tamil refugees.jpg
Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced ethnic Tamils are being held in refugee camps in Sri Lanka. (AP)

Sri Lanka’s war on journalists

By Bob Dietz/Asia Program Coordinator on December 10, 2009 1:10 PM ET

Today marks the 100th day of J.S. Tissainayagam’s 20-year prison term. Tissainayagam, known as Tissa, was convicted of “terrorism” charges for articles documenting human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan military, as well as the difficult conditions faced by Sri Lankans displaced in the nation’s long war. His sentence was a dire warning to other journalists who would dare be critical of the government. They are right to be concerned.

In the years since Mahinda Rajapaksa has held high office in Sri Lanka—as prime minister in 2004 and then as president since 2005—nine journalists have been murdered with impunity. According to CPJ data, Sri Lanka has the fourth worst impunity record in the world, behind only Iraq, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. And over the years CPJ and other journalist support groups have been handling a steady flow of requests for assistance while threatened reporters seek either temporary refuge or permanent exile.  

Hopes that the government’s anti-media behavior would change once it had successfully ended the bitter war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have yet to be fulfilled. Assaults on journalists who dare to take on the government, not just on the war with the Tamils and its aftermath, but on domestic political and economic issues, have hardly eased as abductions, phone and text threats, and denouncements on official government Web sites continue seven months after the war officially came to an end.

Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced ethnic Tamils are being held in refugee camps in Sri Lanka. (AP)

Not many international journalists are singled out by a U.S. president. But this year, on World Press Freedom Day in May, President Barack Obama cited the prosecution of J.S. Tissainayagam as “emblamatic” of press freedom abuses worldwide.

The European Union has continued to bring targeted pressure on the Sri Lankan government: If the government wants to retain preferential trade tariffs, the EU said, it will have to ensure media freedom and release the 300,000 people, almost all of them Tamils, it is holding in camps. The issue is still in the air, but the government has started to shift some of the hundreds of thousands of Tamil war refugees to slightly better conditions. On Wednesday, Robert Blake, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia—and the previous ambassador to Colombo—told reporters that he saw evidence of progress when he visited the site where about 100,000 displaced civilians still live.

International advocacy pressing for Tissainayagam’s release is an important issue, an “emblematic” one as Obama put it. It highlights the broader need for unfettered journalism in one of Asia’s oldest democracies. Sri Lanka’s war against Tamil separatists has ended, but it is too soon for United States and the international community to assume that the government’s war against the media has ended. Victory will only come when Tissa is released and journalists in Sri Lanka know that they are free to write and the country resumes its march toward democracy and out of the tortured ranks of countries like Iraq, Sierra Leone, or Somalia. 


Rajapakses, with the unbearable silence from the international community in the recent carnage on the Tamil population and enforced blackouts, have created facscism and anarchy in the country. Following are some recent events about what is happening in the south of the country, let alone the punitive aspects and seige mentality of the Rajapakses toward Tamils.

Sarath Fonseka, the contender in the presidential elections, said he is threatned with death on his campaign trail.

President, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) and investigative journalist Poddala Jayantha, who was beaten to break his legs, had reportedly left the country with his wife and daughter following continuous telephone threats of death.

Cricketer Sanath Jayasuriya has been threatened with death by Presiden's son Namal Rajapakse after he had declined an invitation by ‘Tharunyata Hetak’ organization to appear in one of the advertisements they have launched using artistes and others as a part of the election campaign of Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse.

I wonder what powers President Obama really has. If US is a true democracy then it would not have approved the IMF loan to Sri Lanka despite its abyssmal record on human rights.
US State Department's report on Sri Lanka's war crimes clearly is proof this government has transcended all levels of decency particularly in the last throes of war.
Robert Blake who visited SL recently on behalf of the US govt.has given a glowing picture of the progress made towards resettling IDPs.
Despite attempts by international media groups to get the release of Tissa, he does not seem to have much hope of being released.
If the current President is re-elected we would have more draconian media laws (whther this is possible is a moot point since media freedom died a natural death a long time ago. The opposition candidate too is not in favour of media freedom what with his backer Ranil Wickremasinghe who never tolerated the media.
CPJ acted very quickly in getting the two journalists' release from North Korea.
John Pilger in his book, Freedom Next Time puts the case for Third World countries very succinctly.
He said, "Third World lives are less important than lives in the West".

Pearl Thevanayagam December 13, 2009 11:14:38 AM ET

I wonder...
This MIGHT be slightly inaccurate:
"Today marks the 100th day of J.S. Tissainayagam’s 20-year prison term".
I am no lawyer, so my legal knowledge is sketchy, but I was under the impression that since he is on Appeal, the days do NOT count towards the sentence. You'll have to check from a Qualified Sri Lankan lawyer, but that's the impression I have.
So if I'm correct, the poor chap will have to start his sentence only once the Appeal Ruling is made.
Welcome to this (is)land like no other.

Neither am I a legal beagle. But Tissa had spent in total one year and 10 months in prison.
Under PTA anyone who is arrested should be brought to trial within 72 hours.
It took 22 months to bring him to trial.
Now there is a rumour that he would be allowed bail.
This is welcome.
The return of IDPs, thinking of allowing bail to Tissa and exonerating LankaeNews editor are just election gimmicks.
While international news media such as The Economist, Guardian and others seem to praise the President's efforts they are blind to the fact this govt. will stoop to any level and hoodwink international community so they could get away with the war crimes they are indicted with.
EU is pondering withdrawing SL's GSL+ status but it is another pulling wool over one's eyes.
Mark my words, SL will get the GSL+ exactly like it got the IMF loan notwithstanding its record of atrocities towards the fleeing Tamil civilians.
We will be another Palestine or worse another South Africa, where the ANC Blacks under Mandela made the common Blacks poorer under apartheid.
I despair and I blame the West and the US for their selfishness in accommodating a regime which has transcended all levels of decency in human rights.

Pearl Thevanayagam December 18, 2009 3:21:15 PM ET

Social Media

View All ›