News24

Sri Lankan journo gets 20 yrs

2009-08-31 17:13

Colombo - A Sri Lankan reporter singled out by President Barack Obama as an example of persecuted journalists around the globe was sentenced on Monday to 20 years in prison on charges of violating the country's harsh anti-terror law.

J S Tissainayagam's articles in the now-defunct Northeastern Monthly magazine in 2006 and 2007 criticised the conduct of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels and accused authorities of withholding food and other essential items from Tamil-majority areas as a tool of war.

Tissainayagam's conviction, 17 months after the ethnic Tamil reporter was arrested, was the first time a journalist was found guilty of violating the country's Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Rights groups have accused the government of waging a broad crackdown on media freedom that has continued since it routed the rebels and ended the nation's quarter-century civil war in May.

Tissainayagam, who has been labelled a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, was arrested in March 2008 and indicted five months later under the anti-terror law.

During his World Press Freedom Day address in May, Obama highlighted Tissainayagam's case as an example of journalists being jailed or harassed for doing their jobs.

High Court Judge Deepali Wijesundara said on Monday that Tissainayagam's articles violated the law because they were aimed at creating communal disharmony.

She also found him guilty of raising money for a publication whose articles violated the anti-terror law and sentenced him to 20 years.

Human rights

"The constitution guarantees media freedom, but no one has a right to deliberately publish false reports that would lead to communal violence," prosecutor Sudarshana de Silva said in his court filing.

Defence lawyer Anil Silva said Tissainayagam had always fought for human rights.

"He was never a racist and he at no time tried to arouse hatred," he said in his defence filing.

"He has been punished for what he wrote as a journalist. This will be a lesson to other journalists too."

Silva said his client would appeal.

International media rights groups say the government has used emergency laws to silence public criticism of its conduct and has failed to investigate violent attacks - and killings - of journalists.

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.