The price of conscience

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A resolute speaker of uncomfortable truths is silenced by a rampant state

Sritharan Somitharan

Illustration: Anand Naorem

THE SENTENCING of Sri Lankan journalist JS Tissainayagam to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment under Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act is meant as a warning to journalists who dare to criticise the government. The charge against him is that his newspaper was funded by the LTTE. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

The weekly that Tissainayagam edited, the North Eastern Herald (NEH) focused on issues that the mainstream Sri Lankan media failed to cover. It was to fill this gap that Thissa, as his friends and colleagues call him, started the paper in 2002 along with another writer, Taraki Sivaram. In 2005, when it became difficult for him to run the weekly, he started a monthly called The North Eastern Monthly. He was also a columnist in leading English publications such as the Sunday Times.

I was working with a Tamil daily called Thina Kural, in Jaffna. In 2002, I joined the NEH, where I worked for two years as a features writer. Peace talks had begun between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka following a ceasefire between them. Thissa wanted the NEH to focus on problems of the people living in the North Eastern parts of Sri Lanka. He was aware that besides the Tamils, there were also Muslims and Sinhalese living there. He was concerned about the plight of all those people. All of them had suffered during the war.

The ceasefire offered a great opportunity for good journalism in the Northeastern region. There were plenty of issues begging for attention. There were the orphans of the war; many of them children. There was the question of post-war rehabilitation and development. At the NEH, we addressed those issues. None of the Colombo-based papers dealt with the problems of the region.

There used to be an English weekly called the Saturday Review, published from Jaffna. A Sinhalese journalist used to be the editor of the paper. The paper wound up some time in the 1980s. Thissa wanted to fill this vacuum.

We were a small editorial team. Most of the articles came from columnists, academics and intellectuals. Money was scarce. There was no funding from the LTTE. In fact, we didn’t hesitate to criticise the LTTE. We ran a critical piece against the LTTE’s moral policing when they banned Shankar’s film, Boys, in the Tamil areas. The action against Thissa is part of the larger game plan to gag the media.

Sri Lanka wants to make an example out of Thissa to browbeat other journalists. It wants to intimidate and silence those journalists who are criticising the government’s policies. Senior journalist Poddala Jayantha, also the general secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, was abducted by unidentified persons in June. He was grievously assaulted and dumped by the roadside. In January, Lasantha Wickrematunge, a prominent journalist often critical of the government was assassinated by unknown persons. Fearing for their lives, at least 40 journalists have fled the country.

Due to a sustained campaign against critics, at least 40 journalists have fled Sri Lanka, fearing for their lives

Top Lankan officials have stated recently that several Sinhalese journalists were on the LTTE’S payroll. They are merely preparing the ground for action against any journalist critical of the government. It is also a veiled warning to the journalists living outside Lanka: Don’t come back.

Thissa could have worked in any newspaper, but he is a man of conviction. He felt he had to do something for the hapless people of the Northeastern region. That’s why he started his own publication. Thissa comes from a respectable family and had spent most of his life in Colombo. He did his post-graduation from JNU, Delhi. One hopes he gets the justice he deserves.

The writer is living in exile in India.

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