Tissainayagam verdict: West, rights groups show concern

The European Union joined several other countries and organizations to express concern regarding the sentence imposed on journalist J.S.Tissainayagam stating that the disproportionate sentence on him gives rise to concern with respect to freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Sri Lanka.

In a declaration by the Presidency of the EU on Friday, the Union said it is troubled by the severe sentence of 20 years hard labour in prison passed by the Colombo High Court on August 31.

Tissainayagam being taken away to prison

The EU also expressed concern at continuing serious shortcomings with regard to freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, and by the further negative impact of the verdict on media freedom and also about the state of Mr Tissainayagam's health.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon also expressed his Government’s deep concern at the sentencing. “Canada is a strong proponent of vibrant and free media, an essential element of democratic governance in Sri Lanka and around the world. Open and informed debate remains vital to long-term reconciliation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka,” the statement said.

The United States also expressed its concern at the sentencing saying the US is concerned about the state of media freedom in Sri Lanka. “We were disappointed to learn of the verdict and the severity of the sentence,” the State Department said in a statement.

It called on the Sri Lankan government to “do everything it can to ensure Tissainayagam’s health and safety in prison,” the statement further said.

Human Rights Watch said the verdict highlights “glaring fair trial violations and furthered the impression in Sri Lanka and abroad that Tissainayagam’s prosecution is part of a Government campaign of repression against independent media.

Meanwhile shortly after the sentencing, Global Media Forum and the US branch of Reporters Without Borders announced that Tissainayagam has been selected as the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism.

Tissainayagam will be formally awarded the prize at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on October 2, 2009. The key note speaker for the ceremony will be Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of the Washington Post.

Appeal from Press Institute

The Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) urges the authorities concerned to review the case of journalist J. S. Tissainayagam in the context of current conditions, rather than those prevailing at the time of his detention, when the war was raging.

In a statement, the SLPI also appealed to the authorities concerned to restrict themselves to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) only on issues of grave national security.

“The PTA was an extraordinary law enacted to deal with an extraordinary situation,” the SLPI statement said. “The fact that it was tightened and given more teeth three and nine years after it was first enacted is an indication of the escalating problem of LTTE terrorism, which has now been militarily defeated,”
In the context of near normalcy being restored in the country, the SLPI has urged the government to seriously consider the possibility of prosecuting media-related cases, if such prosecution was considered necessary, under normal law, rather than resorting to extraordinary laws such as the PTA, which is arguably no longer necessary.

The SLPI also noted that this was the first instance of a journalist being charged and convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, which was subsequently amended in 1982 and 1988, and which were read together with the relevant provisions of the Penal Code. The SLPI has expressed distress and disappointment at the severity of the sentence imposed on J. S. Tissainayagam, and said it looked forward to a speedy resolution of the appeal process.

The judgment relating to the J. S. Tissainayagam case has not been published as yet, up to the time the SLPI statement was being written.

The SLPI believed the J. S. Tissainayagam judgment would be analysed and debated in the days ahead, and that a higher court would examine the arguments. The government, mindful of the opinions and comments made by the international community as well as high-profile media organisations that viewed this matter as an issue of press freedom, has stated that the verdict was reached after due process of Sri Lanka’s laws and was not a negation of media freedom, the SLPI statement said.

However, given the fact that J. S Tissainayagam was prosecuted over what he wrote and published, this matter would continue to be viewed in many quarters, at home and abroad, as a press freedom issue, the statement added.

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