent, so there‘s only one voice – that of Rajapaksa and his government,” says Suhas Chakma from the Asian Centre for Human Rights based in New Delhi. “The government wants to stop the publication of stories about Army brutalities.”

Opposition politicians – especially those who speak out for Tamil autonomy – and charity workers have also suffered violence and intimidation. Several international welfare organizations – including human rights observers – have been asked by the government to leave the island.

Reporters Without Borders named Tissainayagam winner of an award for “courageous and ethical journalism” hours after his imprisonment.

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