SRI LANKA: Lanka jails scribe for 20 yrs for 2 articles

Activists say government is using journalist as an example to intimidate other reporters and editors

The Times of India
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

By K Venkataramanan

Chennai --- In a verdict that shocked rights activists and media watchdogs, the Colombo high court on Monday sentenced veteran Sri Lankan journalist and columnist J S Tissainayagam to 20 years rigorous imprisonment under the country's stringent anti-terror law.

The judgment confirmed worst fears of activists across the globe that Sri Lanka would make an example of Tissainayagam to intimidate other reporters and editors who have chosen to question the government's scorched-earth anti-terror campaign and practice independent journalism.

US President Barack Obama had recently cited Tissainayagam as an "emblematic example" of journalists who faced intimidation and arbitrary arrest worldwide.

The verdict handed down by judge Deepali Wijesundara was mainly related to two articles, which the prosecution said tended to cause ill-will among ethnic communities, and a charge, based on custodial confession, that he had raised money to fund terrorist activities.

Tissainayagam had earned the government's wrath by remarking in the Northeastern Monthly that "the inability to protect its citizens has caused Sri Lanka international embarrassment". In another piece, he had spoken about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Vakarai, a coastal town in Sri Lanka's east that was a major Sea Tiger base, when it came under bombing by security forces and its starving civilian population was trapped in the midst of the war.

Tissainayagam, an ethnic Tamil who wrote in English and was a regular columnist in Sunday dailies, was arrested by an anti-terrorism division of police in March 2008 but wasn't formally charged or produced in court until August 2008, when he was indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Despite calls for his release and doubts being raised about his purported confession, police went ahead with his trial. A large number of lawyers and human rights activists were present in court when the verdict was given. One of them, Nimalka Fernando, said this was probably the first time that such a severe sentence had been given to a journalist for something he had written. "I am totally shocked as this judgment is a huge threat to the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. I am sad as a citizen because it is the last nail in the coffin of our hope that the rule of law will prevail," Fernando said.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) dubbed the sentence "brutal and inhumane", and accused Sri Lanka of misusing anti-terror laws to silence peaceful critics.

A Human Rights Watch spokeswoman said the journalist's only crime was to express his political views. "This verdict is a glaring fair trial violation and only suggests, yet again, that the Sri Lankan government is determined to intimidate independent media or any other dissident," said Meenakshi Ganguly.

The IFJ said the conviction was "symbolic of crumbling press freedom in Sri Lanka, where at least eight journalists have been killed since 2007. Others have been beaten, harassed, detained and threatened with death". Many journalists, especially Tamils, have fled the country before or after the end of the war against LTTE, fearing persecution for criticising the war.