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Monday, 11 January 2010

Critical Sri Lankan Journalist Granted Bail

IPI Urges Authorities to Reverse Conviction 

By: Nayana Jayarajan, Communications Officer

In this file photo taken on Aug. 31, 2009, Sri Lankan prison guards escort ethnic Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam out of the High Court premises in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: AP/File

JS Tissainayagam, a Sri Lankan Tamil journalist who was sentenced to twenty years in prison in September last year after he criticised the government’s handling of an offensive against Tamil Tiger militants, has been granted bail pending appeal.

An appeals court on Monday ordered the journalist to surrender his passport and pay bail of $500, and it is expected that he will be bailed on Tuesday, his lawyer told the Associated Press.

Tissainayagam, who ran the North Eastern Monthly magazine, and was a columnist for the Sunday Times in Colombo, was accused of inciting communal disharmony under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a draconian law introduced by the government as a weapon in the fight against the Tamil Tigers decades ago and allowing the authorities to muzzle reporting on sensitive topics. The PTA gives the police sweeping powers to arrest and detain people and has remained on Sri Lanka’s statute books despite being introduced in 1979 as a temporary measure.

Tissainayagam was detained on 7 March 2008 by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the Sri Lankan police, and held without charge for over five months.  

The charges ultimately brought refer to two articles Tissainayagam wrote in 2006 for the North Eastern Monthly, in which he criticised the government’s military campaign and its impact on civilians.  

At the end of August 2009, the High Court of Colombo sentenced Tissainayagam to 20 years in prison. His attorney appealed the sentence one month later.

"The appeal process could last a couple of years," Ruki Fernando, Head of the Human Rights in Conflict Program of the Law & Society Trust, a not-for-profit human rights organisation based in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, told IPI by phone in September.

“While this is a positive development, and we welcome the court’s decision to grant bail to Tissainayagam, justice will not be served until all charges against him are dropped,” said IPI Director David Dadge. “The use of anti-terror legislation to muzzle journalists is unacceptable and Sri Lanka must abolish this law as proof of its commitment to press freedom and the restoration of human rights in the aftermath of the civil war.”

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared the Tamil Tigers defeated, bringing to an end a conflict that lasted over 25 years.

Tissainayagam is the first Sri Lankan journalist formally charged under the terrorism act and one of fewer than a handful of journalists facing counter-terrorism charges in any country with a democratically elected government.

Almost exactly a year ago, on 8 Jan 2009, Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was shot dead on his way to work, in an incident that became emblematic of the plight of dissident journalists in Sri Lanka. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

Speaking to IPI about the murder of journalists in Sri Lanka, on the one-year anniversary of the murder, Lasantha’s brother, Lal Wickrematunge, the current Chairman of Leader Publications (which includes the paper Lasantha edited), said that under Sri Lanka’s current government 14 journalists have been murdered, more than 20 journalists have been abducted or assaulted, and many others have left the country.

A November 2009 press freedom mission to Sri Lanka, jointly conducted by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Media Support (IMS), and IPI found that journalists in Sri Lanka continue to operate in a climate of fear.

IPI’s Justice Denied Campaign highlights the problem of impunity in Sri Lanka in its call for justice for slain photojournalist Subramaniyam Sukirtharajan, who was killed in 2006 soon after Sudar Oli, a popular Tamil-language daily for which he worked, published his photographs of five murdered Tamil high school students. The photographer’s killers remain at large.

Following an October 2009 conference in Vienna entitled “The War on Words – Terrorism, Media and the Law,” jointly organised by IPI and the Centre for International Legal Studies (CISL), IPI launched the Vienna Declaration, which calls on governments to respect media freedom in the fight against terrorism.

In a statement accompanying the launch of the declaration, which has been endorsed by 32 freedom of expression groups, IPI Director David Dadge said: “Governments and inter-governmental organisations, therefore, must ensure that any and all counter-terrorism measures or laws are consistent with international standards and that the media is free not only to report on terrorist acts, but also to exert its watchdog role over security policies.”