Sri Lanka: Journalist Gets 20 Years Hard Labor

We have been getting several tips about the conviction of a Sri Lankan journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam, who has written articles critical of the Sri Lankan government for a magazine. Tissinayagam has been sentenced to 20 years in prison under Sri Lanka’s emergency laws:

J. S. Tissainayagam, editor of the North Eastern Monthly magazine, wrote articles highly critical of a government military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels who had controlled a large chunk of Sri Lanka’s north. The government decisively defeated the Tigers in a bloody final battle on a strip of beach in northern Sri Lanka in May.

Mr. Tissainayagam was arrested in 2008 and charged under Sri Lanka’s powerful emergency laws, which were enacted in response to the Tamil Tiger insurgency. The insurgents, members of the Hindu Tamil minority, sought a separate state from Sri Lanka’s Buddhist, Sinhalese majority. Prosecutors argued that Mr. Tissainayagam had received money and other support from the Tamil Tigers in exchange for writing articles critical of the government. Mr. Tissainayagam has repeatedly denied this.

As is often the case with local journalists in conflict zones, Mr. Tissainayagam’s reporting reflected the prevailing point of view of the minority to which he belonged, but the government argued his work went further. (link)

I don’t know about the supposed evidence that Tissainayagam ever took money directly from the LTTE, or gave money to them. It’s very difficult, from this distance, to know whether there is any validity to that. Obviously, if you’re critical of the Sri Lankan government you’re likely to be extremely skeptical about that part of the story. By contrast, if you’re critical primarily of the LTTE, you might wonder where the funding for Tissainayagam’s magazine, North Eastern Monthly came from. While it is difficult to find neutral answers to those sorts of questions from a distance, it is possible to read his journalistic work, and see whether Tissainayagam seems like an honest broker or a propagandist. It may not really make much difference in the end (even if he is primarily a propagandist, he shouldn’t be in prison for merely expressing his opinion), but it’s better than simply throwing up one’s hands yet again in frustration.

A pro-LTTE site named TamilNation has links to many of Tissainayagam’s articles over the past few years. I have only read a few, and my initial inclination is to say that while Tissainayagam seems to clearly have a pro-Tamil bias, it is far from clear from what I have read that he is unambiguously pro-LTTE. For example, this article focuses on the U.S. decision to withhold military aid to Sri Lanka on account of human rights violations seems pretty straightforward and defensible. But I found it harder to follow Tissainayagam’s point of view in another piece, reacting to a GoSL report on LTTE child soldiers. There are simply too many acronyms (for me at least); it appears he’s defending the fact that the LTTE abducted children by suggesting that other parties in Sri Lanka do this too…?

Incidentally, President Obama singled out Tissainayagam in a speech some months ago as an example of a journalist who had been imprisoned purely for expressing his opinion.

8 thoughts on “Sri Lanka: Journalist Gets 20 Years Hard Labor

  1. TMVP is a reference to the gov’t=supported breakaway from the LTTE: Col. Karuna and the political org in power in the East. The Col. and his followers have repeatedly been accused of recruiting child soldiers. In the referenced report, the GOSL was depicted as denying the phenomena if Karuna was involved and higlighting it where the ‘other’ LTTE members were involved.

    AFAIK he’s bemoaning the lack of attention paid to the gov’ts own child-solider recruitment specialists.

    anyhow, this is an improvement. a conviction and charges but no trial or evidence would sound grim in any other situation but here it’s a 100% improvement on the often indefinite “detained for questioning”

  2. Yeah, at least we know he’s alive. More than we can say about countless other government detainees.

  3. “Obviously, if you’re critical of the Sri Lankan government you’re likely to be extremely skeptical about that part of the story. By contrast, if you’re critical primarily of the LTTE, you might wonder where the funding for Tissainayagam’s magazine, North Eastern Monthly came from.”

    One can be critical of the government AND the LTTE… Just pointing that out.

    Also, Nayagan, 100% is a rather generous, although the point is taken that there are people in worse situations.

  4. Amardeep

    You have raised some pertinent questions in your post. Many neutral minded people from the Sri Lankan scene do not seem to reflect similarly which would look at the issue beyond its ‘infringement of freedom of expression’ aspect, perhaps in fear of being labeled as pro-GoSL. There is also some talk in the web sphere of Tissainayagam being given a public pardon by the GoSL which would turn the whole thing into more of a political tamasha than what it is already. Lets wait and see.

  5. Sri Lanka just expelled a UNICEF official for being too candid about the state of the camps:

    A UN official said no formal reason had been given for the move by the Sri Lankan government. However, Foreign Office sources, who did not wish to be identified, said the Government was concerned over repeated remarks he had made to the media about Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in particular the conditions of children in camps.

    I realize there isn’t much interest here or in much of the world about the situation in Sri Lanka, but it’s important that we keep highlighting the things that are going on there. It’s really becoming a repressive situation and I don’t want to get to the point where we have violence again and people wring their hands and wonder how things became that way. It’s all happening right now. Thank you for this post.

  6. Reader, I feel your pain. LTTE was the favorite whipping boy for many who troll this site. Now that it is wiped out, the plight of Tamils there doesn’t show up in the concern radar. Not necessarily because the government blacks out the media and punishes anyone who dares to speak up, but mainly because for many, it is not a worthy enough issue to spend their time on. 282000 people held is concentration like camps, and many think it is okay. I have to give some credit to Amardeep for at least bothering to bring up the issue once in a while even though I all along thought he also belonged to the same club of people who show token concern just to be able to ref to it in the future. No one has taken this up as the modern day tragedy that it is because there is not much to gain from being a torch bearer for a people who have no chance in hell to record what happen to them. There was media coverage about the leaked out video of summary execution of Tamils by the Army and it never even made it to this site. When a new form of LTTE emerges from those camps (out of whoever survives it), there will be enough concern again. Because suicide bombings make news. concentration camps don’t.