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Sri Lanka’s abuse of press freedom – National Post

[MISC, Tuesday, 1 September 2009 08:24 No Comment]

Winston Churchill wrote in his history of the Second World War that the first trait required of victors was "magnanimity." The Sri Lankan government would do well to remember that lesson in its treatment of its Tamil minority, whose insurgents it mercilessly crushed this past spring to end a 26-year civil war.

So far, the government in Colombo has shown little if any magnanimity toward the vanquished Tamils. More than a quarter of a million of them remain in refugee camps from which foreign aid workers and international journalists are barred. Conditions in some of these camps are "desperate," according to the United Nation’s High Commission on Refugees.

Then on Monday, a Tamil journalist — the quiet, slight J. S. Tissainayagam — was sentenced to 20 years hard labour for alleged violations of Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act.

While he is accused of having taken money from the outlawed (and brutal) Tamil Tigers to operate a website providing the Tamil version of facts about the civil war, Mr. Tissainayagam’s main crime seems to have been writing two articles in the now-defunct Northeastern Monthly magazine in 2006 and 2007 criticizing the Sri Lankan persecution of the Tamils, who were seeking an independent homeland in the north-east corner of the island nation.

Mr. Tissainayagam criticized wartime tactics employed by Sri Lankan leaders, including the alleged withholding of food, medicine and other essential items from Tamil areas as a way to strike back at the Tigers. He also complained that the Sri Lankan army was conducting extrajudicial executions — murdering civilian Tamils as a warning to the Tigers that Colombo was not to be messed with and a caution to ordinary Tamils not to abet the Tigers.

For this, the Sri Lankans — who are mostly ethnic Sinhalese, not Tamil– charged Mr. Tissainayagam with "causing communal disharmony," a serious offence under anti-terrorism laws there. His supporters, along with Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission, claim the evidence that he purportedly co-operated with the Tamil Tigers was fabricated. They claim he is a political prisoner and that the criminal charges against him were trumped up in order to silence his anti-government views.

Sri Lanka has an abysmal record of press freedom. Not only is it keeping international reporters from its 30, soldier-guarded refugee camps for Tamil civilians, but over the course of the quarter-century-long civil war, at least 20 journalists critical of Colombo disappeared in a practice that became known as "white vanning." A white van would pull up next to a target as he walked down the street. Masked men would jump out, throw the journalist inside and he would never be seen again. The International Committee to Protect Journalists ranks only Iran, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Colombia as worse in their mistreatment of reporters.

Throughout the final years of Sri Lanka’s civil war, this newspaper was broadly sympathetic to the Sri Lankan government’s goal of confronting and subduing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers. While the Tamil people had legitimate gripes against the Sinhalese majority government, nothing could justify the Tigers’ tactics.

The LTTE murdered civilians, including Tamils, to strike terror into the hearts of the Sinhalese and compel obedience from ordinary Tamils. They perfected the use of suicide bombers long before Palestinians employed the tactic against Israel. Tigers threatened the lives of Tamil families effectively held hostage within Tiger-held areas in Sri Lanka in order to extract war funds from expatriates worldwide.

Still, it is clear the Tamils have been persecuted since Sri Lanka was granted its independence in 1948. The ruling caste when Britain ruled the island, the Tamils have since been legally denied government jobs and places in business merely because of their ethnicity. In 1983, hundreds of innocent Tamils were murdered by roving Sinhalese mobs in what became known as Bloody July.

The U. S. State Department has urged Colombo to release Mr. Tissainayagam. U. S. President Barack Obama even singled him out for mention in his Press Freedom Day speech in May.

[Full Coverage]

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