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J.S. Tissainayagam: Convicted as a Terrorist for Acts of Journalism

September 1, 2009

As reported yesterday, PMA is proud to announce J.S. Tissainayagam, known to friends as “Tissa”, has been awarded the first Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. Having been sentenced to 20 years in prison in a country crippled by conflict, we hope to bring recognition to both a region and a reporter very much in need of it.

Sources close to the case who will remain anonymous for their own safety say that today Tissainayagam has been moved to the Welikada prison J block. His supporters are pushing for him to be moved to the New Magazine Prison J block, so he will be with other political prisoners.

Tissainayagam’s case is unique in that he is one of the only journalists in a democratic state to be arrested under his own country’s terrorism law, with the main evidence against him being his own published work.

Vincent Brossel is a reporter with the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Borders who has followed Tissainayagam’s case closely. According to Brossel, charges by the Sri Lankan terrorism investigative division are relatively uncommon in themselves. “In fact, it is the first time a case against a journalist has gone so far,” says Brossel. “In the past, journalists have been accused of directly supporting the LTTE, but in the case of Tissa, he wasn’t carrying weapon or actively conspiring.”

Instead, the case against him was built with his articles, written for such prestigious publications as the English language Sunday Times and the news site, where he is an editor.

Tissa, like many others in the Tamil ethnic minority, does not identify himself with the violent separatist group LTTE, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

“Even the prosecutor was not able to give any material evidence or witness to link him to terror or LTTE,” says another journalist close to the case.

In his many years as a journalist, Tissa has worked with the UN, UNICEF, and Amnesty International, who has called him a “prisoner of conscience”. He filmed a documentary on children who were orphaned as a result of violence in the east.

In addressing World Press Freedom Day, President Obama even gave mention to Tissainayagam, saying, “”In every corner of the globe there are journalists in jail or being harassed. Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like J. S. Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka, or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China.”

In his statement to the court shortly after his arrest in March, Tissa said “I was and am still an advocate against terrorism. I have criticized terrorism in whatever form. I never advocated violence, my objective was to generate non violent means of resolving the conflict, my research, writings and work was towards achieving this.”

Lawyer in Tissainayagam’s defense, Anil Silva said his client “was never a racist and he at no time tried to arouse hatred. Now he has been punished for what he wrote as a journalist. This will be a lesson to other journalists, too.”

His lawyers say he will appeal the conviction.

Photo Credit: AFP/Ishara S.Kodikara

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.