The South Asia Media Commission (SAMC) on Friday expressed profound shock at the sentencing by a Sri Lankan court of journalist and columnist J.S. Tissainayagam to 20 years rigorous imprisonment under the country’s draconian anti-terror law.

“The incarceration and prosecution by the state, and the court’s judgment have the effect of intimidating reporters and editors who question the government’s anti-terror campaign and practise independent journalism. The verdict is a big blow to freedom of the press in the whole South Asian region,” said SAMC chairman, N. Ram and Secretary-general Najam Sethi, in a statement.

“The SAMC has consistently opposed all repressive anti-terror laws that target freedom of expression and media freedom. The Sri Lankan government should avoid misusing the prevalent anti-terror laws to silence peaceful critics. Such extreme punishment imposed on a journalist for writing an article and allegedly raising money for his magazine abroad is appalling. The whole episode is a clear and present danger to the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.” said the statement by the regional media rights watchdog.

The statement, issued by SAMC regional coordinator Husain Naqi, called on Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa to heed democratic voices and intervene urgently in the matter to set Mr. Tissainayagam free.

Mr. Tissainayagam earned the wrath of the Sri Lankan Army and the government by remarking in The North Eastern Monthly that “the inability to protect its citizens has caused Sri Lanka international embarrassment.” In another piece, he spoke about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Vakarai, a coastal town in Sri Lanka’s east, whose civilian population was trapped in the midst of the war.

Mr. Tissainayagam, an ethnic Tamil who wrote in English, was arrested by an anti-terrorism division of the police in March 2008. He was not formally charged or produced in court until August 2008, when he was indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

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