On 31 August 2009, a Sri Lankan court sentenced Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam (J S) Tissainayagam to twenty years’ hard labour for causing ‘communal disharmony’. It is widely believed that he has been targeted for reporting on the conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Tissainayagam, also known as ‘Tissa’, wrote for both the Sri Lankan Sunday Times and the now defunct North Eastern Monthly magazine, and focused on the human rights of all civilians affected by the fighting in Sri Lanka, regardless of ethnicity. He was also editor of the news website Outreach Sri Lanka.
On 7 March 2008, when he learned that his colleague Vettivel Jasikaran, a printer and reporter for Outreach, and his companion Vadivel Valamathy, had been arrested, Tissa visited the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) – part of the Sri Lankan police force – to request information. In response, he himself was detained.
Initially, all three were held without charge for five months. On 19 March 2008, Tissa filed a petition against his arbitrary arrest and detention with the Supreme Court and claimed that he had been tortured, had suffered discrimination because of his ethnicity, and had been denied equal protection under the law; but this was ignored.
During this time, the journalist had limited access to his family and legal representation, and was denied information on his case. The prison conditions were poor, and he was denied full access to the medical care he needed for a serious eye problem involving a detached retina.
Eventually, in August 2008, Tissa was accused of bringing the government into disrepute (a charge that was later dropped) and inciting racial and ethnic animosities because of two articles published in the North Eastern Monthly in 2006, which were critical of the government’s treatment of Tamil civilians affected by armed conflict. In July 2006, under the headline ‘Providing security to Tamils now will define north-eastern politics of the future,’ Tissa concluded that ‘it is fairly obvious that the government is not going to offer them any protection. In fact it is the state security forces that are the main perpetrator of the killings.’ In the second article, published in November 2006, entitled ‘With no military options Government buys time by offering watered-down devolution,’ the authorities were accused of endangering civilians’ lives ‘by refusing them food as well as medicines and fuel’.
Tissa claims that the confession used to convict him on 31 August was extracted under threat of torture while in police custody. He was also found guilty of raising funds to further terrorist objectives because of money raised to publish his magazine. Jasikaran and Valamathy also face anti-terror charges for aiding and abetting Tissa.
More than thirty people working for Sri Lankan media outlets are believed to have been killed since 2004. These include Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, who was shot and killed on 8 January 2009 as he drove to work. Wickramatunga was widely known for his criticisms of corruption, governmental policies and the civil war, and he had previously received death threats. Just days before his death, he penned an article predicting his murder which also perfectly summarised the constant threat faced by independent or dissident writers in Sri Lanka:
I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts … People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted.
According to Amnesty, other media workers have been abducted, assaulted or threatened for their war reporting. Newspapers have been seized and burned, newspaper offices have been vandalised and printing equipment destroyed.
Emergency Regulations, issued by the President involve far-reaching and vaguely defined ‘terrorism’ offences that have been used to silence critical voices. Many believe that the authorities have misused the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations to silence Tissa in violation of his right to freedom of opinion and expression.
His detention has drawn fire from many quarters. President Obama mentioned his case in May 2009 during an address to mark World Press Freedom Day. And the Committee to Protect Journalists will honour the journalist with one of their annual International Press Freedom Awards next month.
Readers may like to write, expressing shock at the twenty-year sentence against J S Tissainayagam; seeking assurances of his well-being and urging that he be allowed any medical treatment that he may require; and calling for his immediate and unconditional release, in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Justice Nihal Jayasinghe
High Commission of Sri Lanka
13 Hyde Park Gardens
London W2 2LU
Fax: 020 7262 7970
H M G S Palihakkara
Ambassador, Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations
Fax +1 (212) 986 1838
Update: Afghan journalist Sayed Parvez Kambakhsh has been freed under a Presidential pardon. His release was confirmed by the Ministry of Justice on 7 September 2009 and he has been granted asylum in an undisclosed European country. His release is believed to be the direct result of sustained international pressure and diplomatic effort. Thank you to all readers who sent appeals.