Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam was chosen on Tuesday as the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism by the Global Media Forum and the U.S. branch of Reporters Without Borders.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it would honour the journalist, sentenced for 20 years by the High Court here on Monday, with 2009 International Press Freedom Award.

Family members of Mr. Tissainayagam said on Monday they would move the Court of Appeals against the verdict. There was no word yet on the petition.

The Foreign Ministry, in a statement, said some sections of the international community had regrettably thought it fit to criticise the verdict bringing into question the judicial process and integrity of judicial officers.

“It may be noted that the said verdict was arrived at after following a due process according to the domestic laws of Sri Lanka, and therefore does not amount in anyway to a negation of media freedom in the country. These utterances could be construed to be bringing disrepute and undermining the independence of the judiciary of Sri Lanka, and causing disrespect to the laws applicable in the country.

“Misplaced criticism”

“Questioning or criticising the judicial action is misplaced, especially since Mr. Tissainayagam has yet the right to appeal in accordance with Sri Lanka’s judicial process in respect of the appellate courts. The issue of pardon at the Executive level does not arise at this juncture, since such an option could only come into consideration following all judicial procedures for an appeal being exhausted.”

Sources in the government said there was no application before it from any quarter representing Mr. Tissainayagam. “As things stand it is a court order. What can the government do? Protests from different parts of the globe do not make any sense,” a senior official told The Hindu.

The CPJ said Mr. Tissainayagam was one of five journalists who would be honoured by CPJ at a ceremony in November. The full slate of awardees, selected by CPJ’s Board of Directors this summer, would be formally announced in September.

“Tissainayagam, known as Tissa, suffers from poor health and said his confession to the charge was extracted under threat of torture, according to his lawyers. We are announcing this award today to highlight the depth of outrage at this unjust sentence,” said CPJ executive director Joel Simon in a statement.

“Its harshness and the retroactive nature of the charges reflect vindictiveness and intolerance. We are calling today for Tissainayagam’s release — an appeal we plan to repeat at our awards ceremony, when the world’s leading journalists gather to demand press freedom for all of our colleagues.”

“The retroactive sentencing sets a very dangerous precedent. The government has singled out articles written during the cease-fire, when terrorism laws weren’t even in effect,” said Mr. Simon. “It sends a very clear message to journalists who’ve ever criticised a government policy: Anything you’ve ever said could suddenly be evidence against you.”

Meanwhile, the United States criticised Sri Lanka on Monday for sentencing Mr. Tissainayagam, whose case had been highlighted by President Barack Obama earlier.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the sentence as “brutal and inhumane” and accused Sri Lankan authorities of abusing anti-terror laws to silence peaceful critics.

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