Sri Lankan journalist indicted on terrorist charges

New York, August 25, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the Colombo high court’s indictment of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam today on terrorism charges for articles he published in 2006.

Sri Lanka’s Terrorist Investigation Division arrested Tissainayagam, the editor of news Web site OutreachSL, and five of his colleagues within a few days in March 2008. Three of the group were released later that month, according to the Sri Lankan Free Media Movement. Tissainayagam and two others, OutreachSL manager N. Jasiharan and his wife, remain in custody without charge. It is not clear if Jasiharan and his wife have also been indicted.

Today’s charges against Tissainayagam cite a magazine, North Eastern Monthly, which the journalist edited in 2006, according to his lawyer, M.A. Sumanthiran, who spoke with CPJ by telephone this morning. Two charges relate to articles Tissainayagam wrote for the magazine. The journalist’s lawyer told CPJ that the government said the articles incited communal disharmony, an offence under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. A third charge says he furthered an act of terrorism by collecting money from NGOs to publish the magazine, he told CPJ.

Tissainayagam, an ethnic Tamil, is also a columnist for the Sri Lankan weekly The Sunday Times.

Free Media Movement spokesman Sunanda Deshapriya told CPJ that North Eastern Magazine was a known as a pro-Tamil English-language publication that was not considered pro- Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, he said. It closed down over a year ago.

“We condemn J.S. Tissainayagam’s long detention and harsh charges for publishing a magazine, which should not constitute an offence,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator. “This is the latest step by the Sri Lankan government to intimidate journalists who write about security issues.”

Tissainayagam pleaded not guilty today because he does not believe he committed a criminal act, Sumanthiran told CPJ. He was denied bail and will go to trial on September 18, the lawyer said.

Rajiva Wijesinha, Sri Lanka’s secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, denied to Human Rights Watch on August 12 that Tissainayagam had been detained for criticizing the government. “Some of their publications were designed to embarrass the Sri Lankan government through false accusations,” Wijesinha said of Tissainayagam and “his business associates,” according to the text of the letter, which is published on the Web site of the Sri Lankan permanent mission to the UN in Geneva. He does not name the business associates in the letter.

Tissainayagam’s Sunday Times column, written from a Tamil viewpoint, frequently tackled issues sensitive to the Sri Lankan government, including security issues. One of his final columns before his arrest was titled “Child soldiers: What the govt. report did not report.”