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Dumbstruck in Colombo

Mr Tissainayagam’s trial is being seen as a toxic cocktail of confessions under duress, judicial malpractice and a brutal State crackdown on the media.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2009 22:22 IST

Recent experience shows that States battling the enemy within, especially the scourge of terrorism, draw a fine line between truth and treason. A 20-year jail term for Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam on charges of flouting the country’s stringent anti-terror law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, might be the first time a journalist has been charged under this law. But he is definitely not the first Lankan journalist to have earned the ire of the establishment. Earlier this year, the editor of the well-known Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramasinghe, was gunned down for criticising Colombo for its alleged atrocities against civilians, having eerily predicted his own fate in an editorial before he was murdered. According to Amnesty International, at least 14 Sri Lankan journalists and media workers have been killed since the beginning of 2006. Many more have been forced to flee the country.

Mr Tissainayagam’s trial is being seen as a toxic cocktail of confessions under duress, judicial malpractice and a brutal State crackdown on the media. He had accused the government of using denial of food and other essential items as a tool of war in Tamil-dominated areas. His fate is yet another reminder of the heavy price that military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has extracted in terms of civil liberties and human rights in the beleaguered island nation. After the fall of the LTTE, Colombo has found a new enemy, and journalists have become easy targets in a country still coming to terms with the end of a violent civil war that has not only left ethnic relations in a flux, but also given a free rein to the State in the post-war clean-up.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has been dismissive of international indignation and continues to ride roughshod over civil liberties, having denied access to all reporters and international aid agencies during the final military push against the LTTE. It continues to deny all allegations of abuse and misuse of State power, while blatantly stifling dissent with the aid of wartime emergency laws. Colombo’s belligerence does not bode well for the future of freedom in a country that has fought so hard for peace. It serves the government to address the allegations levelled against it and to stop persecuting its detractors. Its credibility as a modern democratic State depends on it.