Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Free Tissanayagam!

Thursday last week was Human Rights Day. It was also the 100th day of journalist J.S. Tissanayagam serving his prison sentence of 20 years hard labour. Since his arrest he has spent over 600 days behind bars.

Human rights activists, journalists, international human rights organisations and leading politicians have been severely critical of the punishment accorded to him and even American President Barack Obama had described the jailing of Tissanayagam as: ‘being emblematic of the distressing reality of a journalist being jailed for writing’. The recent report of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee headed by well known Senators John F Kerry (Democratic Party contestant against President George W Bush) and ranking Senator Richard Lugar of the Republican Party had called upon the government of Sri Lanka to pardon those like J.S.Tissanayagam who were indicted under emergency laws. But appeals both here and abroad to right this injustice have fallen on deaf ears so far.

Tissanayagam was charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Laws where the rights of an accused are curtailed to a bare minimum. A lawyer, also a cricketer, described the chances of Tissanayagam being tried under these laws as having the same chances that a batsman would have where he could be ruled out on an appeal even on a no ball! The prestigious International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in a report on the sentencing of Tissanayagam has observed: Communalising written expression without evidence of resulting violence; equating terrorism with an intention to cause feelings of ill will; stripping of accused persons of their basic rights; admission into evidence confessions made while in police custody, shifting the burden to the accused to prove coercion and mandating harsh minimum sentences. These laws pose threats to the rights of citizens to express controversial views – a pillar of law based democratic society, the ICJ has said.

The fundamental conclusion of jurists, human rights activists and independent politicians has been that the accused has not received justice as expected in a democratic civilised country.

The PTA was enacted and Emergency laws were moved during a time of extreme terrorist violence when it was believed that ordinary laws such as the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code will be insufficient to take on terrorism of the most virulent kind. Still it was pointed out that Sri Lanka being a signatory to the United Nations Human Rights Charter and other international humanitarian legislation should not violate them.

It could be pointed out that even those countries which are now the leading lights of human rights are still its greatest violators, the United States leading them all.

Abductions of alleged terrorists from foreign countries and trying them in secret locations in other countries in military courts that have shown scant regard to principles of American justice has been subject to devastating widespread criticism. Yet, under the Obama administration, a great effort is being made to right these wrongs even though it is by no means easy.

Where Tissanayagam is concerned, whatever his transgressions have been, he has done so in his journalistic endeavours. He was found guilty under the PTA of causing communal disharmony, inciting racial hatred and supporting terrorism in accordance with the provisions of the PTA. Honest and sincere reporting of a military operation in a civilian village could lead to charges such as those mentioned above, depending on how the security forces and the government interpret them. If civilians were wounded in a bombardment whether it was the military or terrorists who were responsible, it is the bounden duty of a journalist to report the event accurately. If not he is doing a great disservice not only to his profession but also to the parties involved, be it those of the government or terrorists—all being citizens of Sri Lanka. To be punished for reporting the truth will lead to extinction of war reporting and in fact all forms of journalism. Lack of such independence would also lead to the transformation of journalists to stenographers and lackeys as many of our colleagues have turned out to be in recent times. The law and the courts therefore need to take these factors into intense consideration.

What a journalist reports on civil conflicts will have a tremendous impact on future society. Biased reporting could do irreparable harm.

Another factor to take cognisance of is that the war on terrorism is now said to be over with the government being the victors. Thus should the Prevention of Terrorism Act be imposed in all its severity as when terrorism was at its height, on possible transgressions that took place earlier? Reconciliation, amnesties and confidence building measures are the usual means called on when estranged parties are to be brought together. Severe punishments being continued with little or no regard to skewed instances of justice is not the way to get about it.

The government has been indulgent on leading LTTE terrorists who have collaborated with them. There is Daya Master the Official translator of the LTTE for over three decades being arrested, treated with kid gloves and released on bail. There is the Eastern Province terrorists such as Karuna the former leader of the military wing of the LTTE in the Eastern Province who is suspected of mass murder, including the cold blood murders of abut 700 policemen who surrendered to the LTTE on orders of the Premadasa government. Karuna is now a cabinet minister! In contrast what sins have been committed by Tissanayagam? Has he been responsible even for a single death to receive a sentence of 20 years RI?

Sri Lanka is still a country that effuses piety and (Metta) loving kindness. Early morning we wake up to religious sermons and devotional songs of the three great religions on radio and TV. Buddhists who comprise nearly 75 percent of the population take the vow of not killing any living being—not even an insect. Government by law prevents even stray dogs with incurable diseases being killed. Our leaders clad in saintly white flowing garbs are regularly seen carrying trays of flowers in temples (TV cameras to record the events). But do we show the same loving kindness to our fellow human beings?

Converting the death penalty to life imprisonment is one such instance. But we should extend this fellow feeling much further.

President Rajapakse we hope will extend his compassion to our fellow journalist who could not have been found guilty under the former civilised laws of the land.

© The Sunday Leader - Editorial (13.12.2009)

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