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A blow to peace

[The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, 2 September 2009 07:45 No Comment]

The jailing of an ethnic Tamil journalist in Sri Lanka is more than a violation of reporters’ rights to do their jobs. It is a missed opportunity for the Sri Lankan government to prove its commitment to building a lasting peace in the country.

J.S. Tissainayagam was sentenced this week to 20 years in prison for supposedly inciting "racial hatred" and promoting terrorism in his reporting. Articles he wrote in 2006 and 2007 criticized the government’s treatment of civilians during the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

For three decades, Sri Lanka’s government was locked in a justified struggle against a terrorist group. But the war measures contained in its Prevention of Terrorism Act should not be used as a tool to curtail free speech or create a climate of fear among journalists.

After the fighting in Sri Lanka finally ended in May, former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock, the former adviser to the United Nations on Sri Lanka, wrote in this newspaper that "if a lasting peace is to be achieved, Tamil grievances must be addressed." It’s a message that has been repeated across media outlets in the wake of the protracted and bloody war in that country, and it has sadly been ignored. Muzzling those who report on those grievances will not help to heal the sense of discrimination and segregation felt within the Tamil community. Sri Lanka’s problems can’t be solved simply by pretending they do not exist.

Mr. Tissainayagam has now been declared "a prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International. In May, U.S. President Barack Obama singled him out in an address to mark World Press Freedom Day, saying Mr. Tissainayagam is an example of those who have been jailed or harassed although they are "guilty of nothing more than a passion for truth and a tenacious belief that a free society depends on an informed citizenry."

It is that citizenry that must be considered now. The people of Sri Lanka do not benefit from government pressure that creates a chill among reporters who are trying to inform them – and the international community – about the conditions being faced.

[Full Coverage]

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