Sri Lanka jails journalist for 20 years for exercising his right to freedom of expression

A High Court in Sri Lanka sentenced journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam (JS) Tissainayagam to 20 years rigorous imprisonment on Monday, for writing and publishing articles that criticized the government’s treatment of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians affected by the war. The court said the articles caused “racial hatred” and promoted terrorism.

Amnesty International said that it considers JS Tissainayagam to be a prisoner of conscience, jailed solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression in carrying out his profession.

JS Tissainayagam was the first Sri Lankan journalist to be formally charged (and now convicted) under the country’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for his writing.

The verdict comes in the context of increasing pressure on Sri Lanka’s journalists. More than 30 media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2004. Many others have been assaulted, abducted, threatened or forced into exile. Sri Lankan journalists say that the government is responsible for many of these incidents and has failed to protect against others.

JS Tissainayagam was arrested in March 2008 and detained in police custody for five months before he was charged with an offence. He and two colleagues were eventually accused of bringing the government into disrepute (a charge that was later dropped) and inciting racial and ethnic animosities through material published in a short-lived monthly magazine called the North East Herald. He was also accused of raising funds for the magazine to further terrorist objectives.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is protected under international law and is also recognized in the Sri Lankan Constitution. Sri Lanka has misused the PTA and the Emergency Regulations (ER) to silence a critical voice and violate Mr Tissainayagam’s rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

Tissainayagam’s indictment was based on passages from two articles which expressed critical opinions about the government’s treatment of Tamil civilians affected by armed conflict. A July 2006 editorial headlined, “Providing security to Tamils now will define northeastern politics of the future” concluded: “It is fairly obvious that the government is not going to offer them any protection. In fact it is the state security forces that are the main perpetrator of the killings.”

A second article published in November 2006 addressed the humanitarian situation in the eastern town of Vaharai, where warfare included attacks on civilian areas. It accused the government of starving and endangering civilians to further political and strategic military objectives.

The prosecution also put forth as evidence an alleged confession made by Tissainayagam while in police custody. Tissainayagam maintains that he was tortured by the police and that the confession was forced. The Court ruled that the evidence was admissible. Sri Lanka has a long history of torture and ill treatment of prisoners. Under the PTA, the burden of proof rests with the accused to prove that the confession was made under duress or torture.

Tissainayagam was arrested on 7 March 2008 by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lankan Police in Colombo when he went to the police seeking information about the arrests the day before of two colleagues, B Jasiharan and his wife V Vallarmathy, a printer and owner of the building that housed the offices of Outreach Sri Lanka, a website Tissainayagam edited. Arrested along with Tissainayagam was reporter K Wijayasinghe, who accompanied him to the TID offices. The website’s visual editor Udayan, and G Gayan Lasantha Ranga a video cameraman, were also arrested separately on 7 March.

After repeated inquiries by Tissainayagam’s family, the police eventually confirmed that they had detained him and the others because they suspected them of being members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Early on the morning of 8 March, TID officers raided Tissainayagam’s home, searched it without a warrant and seized a copy of the Northeastern Monthly Magazine.

Wijayasinghe, Ranga and Udayan were released without charge on 19 March 2008, the day that Tissainayagam filed a Fundamental Rights Case in the Supreme Court alleging violation of his constitutional rights to freedom from torture, equality and equal protection of the law, as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.

Tissainayagam and his co-defendants were indicted in August 2008 for alleged violations of the PTA and the ER. The PTA had in fact been suspended following the ceasefire agreement between the government and the Tamil Tigers in February 2002. In prosecuting Tissainayagam for articles and activities conducted in 2006, the prosecution applied the PTA retroactively.

The Sri Lankan government dropped the charge of “bringing disrepute to the government” on 9 September 2008 but retained other charges related to editing, printing and fundraising for the magazine. Jasiharan was charged with aiding and abetting Tissainayagam to further terrorism. Vallarmathy was charged with the offence of aiding and abetting her husband Jasiharan in these acts.

On Monday, High Court Judge Deepali Wijesundara announced her verdict, finding Tissainayagam guilty of writing articles intended to create communal disharmony and of raising money for a magazine whose articles violated the PTA. Tissainayagam’s lawyer has vowed to appeal the sentence.

Amnesty International denounced the verdict as a direct violation of Tissainayagam’s right to freedom of expression and more broadly as an assault on press freedom in Sri Lanka. The organization called for the immediate release of Tissainayagam and his colleagues, and an end to the use of the PTA to silence peaceful dissent.