The August 31 verdict of a Colombo High Court sentencing the veteran journalist and columnist J.S. Tissainayagam to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment under the country’s draconian anti-terror law has raised concerns across the world on the state of freedoms in the country. The punishment is extremely disproportionate to the alleged crime of writing articles criticising the military in his North Eastern Monthly magazine. Tissainayagam, an ethnic Tamil who wrote in English and was a regular newspaper columnist, was arrested by an anti-terrorism division of 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). The court made a determination that his column, which was a mere expression of opinion on the government strategy in the war against terror, was intended to cause racial or communal disharmony. His raising money to run his magazine was construed as raising funds for the promotion of terrorism. The shock over the judgment is understandable as it is the first case in which a journalist had been charged and convicted under the PTA of 1979 and has come in the post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka that eagerly awaits reconciliation, after the military defeat of the LTTE in May this year.
Even before the court pronouncement, the case of Tissa made international headlines. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, United States President Barack Obama referred to the lack of media freedom in many parts and to the case of Tissainayagam along with another as “emblematic examples of this distressing reality.” Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that has consultative status with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), has called on the Council to intercede on behalf of the jailed Sri Lankan journalist. The incarceration and prosecution by the state and the court’s judgment have the effect of intimidating reporters and editors who may want to question the government’s anti-terror campaign and strategy. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has earned all-round praise for his successful military campaign against the LTTE, should heed democratic voices and intervene urgently in the matter to set Tissainayagam free. Even in difficult times, the Sri Lanka Parliament had in 2002, during the tenure of Ranil Wickramasinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga, repealed law relating to criminal defamation. The core post-war theme espoused by the government is, “let’s forget the past and rebuild the battered nation.” The Tissa episode is an opportunity for the government to move towards reconciliation as well as to ensure that basic freedoms are protected.