CPJ award goes to jailed Sri Lankan journalist

New York, August 31, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists announced today that it will honor imprisoned Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam with a 2009 International Press Freedom Award. Tissainayagam, left, sentenced today to 20 years in prison on specious charges of violating anti-terror laws, is one of five journalists who will be honored by CPJ at a ceremony in November. The full slate of awardees, selected by CPJ’s Board of Directors this summer, will be formally announced in September. 

A Colombo High Court sentenced Tissainayagam to 20 years of hard labor in the first conviction of a journalist under the country’s harsh anti-terror laws. Tissainayagam, known as Tissa, suffers from poor health and said his confession to the charge was extracted under threat of torture, according to his lawyers.

“We are announcing this award today to highlight the depth of outrage at this unjust sentence,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Its harshness and the retroactive nature of the charges reflect vindictiveness and intolerance. We are calling today for Tissainayagam’s release–an appeal we plan to repeat at our awards ceremony, when the world’s leading journalists gather to demand press freedom for all of our colleagues.”

Terrorism Investigation Division officials arrested Tissainayagam, an English-language columnist for the Sri Lankan Sunday Times and editor of the news website OutreachSL, on March 7, 2008, when he visited their offices to inquire about the arrest of colleagues the previous day. He was held without charge under emergency regulations before his indictment in August 2008 for articles published nearly three years earlier in a now-defunct magazine, North Eastern Monthly.

Judge Deepali Wijesundara said articles Tissainayagam wrote for the Monthly in 2006 incited communal disharmony, an offense under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, according to international news reports. She also found him guilty of raising funds to publish the magazine, itself a violation of the anti-terror law. The Monthly folded in early 2007.

The anti-terror laws were relaxed in 2006-07, according to CPJ research. Under a cease-fire accord then in effect between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the government pledged not to detain people under the statutes. The government re-enacted provisions of the anti-terror laws after the cease-fire dissolved in early 2008, according to international news reports. Tissainayagam will appeal the sentence, the reports said.

The two colleagues, Vettivel Jasikaran and Vadivel Valamathy, also face anti-terror charges for aiding and abetting Tissainayagam. Published reports indicate they have not gone to trial. Jasikaran, who also worked on OutreachSL, owned a printing business that helped publish the Monthly. Valamathy had no reported involvement with the magazine beside her personal relationship with her companion, Jasikaran.

“The retroactive sentencing sets a very dangerous precedent. The government has singled out articles written during the cease-fire, when terrorism laws weren’t even in effect,” said Simon. “It sends a very clear message to journalists who’ve ever criticized a government policy: Anything you’ve ever said could suddenly be evidence against you.”

U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted Tissainayagam’s case during his World Press Freedom Day address in May.

Hundreds of prominent journalists will gather in New York on November 24 to recognize Tissainayagam and the other honorees. Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, will be the host; Robert Thomson, editor-in-chief of Dow Jones and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, is chairman of the event.

A CPJ special report, “Failure to Investigate,” chronicles some of the growing incidents of  attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka, including circumstances surrounding the murder of outspoken editor Lasantha Wickramatunga in January 2009.