The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice welcomes the awarding of bail to Tamil journalist J.S Tissainayagam, who has been serving a 20 year gaol term for writing articles critical of the government. Bail means that Mr Tissainayagam can re-join his family, access appropriate medical care, and prepare for his appeal.
Whilst the granting of bail is a positive step, the very sentencing of Mr Tissainayagam was and remains a gross miscarriage of justice which reflects the extent to which freedom of speech and dissent has become politicised in Sri Lanka. The Campaign therefore joins Amnesty International in calling for the quashing of the charges against him.
Mr Tissainayagam’s sentence was the harshest given to a Sri Lankan journalist in recent years under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. He was found guilty of “causing communal disharmony” – widely seen as a politically motivated charge – and was acknowledged by US President Barack Obama as an “emblematic example” of reporters jailed for their work.
As an “emblem” therefore, the case of Mr Tissainayagam is a reflection of the perilous state of human rights and civil liberties in Sri Lanka.
— For media workers like Mr Tissainayagam, in the past four years there have been at least 34 cases of murder and even more instances of abduction and assaults, with much of the violence state sponsored. An investigation by the International Press Freedom Mission found that “in all the cases of attacks against the media and assassinations of reporters there are few serious investigations by the authorities and none of the killers are ever brought to trial,” The minimal progress made by investigators upon the first anniversary of the assassination of prominent editor Lasantha Wickrematunge would appear to bear out this fact.
— For civil society, Sri Lanka is still a country in which thousands of its Tamil citizens are indefinitely incarcerated by the military. Many of the civilians purportedly ‘released’ from internment camps are now housed in army-run ‘transit-centres’ and prevented from returning to their homes. Widespread disappearances and abductions still keep the local population in a state of fear, while the continuing state of emergency places the security forces above the rule of law.
— The upcoming elections also demonstrate the way in which corruption, thuggery and politically motivated violence have permeated all levels of Sri Lankan society. The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence has reported 316 Incidents of election-related violence from 23 November to January 10 alone.
Such an environment does not bode well for Sri Lanka’s transition from heavy militarisation to liberal democratic governance. Nor does it offer much hope that the political rights of the Tamil minority will be addressed, which is crucial if Sri Lanka is to progress after decades of war and civil strife. It is therefore essential that all actors involved in Sri Lanka-related advocacy – NGOs, donors, and the international community at large – continue to forcefully engage for reform and progress around human rights. Mr. Tissainayagam’s release was achieved only by a concerted and coordinated effort.
Only similar efforts, but on a larger scale, will lead to genuine change in Sri Lanka.