Sri Lanka Defends Sentencing of Tamil Journalist on Terrorism Charges

01 September 2009

Sri Lankan prison guards escort ethnic Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam out of the High Court premises in Colombo, 31 Aug 2009
Sri Lankan prison guards escort ethnic Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam out of the High Court premises in Colombo, 31 Aug 2009
Sri Lanka has defended the sentencing of a Tamil journalist on terrorism charges despite international pressure and questionable evidence. Press freedom organizations say the charges are a blatant attack on Sri Lanka's independent media.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona, on Tuesday said he was confident there was no political interference in the conviction of Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and that his case would be handled in a free and fair manner.

On Monday, a Sri Lankan court sentenced Tissainayagam to 20 years of hard labor for causing "communal disharmony".

Sri Lankan authorities say he was supporting terrorism and inciting racial hatred with his articles, which criticized the government's handling of civilians during fighting against Tamil Tiger rebels.

Kohona told the Bangkok press club that despite harsh criticism of the sentencing from rights groups and the United States, the proceedings were not a sham.

"He was convicted by an independent court, not by a kangaroo court," said Kohona. "He faced a proper trial; he had a defense lawyer and he was convicted. If there is still a doubt about the conviction, he has the option of appealing to a higher court."

Just hours after the sentencing, the Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders named Tissainayagam the first recipient of the Peter Mackler Award for his courageous and professional journalism.

Vincent Brossel heads the Asia Desk for Reporters Without Borders. He says the charges against Tissainayagam were clearly meant to punish him.

"I think basically it's revenge because he's a vocal journalist; he's a critical voice of the military strategy and everything that's happened in the recent years in the country," he said. "And he was a journalist that had access to a large audience because he was working with the high-profile Sunday Times [newspaper]."

Tissainayagam is the first journalist in Sri Lanka to be sentenced under a law meant to prosecute terrorists and their supporters. Two of his colleagues were also arrested and face similar charges. Tissainayagam's lawyers plan to appeal.

Rights groups and western governments heavily criticized Sri Lanka for its controls on the media during fighting against the Tamil Tigers. The limitations on reporting made it difficult to vet allegations of military abuses, which the government denied.

In May, Sri Lankan forces soundly defeated the rebel terrorist group, ending 27 years of war that cost tens-of-thousands of lives.