The irony here is like a joke gone sour; senior Tamil journalist JS Tissainayagam, the editor of a monthly magazine who is in jail for nine months now, is held in a prison in the heart of the capital called, well, Colombo Magazine Prison.
The funny part ends there. For Tissainayagam and two of his former colleagues it has been more a tragedy, unfolding rather painstakingly. The only journalist in Sri Lanka to be charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), Tissa — as his friends call him — was detained on March 7 when he went to meet his two former colleagues in a police jail. Jasiharan and his wife Valarmathy were the printers of the North Eastern monthly and had already been picked up by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) of the Lankan police.
“He was first detained at the TID office for questioning and then inexplicably arrested. Lawyers were only given access to him after two weeks,’’ Sudarshana Gunawardana, a lawyer who is campaigning for the journalist’s release told HT. At the time of his arrest, Tissainayagam was editing an online magazine.
The Free Media Movement (FMM) said: “After being held for five months without charge, Tissainayagam was formally indicted by the High Court of Sri Lanka under emergency and anti-terrorism laws.’’
Gunawardana said he was arrested for “writing to bring discredit to the government and inciting ethnic and racial disharmony’’ and ``collecting money for the North Eastern Monthly from NGOs.’’ A Lankan journalist commented that “half of journalists in Sri Lanka could be arrested under the first count.’’
On December 5, the Supreme Court, on another day of hearing of the Fundamental Rights Petition that Tissainayagam had filed, ruled that a purported confession made by him was voluntary and therefore admissible in court.
“Under the PTA and Rules of Emergency, a confession made by an accused is admissible in court. The prosecution does not need a witness. The burden of proving it otherwise lies on the accused. Notwithstanding that Tissainayagam said that he had been tortured in prison. He was upbeat after a ‘voir dire’ (which determines the admissibility of evidence) enquiry was ordered into the so-called confession. But the situation has changed now,’’ Gunawardana said.
But a campaign to free him continues in Colombo. Interestingly, eminent Sinhalese intellectuals and lawyers are at its forefront. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its local affiliates in Sri Lanka also launched an online campaign video condemning the arrest and indictment of Tissainayagam.
“The indictment against Tissainayagam in a country where journalism and journalists already face extreme threats marks a dangerous turning point for freedom of expression and the right to information in Sri Lanka,” IFJ Asia-Pacific said.