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Monday, 31 August 2009

Sri Lankan Journalist Sentenced to Twenty Years Hard Labor over Criticism of Government Offensive against Tamil Tigers

First Time Anti-terrorism Regulations Used to Convict Journalist in Sri Lanka 

Members of the Sri Lankan media protest near the Colombo High Court, against the trial of journalist J.S. Tissanayagam, in Colombo August 31, 2009. Photo: REUTERS/STRINGER

The International Press Institute (IPI) is concerned at the twenty-year prison sentence handed down on Monday to journalist J.S Tissanayagam by the Colombo High Court.

Tissanayagam, who ran the North Eastern Monthly magazine, and was a columnist for the Sunday Times in Colombo, was accused of inciting communal disharmony based on articles he wrote criticizing the government offensive in May against the Tamil Tiger rebels. The charges were issued under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2006), which gives authorities wide-ranging and ill-defined powers to shut down those reporting on sensitive topics.  

Tissanayagam, who was first arrested in March 2008, was also found guilty of taking money from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which, until their defeat earlier this year, had been campaigning for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

The evidence against the journalist is based on two articles he wrote in the North Eastern Monthly, and a signed confession, which Tissanayagam later said had been written under duress. According to the written submission made by his defense counsel to the court, the confession was tampered with to suggest that the journalist had taken money from the LTTE. The document says: “The only allegation that he (the accused) did (accept money from a terrorist organization), is based on a fraudulent alteration of the Accused’s purported confession.”

Tissanayagam was among three journalists arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of Sri Lanka on 7 March 2008, and was initially held on a 30-day detention order. One of the other journalists arrested at the same time, Vettivel Yaseeharan, reportedly later alleged that he had been assaulted by TID officials.

A foreign correspondent in Colombo told IPI that the defense had already stated its intention to appeal the sentence. “Were the appeal to be unsuccessful, the journalist could move to the Supreme Court. The last resort is a presidential pardon,” he said.  

“This case further underscores the grave situation for press freedom in Sri Lanka,” said IPI Deputy Director Alison Bethel. “We urge the Sri Lankan authorities to reexamine the sentence.”

Twelve journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2006, according to IPI’s Death Watch list, with many more harassed, threatened, and arrested.

In January 2009, Lasantha Wickremetunga, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, was shot at close range in the head and chest by two men on a motorcycle as he drove to work in a suburb of Colombo. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he received emergency surgery, but died a few hours later. Known for his critical reporting on the government, Wickremetunga was a frequent victim of harassment and intimidation, and predicted his own murder in the pages of his newspaper. The initial results of the investigation of his death have not been released.

Just over a month later, Puniyamoorthy Sathiyamoorthy, a freelance journalist, was killed in an artillery attack by the Sri Lankan army on a so-called "safe zone" in Mullaitheevu district.

IPI’s Justice Denied Campaign has focused on the murder of Subramaniyam Sukirtharajan, a journalist with the Sudar Oli, who was shot dead in January 2006, a few days after the paper published his photos of a recent shooting showing that the targets were shot at close range and were students - which contradicted the army’s claim that they were LTTE terrorists who were killed when a bomb exploded prematurely.

There have been no convictions in any of the cases.