FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

Safe Passage for Tissainayagam Just One Step Toward Free Media in Sri Lanka

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is relieved that J.S. Tissainayagam is safe, following more than two years of an ordeal in which the Sri Lankan Tamil journalist was accused, charged and tried for terrorism for his journalistic reporting on human rights issues.

Tissainayagam has now left Sri Lanka, joining the growing ranks of Sri Lanka’s senior independent journalists who have felt compelled to seek safety abroad.

The IFJ acknowledges the support of its affiliates worldwide as well as international and local press freedom organisations who have sustained a long campaign to secure justice and freedom for Tissainayagam since he was detained in March 2008.

However, the IFJ remains concerned that the efforts of Sri Lankan authorities to restrict independent and critical journalism continue to sustain a climate of self-censorship and fear among local media personnel and outlets.

“Tissainayagam was wrongfully detained in the first place, simply because of his independent and critical writing on human rights issues in Sri Lanka. He should never have been charged under counter-terrorism laws, and he should never have been sent to trial,” IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said.

“It is a great relief for Tissainayagam, his family, colleagues, and the press freedom community worldwide that Tissainayagam is now safely free, after being sentenced last year to 20 years’ jail.

“But we will remain focused on countering mechanisms in Sri Lanka that can be used to imprison journalists on the basis of their professional work, and we will campaign for justice against those who commit violence against journalists.”

Tissainayagam was initially detained, alongside his colleagues N. Jasikaran and V. Valamarthy, while working as the director of the now defunct http://www.outreachsl.com website.

He was held for more than five months before being charged in August 2008 under counter-terrorism and emergency laws, accused of attempting to cause racial or communal disharmony in his articles on human rights issues published in the North-Eastern Monthly in 2006 and 2007.

He was convicted on August 31 last year to 20 years’ rigorous imprisonment. It was one of the harshest sentences ever imposed on a journalist in a democratic country on the basis of the content of their professional work.

While imprisoned in the notoriously anti-Tamil Magazine Prison, Tissainayagam was denied access to adequate medical treatment and was forced to witness the torture of Jasikaran.

Jasikaran and Valamarthy were released in October after related charges against them were dropped due to lack of evidence. They now live abroad.

Tissainayagam was granted bail in January this year, pending an appeal. At the time, concerns were still held for his safety while in Sri Lanka.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, Sri Lanka’s Minister for External Affairs, G.L. Peiris, told a press conference that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would pardon Tissainayagam. However, details and any conditions for a pardon have not been stated publicly.

The IFJ’s long-running “Release Tissa” campaign included sending lawyers from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to attend his trial as independent observers to monitor the application of judicial process.

In September 2009, the ICJ issued a statement condemning Sri Lanka’s use of counter-terrorism laws, saying the trial of Tissainayagam fitted a pattern of government “attacks and threats of attacks against journalists and critics of Government policy, including public accusations by persons associated with the Government that equate such critics with terrorists and traitors, for example, in commentaries posted on an official website of the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order.”

An unconditional pardon for Tissainayagam has been a key step demanded by the IFJ as an indicator of the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment to press freedom after years of restrictions and violence targeting media personnel.

Other steps that the Government must take, as well as further details on Tissainayagam’s case, are outlined in Key Challenges for the Media After War’s End, an IFJ report of a press freedom mission to Sri Lanka, published in December. The report is available at http://asiapacific.ifj.org/en/articles/ifj-mission-identifies-key-challenges-for-sri-lanka-s-media-after-war-s-end.

On January 24, shortly after the report’s release and two days before Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, Lanke-e-News commentator Prageeth Eknaligoda disappeared. Eknaligoda’s whereabouts remain unknown and grave concerns are held for his welfare. The Government of Sri Lanka must direct authorities to conduct a full and proper investigation, which has not yet been conducted.

“The IFJ hopes that Tissainayagam’s freedom and safe passage will be followed quickly by reinstatement of the rights of all journalists in Sri Lanka, including their right to conduct independent journalism without fear of violent retribution, and the right to report critically and impartially on all matters of concern to the people of Sri Lanka,” White said.

The IFJ calls on Sri Lanka’s Government to take swift action to end the campaign of antagonism against Sri Lanka’s media, to protect and uphold the civil, political and human rights of all journalists and, in doing so, to allow all Sri Lanka media personnel to work independently without fear of retribution and to enable exiled journalists to return safely to their homeland.

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