Sri Lanka’s High Court has dealt a huge blow to press freedoms on the island, sentencing a prominent local journalist — J.S. Tissanayagam — to 20 years’ hard labor. His crime? Publishing a series of articles between 2006 and 2007 that criticized his government’s handling of a war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group that had been fighting for an ethnic Tamil homeland in northern Sri Lanka since the early 1980s.
In those articles, Tissanayagam — himself a member of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority population — talked about the hardships that the Sri Lankan military had imposed on Tamil civilians living in and around the war zones, such as its restriction of food deliveries. He was later arrested in early 2008 and held for 17 months, essentially accused of working off the LTTE payroll and publishing propaganda. (Tissanayagam denied the charges, but claimed he was later coerced into signing a confession.)
During his detention, Amnesty International and President Barack Obama highlighted Tissanayagam’s plight, but to no avail: Today, Tissanayagam became the first journalist sentenced under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. The judge found him guilty of conspiracy, saying his articles sought to sow ethnic divisions between Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil populations.
Those involved in the case say today’s ruling should concern news reporters everywhere who serve as voices of dissent. “He had no time tried to arouse hatred,” says Anil Silva, Tissanayagam’s defense lawyer. “Now he has been punished for what he wrote as a journalist. This will be a lesson to other journalists too.”
While the Sri Lankan military may have finally defeated the LTTE in May, ending the island’s bloody quarter-century civil war, the battle for press freedom on the island looks to be heating up.
Tissanayagam plans to appeal his sentence.