Sri Lanka’s J.S. Tissainayagam was awarded the first Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism at a ceremony held on October 2, 2009 at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.
“J.S. Tissainayagam is a courageous man and he strove to bring a measure of accountability and truth to a county that was devastated by civil war. He is now paying an ultimate price for that. He is paying with his freedom” said Camille Mackler while introducing the winner.
The journalist’s wife, Ronnate Tissainayagam, was representing her husband who is serving a 20 year sentence for his writings in Colombo. “We are both honored and humbled by this award at this very difficult time in our lives,” she said.
Tissainayagam, 45, a respected journalist and editor for the North Eastern Monthly Magazine, and contributor to the Sunday Times Newspaper, was arrested March 7, 2008 by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lanka police.
In the months before his arrest, Tissainayagam had also founded the Web site Outreachsl.com, financed by Foundation for Local Initiatives in Conflict Transformation (FLICT), an NGO supported by the German Development Agency GTZ. Tissainayagam was arrested while he was inquiring on the welfare of two colleagues, publisher B. Jasiharan and his wife V. Vallarmathy. He was held for almost six months before being charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The complaint against Tissainayagam accuses him of writing to cause the commission of acts of violence or racial or communal disharmony, and of collecting and obtaining information for the purpose of publishing North East Monthly Magazine. The only evidence offered by Tissainayagam’s accusers are two articles written by him concerning the humanitarian cost of an army offensive in a Tamil Region in 2006, during Sri Lanka’s recently-ended civil war. Tissainayagam’s accusers have also produced a written and signed confession they claim was voluntarily given by Tissainayagam.
“Being a pioneer of independent journalism means you often are alone, because you are first. Or you have seen a truth others don’t want you to see. You feel vulnerable,” said Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli who gave the keynote speech of the evening.
Tissainayagam has stated that he has been threatened, harassed, and tortured by the TID and that he was pressured into writing the confession as it was dictated to him. On March 18, 2008, Tissainayagam filed a Fundamental Rights Petition with the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. On December 5, 2008, two days after being nominated for a media freedom award by press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, a Colombo High Court Judge ruled that the confession made by Tissainayagam was voluntary. His trial began in August 2008, for the terrorism charges brought against him. On August 31, 2009, Tissainayagam was sentenced to the maximum 20 years hard labor.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Tissainayagam’s case is the first time an anti-terrorism law is used to punish a journalist for the content of his writing in the democratic world. “Recovering from the two decade long civil-war that has left over 65,000 dead and the recent uprising by the Tamil Tigers, the Colombo government is quickly creating a country were journalists fear for their life when going to work,” said Clothilde Lecoz, RSF representative in Washington DC.
In a letter read during the Award ceremony by Lauren Mackler, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Peter Mackler as “a champion of the freedom of the press who fought tirelessly to defend the rights of the reporters to publish stories without fear of retribution.”