The freedom given to the press to report events and comment is an exceptional variety of freedom. Without it, newspapers, radio, television channels and the online media would not be able to bring events as they unfold into millions of homes around the world. Many times, we take this freedom for granted, especially in India where, except during the years of the Emergency, the press has always enjoyed considerable freedom. So, when we receive news of fellow journalists in other parts of the world being denied freedom, it brings an element of sorrow. And when the treatment meted out is harsh and uncalled for, we can only unify in one voice and say that it’s wrong.
Now, have journalists in India voiced adequate protest over the 20-year jail sentence that a Colombo high court passed on journalist J.S. Tissainayagam on charges of supporting terrorism and inciting racial hatred in his articles? I doubt it. Yes, there have been several voices, but there has as yet been no unified shout against such treatment and a call to the Indian government to prevail on the Sri Lankan government to reverse the order and let the journalist go free.
Let me quote from a few sources. “The imposition of this extremely severe sentence on Tissainayagam suggests that some Sri Lanka judges confuse justice with revenge,”
Reporters Without Borders said. “With the help of confessions extracted by force and information that was false or distorted, the court has used an anti-terrorism law that was intended for terrorists, not for journalists and human rights activists.” A very strong statement indeed.
The press freedom organisation added: “We strongly hope that the appeal process adheres to the facts of the case and the spirit of the law. Meanwhile, until the appeal is heard, we urge the authorities to guarantee this journalist’s physical safety and health, which has deteriorated greatly while in detention.” Worrisome.
The Global Media Forum and Reporters Without Borders have announced that Tissainayagam will be the first winner of the Peter Mackler Prize, a newly created award for journalists who display great courage and professional integrity in countries where
press freedom is not respected. The prize will be awarded at a ceremony presided over by Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli at the National Press Club in
Washington on 2 October (Gandhi Jayanthi… what a coincidence!). The award honours the memory of veteran Agence France-Presse reporter and editor Peter Mackler, who died last year.
Aged 45, Tissainayagam, wrote for the Colombo-based Sunday Times newspaper and edited Outreachsl.com, a website targeted at Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. Tissainayagam has been detained since 7 March 2008, when the Terrorism Investigation Division arrested him. He spent his first five months in detention without any charges being brought against him. According to reporters Without Borders, the judge repeatedly extended detention orders and rejected requests for his release on bail. After five months in detention, during which many national and international press freedom organisations appealed for his release, he was suddenly transferred to Colombo’s Magazine prison, notorious for the physical mistreatment of Tamil detainees. It was reported at the time that he had been beaten.
Tissainayagam is the first Sri Lankan journalist to be convicted under the anti-terrorism law (Prevention of Terrorism Act or PTA). In fact, he is one of the few journalists anywhere in the world to be accused of terrorism because of their reporting.
Vincent Brossel’s (Asia-Pacific Desk, Reporters Without Borders) email mentions that more than 30 media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2004. Many others have been assaulted, abducted, threatened or forced into exile.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression is protected under international law and is also recognised in the Sri Lankan Constitution. Brossel’s mail adds that Sri Lanka has a long history of torture and ill treatment of prisoners. Under the PTA, the burden of proof rests with the accused to prove that the confession was made under duress or torture.
Amnesty International denounced the verdict as a direct violation of Tissainayagam's right to freedom of expression and more broadly as an assault on press freedom in Sri Lanka. The organisation has called for the immediate release of Tissainayagam and his colleagues, and an end to the use of the PTA to silence peaceful dissent.