Imprisoned Sri Lankan journalist bags two international awards


Sri Lankan prison guards escort ethnic Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam out of the High Court premises in Colombo on Monday. AP

Global Media Forum and the US Branch of Reporters Without Borders yesterday announced that Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam has been selected as the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. The award would be presented in October.

Tissainayagam, 45, who contributed to the local Sunday Times and also ran a website that focused on the country's Tamil population, was found guilty of spreading 'racial hatred' and 'supporting terrorism,' an official at Colombo's High Court said.

"We are happy to reward J S Tissainayagam in 2009, a terrible year for Sri Lanka," said Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders.  "This country needs journalists who are determined and concerned with finding the truth. J S Tissainayagam is one of those and should never have been imprisoned," he said.

The US criticised Sri Lanka yesterday for sentencing to 20 years in prison to Tissainayagam, a Tamil reporter whose case has been highlighted by US President Barack Obama.

Simultaneously the New York-based the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) announced that it will honour Tissainayagam with a 2009 International Press Freedom Award.

"We were disappointed to learn of the verdict and the severity of the sentence," State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said. He is one of five journalists who will be honored by CPJ at a ceremony in November. The full slate of awardees, selected by CPJ’s Board of Directors this summer, will be formally announced in September.

"We are announcing this award today to highlight the depth of outrage at this unjust sentence," said CPJ executive director Joel Simon. US President Barack Obama highlighted Tissainayagam's case during his World Press Freedom Day address in May.

"Its harshness and the retroactive nature of the charges reflect vindictiveness and intolerance. We are calling today for Tissainayagam's release—an appeal we plan to repeat at our awards ceremony, when the world's leading journalists gather to demand press freedom for all of our colleagues," he said.

"The imposition of this extremely severe sentence on Tissainayagam suggests that some Sri Lanka judges confuse justice with revenge," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement.

"With the help of confessions extracted by force and information that was false or distorted, the court has used an anti-terrorism law that was intended for terrorists, not for journalists and human rights activists," it said.

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