A New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 11 Sri Lankan reporters were forced to flee the country in the past year, and Amnesty International said at least 14 Sri Lankan journalists and media workers had been killed since the beginning of 2006.

A human rights group called on Tuesday for Sri Lanka to drop its case against an ethnic Tamil journalist sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating the country’s anti-terror laws.

Mr J.S. Tissainayagam’s conviction on Monday sparked international criticism of the government, which has been accused of continuing a crackdown on the media even after it defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in May, ending a quarter-century-long civil war. The government has denied the allegations.

The High Court said Mr Tissainayagam’s articles violated the law because they were aimed at creating communal disharmony.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday the charges were a violation of freedom of expression and called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to order the journalist’s unconditional release.

“The Rajapaksa administration should drop the case against this well-respected journalist whose only ‘crime’ was to express his political views,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.

The verdict “furthered the impression in Sri Lanka and abroad that Mr Tissainayagam’s prosecution is part of a government campaign of repression against independent media,” he said.

Mr Tissainayagam’s conviction was the first time a journalist was found guilty of violating the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act.

President Barack Obama singled out Mr Tissainayagam during his World Press Freedom Day address in May as an example of journalists being jailed or harassed for doing their jobs. Amnesty International labelled him a prisoner of conscience.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 11 Sri Lankan reporters were forced to flee the country in the past year, and Amnesty International said at least 14 Sri Lankan journalists and media workers had been killed since the beginning of 2006.

More In: News | International