Obama extolled Sri Lanka Journalist given prison term, says NYT

[TamilNet, Thursday, 03 September 2009, 04:09 GMT]
Noting that J.S. Tissainayagam was picked by President Obama on World Press Freedom Day as a “symbol of oppression of the media,” the New York Times (NYT) Tuesday reported that this editor of a crusading magazine in SriLanka was sentenced by the island’s court for writing critical articles on the Sri Lanka government’s offensive against Tamils. The NYT, quoting two prominent staffers at the Colombo-based think-tank Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), said that the sentence was a very serious blow [to journalism], that the law under which the sentence was passed “ is so vague that practically any speech could be prosecuted,” and that it is unacceptable that the Court would give maximum sentence to a journalist for simply doing his job.

Full text of the NYT article follows:

On World Press Freedom Day in May, President Obama held up J. S. Tissainayagam, the editor of a crusading magazine in Sri Lanka who has been jailed since March 2008, as a symbol of the oppression of the media.

On Monday, a judge in Sri Lanka sentenced Mr. Tissainayagam to 20 years of hard labor for violating the country’s tough antiterrorism laws by writing articles highly critical of a government military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels who had controlled a large chunk of Sri Lanka’s north.

Mr. Tissainayagam, who is Tamil, was the editor of the now-defunct North Eastern Monthly magazine, and was accused of accepting money and other support from the Tigers. He was convicted under laws that give harsh sentences for offenses like using racially divisive language or promoting disharmony. These laws were enacted in response to the Tamil Tiger insurgency. The insurgents, members of the Hindu Tamil minority, sought a separate state from Sri Lanka’s Buddhist, Sinhalese majority. The government decisively defeated the Tigers in a bloody final battle on a strip of beach in northern Sri Lanka in May, ending one of Asia’s longest civil wars.

As is often the case with local journalists in conflict zones, Mr. Tissainayagam’s reporting reflected the prevailing point of view of the minority to which he belonged, but the government argued that his work went further.

“The Constitution itself gives freedom of press, but that doesn’t allow anybody to spread false information to spur ethnic violence,” Sudarshana DeSilva, the prosecutor, told the court, Reuters reported.

But rights advocates say that Mr. Tissainayagam’s sentence reflects the plight of Sri Lanka’s embattled press corps. At least seven journalists have been killed since 2007, including some singled out by the Tamil Tigers. Many more have fled the country.

“It is very serious blow,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, editor of Groundviews, a citizen journalism Web site. “It sends a chilling message that the independent expression of opinion is no longer tolerated in Sri Lanka.”

Lucien Rajakarunanayake, spokesman for Sri Lanka’s president and a columnist, said that Mr. Tissainayagam had the right to appeal.

“The court has believed the evidence placed before it,” Mr. Rajakarunanayake said. “That he did accept money from a terrorist organization and did work that furthered the cause of terrorism in this country.”

The sentence is sure to increase pressure from the West on Sri Lanka’s government, which has been criticized for its handling of the last battle against the Tamil Tigers and the treatment of Tamils displaced by the war.

Mr. Tissainayagam’s lawyer told reporters that he planned to appeal. Though he confessed, he later said that the confession was given under duress. Legal experts said that the antiterrorism laws under which he was convicted violated the Constitution.

Asanga Welikala, a lawyer who has written on press freedom in Sri Lanka, said that the law was so vague that practically any speech could be prosecuted. “Totally unacceptable that we should have such a law, and even more unacceptable that a court of law should feel that this journalist should get the maximum possible sentence under that law for simply doing his job,” he said. External reference:


Chronology:


External Links:
NYT: Sri Lankan Editor Lauded by Obama Is Sentenced to 20 Years
RSF: J. S. Tissainayagam Named First Winner of Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism
CPJ: CPJ International Press Freedom Awards 2009
PM: Peter Mackler Award
PMBlog: J. S. Tissainayagam Announced as First Winner of Peter Mackler Award
JDS: Democracy is in chains in Sri Lanka
Times: J.S. Tissainayagam, journalist lauded by Obama, is jailed in Sri Lanka

 

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