x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Media chill as Sri Lankan journalist is sent to prison

Writers are worried that what they intend as objective reporting may be interpreted by courts as subversive and lead to convictions.

Prison officials escort the Tamil journalist  Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam, centre,  to a prison bus on Monday.
Prison officials escort the Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam, centre, to a prison bus on Monday.

COLOMBO // It is a chilling thought. With the recent landmark judgment against the 45-year-old Sri Lankan journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam, or Tissa to his friends, all journalists face the prospect of being placed in the "dock" - whether in court or elsewhere. Tissa's crime was that his writings were subjected to interpretation and proved before a Sri Lankan court that they created ethnic disharmony. So the state prosecutor said. For many years, journalists' rights groups and editors have urged the authorities that rather than accuse journalists or keep them in custody for long periods on various allegations, they should be charged if they have broken the law. That happened in the Tissa case. He was arrested, kept in custody, charged and convicted through the due process of the law. In that sense the law has taken its course and no one can deny that this did not happen. These words, from the North Eastern Monthly in July 2006, are apparently what cost Tissa dearly: "Providing security to Tamils now will define northeastern politics of the future. It's 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." And again from North Eastern Monthly, this time that November: "With no military options, the Government buys time by offering watered-down devolution. Such offensives against the civilians are accompanied by attempts to starve the population by refusing them food as well as medicines and fuel." Tissa edited this now-defunct magazine, which fought for the rights of people, particularly in the north and the east, who for nearly 30 years have been caught between the armies of the Sri Lankan government and many Tamil militant groups. The jailing of Tissa is a lesson to be taken very seriously. Lakshman Goonesekera, a journalist with 30 years' experience, said many of his writings and commentaries when he was editor of the state-owned Sunday Observer in the late 1990s and early 2000s were as objective and as critical as Tissa's writings. Sri Lankan journalists face a serious dilemma. In producing work that is objective and balanced and which brings out similar perspectives as Tissa's and Goonesekera's, can we all be perceived or labelled as "pro-enemy" or "anti-establishment"? Our dilemma is that in producing such work we journalists can be taken to court. How do you interpret issues? How do you remain objective? How do you, in fact, be a factual and complete journalist in the "real" sense of the word? Simply stated, can one work as a journalist when every word you say or write can be interpreted as "helping the enemy", "anti-establishment", "anti-country", or "anti-national"? Tissa's conviction is the first under the Prevention of Terrorism Act brought in by the United National Party government more than 20 years ago to tackle terrorism and quell groups such as the Tamil Tigers. Under the act, people can be arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist or connected to terrorist activities and kept in detention for long periods. This is not the first trying time journalists have faced. Over the past 30 to 35 years and perhaps longer, journalists have often irked the establishment. Punishment has come in different forms. In the 1960s and 1970s, newspapers were seized and media operations taken over by government diktat or plain and simple censorship. In the years after the campaign by Tamil militants began in the early 1980s, the threat against journalists took a different turn: abductions and killings at the hands of anyone who did not like what you wrote. This happened under various administrations. What worries journalists is that they can be hauled to court - where the law is interpreted by judges - based on a prosecutor's or government official's interpretation of their work. Take, for example, a story about conditions in camps for internally displaced people. In a balanced story in the classic journalistic sense, all sides of the story would be represented, providing fair play and objectivity. The story would speak of the refugees' difficulties in camp, but also quote government officials as saying that they are trying to do the best they can or that the situation would improve in the coming weeks. Such a story, because it has a critical element, could be interpreted in many ways, including as being biased. One of the biggest journalistic challenges in Sri Lanka is how Tamil writers in the war-ravaged north and east operated during the war years. In Jaffna, the northern capital, journalists wrote or ran newspapers in a city that at various times was under the control or influence of the government, Tamil Tigers, Indian peacekeeping forces or Tamil militants. I visited Jaffna in the early 1990s when it was held by the rebels. I went to write a story about the travails of travelling to Jaffna because ordinary citizens took a perilous route to get there, including an illegal crossing of a lagoon where boats faced the threat of being shot on sight by the military. I made the night-time crossing and was arrested and held for nearly 12 hours. The Tigers grilled me on the purpose of my visit. A senior journalist once told me many, many years ago: "A journalist's only friend when in desperate need is himself." I felt this strongly during my experience in Jaffna. Many thoughts crossed my mind: would I see my family again? Would I be free? Eventually I was released. The challenges journalists face in Sri Lanka will continue over the next decade or two, I expect, until the wounds of war are completely healed and Sri Lanka again becomes what I would call a normal society. Writing this, I have been careful to choose my words so that I don't offend the law and the powers that be, yet I am faithful to my profession and true to my professional integrity. Challenges indeed for the future, too. foreign.desk@thenational.ae