While American civilians were preoccupied with an onslaught of fear-inducing swine flu headlines during the winter and spring of 2010, civilians of Sri Lanka were engrossed in the final chapters of a 26-year civil war that left nearly 100,000 corpses in its wake — many of which are yet to be found.
A frightening percentage of the missing people were Sri Lankan journalists, specifically those who felt confident enough to publish damning information about their government’s military campaign against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Journalists who were targeted were those that exposed war crimes and human rights violations including, but not limited to, the government’s use of nuclear equipment in proximity of civilians, forced recruitment of child soldiers, torture, and the widespread killing of civilians residing in LTTE-occupied areas.
Despite rights ensured in the Sri Lankan Constitution that guarantee freedom of press, numerous reports of government-ordered abductions, assassinations and violent raids on newsrooms circulate, prompting human rights organizations like Amnesty International to demand justice for those who have been tortured, killed or wrongfully imprisoned for exercising their constitutional freedoms.
On May 7, award-winning Sri Lankan journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam (known as J. S. Tissainayagam, or “Tissa”) spoke about his experience as a prisoner and martyr of the Sri Lankan government at Amnesty International’s Southern Ohio Meeting, held in a conference room at University of Cincinnati’s College of Law.
During his 20 years as a journalist, Tissa wrote political columns about Tamil issues that were frequently critical of the government, but not partisan to the LTTE. Notably, he served as a reporter for The Sunday Leader under Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was assassinated in January 2009 following the publication of an editorial that stated “Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty,” among other reflections on the government’s brutal censorship of the media. Also, Tissa founded North Eastern Monthly and contributed columns to The Sunday Times prior to his arrest.
On March 7, 2008, he was taken into custody by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the Sri Lankan Police for writing an article in North Eastern Monthly, that stated:
“Providing security to Tamils now will define northeastern politics of the future. It is fairly obvious that the government is not going to offer them any protection. In fact, it is the state security forces that are the main perpetrator of the killings.”
After five months of detention, during which he was allegedly tortured and forced into writing a letter of confession dictated to him, the Colombo High Courts convicted Tissa and sentenced him to 20 years hard labor in prison for inciting communal violence with his writings and receiving money from the LTTE.
He was sentenced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Similar in nature to the United States’ Patriot Act passed in October 2001, it provides the Sri Lankan police with broad powers to search, arrest and detain suspects. It was first put in place as a temporary law in 1979, and then made permanent in 1982 when the LTTE resistance became formidable.
Proscribed as a terrorist organization by 32 countries, including Sri Lanka and the United States, the “Tamil Tigers” sought to secede from government order and establish an autonomous state in north and eastern regions of Sri Lanka beginning in the early 1980s.
LTTE supporters say the group’s chief objective was to secure a homeland for Eelam Tamils, who are native to the country, but represent an ethnic minority commonly persecuted by the predominantly Sinhalese government.
“My family couldn’t live in Sri Lanka after I was arrested,” says Tissa, who was released on bail by the Court of Appeals on Jan. 11, 2010, after the government received significant pressure from human rights organizations.
“You see, the biggest problem is, once you’ve been arrested for something that’s labeled a terrorist act, you become a terrorist in the public eye. Your family, your friends, anyone who is out to publicly defend you, will also be labeled a terrorist by the government.”
Tissa and his family have taken asylum in the United States. He now studies at Harvard University and speaks candidly about brutal censorship in Sri Lanka, which continues today.
“People will not speak out on important issues because they are scared,” he said. “Fear rules. There needs to be an impartial, international investigation of the war crimes in Sri Lanka because without accountability, there is no justice. Without justice, there is no resolution.”