Lal Wickrematunge says the 20-year sentence handed to JS Tissainayagam is a warning to Sri Lanka’s already embattled media
Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam is not your run of the mill journalist. I remember him as a quiet, deep thinking intellectual during his short but fruitful stint with my newspaper, the Sunday Leader. That he is facing a 20-year term of imprisonment with hard labour for his writing has not sunk in with the journalistic fraternity yet. The full import of this judgment in Sri Lanka’s High Court in Colombo will only be felt with the outcome of the final appeal process in a higher court.
Tissa, as he is known, was arrested in March 2008 under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), revived with retrospective effect under Emergency Regulations (ER). He was held under a detention order until he was indicted on 8 August last year. The charges levelled against him would not, in my opinion, have had serious effect under the normal laws of Sri Lanka.
Tissa was charged under the PTA and ER for an article he wrote in the magazine Northeast Monthly, in the year 2006. The High Court judge found him guilty of intending to create racial disharmony and raising funds to publish a magazine in violation of sections of the PTA.
Tissa practised his profession within the normal laws of the land. The PTA was not in use at the time of his writing the articles in question. Twenty years’ hard labour for practising his profession seems a horrific punishment. Tissa is 46 years old now.
The High Court judge acted within the legal framework and was not required to question the modus of the prosecution. That will be tested at the appeal process in the Supreme Court later. Until such time, and depending on the outcome of the appeal, the message to the journalistic fraternity in Sri Lanka is loud and clear.
Lal Wickrematunge is editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, winner of a 2009 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award