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Journalist released from prison; impunity protects editor's killers

As Sri Lanka gears up for elections, one journalist is freed from prison, while the investigation of another journalist's murder continues to lag.
As Sri Lanka gears up for elections, one journalist is freed from prison, while the investigation of another journalist's murder continues to lag.

via IPI

Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam was released on bail this week, four months after receiving a 20-year prison sentence, report the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI). IFEX members have also highlighted that one year after Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed, there has been no serious investigation of the case and a culture of impunity continues to curb free expression.

Wickrematunge's murder on a busy street in the country's capital, Colombo, caused worldwide outrage. On 7 January 2010, the Sri Lankan police reported that Wickrematunge died as a result of "a head injury inflicted by a sharp weapon and not a gunshot wound as previously believed," reports IFJ. The case's neglect has resulted in a full year passing before this basic detail emerged, despite assurances from the government that justice would be done and repeated requests by Wickrematunge's family for a forensic report to be submitted to the court.

Journalist Sonali Samarasinghe, Lasantha's wife, has been working on a campaign to have the case investigated and the killers brought to justice, says CPJ. She sent an open letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, noting that her husband was one of 14 dissident journalists murdered since Rajapaksa came to power in 2005.

She says: "Such media as do operate in the country have been transformed into propaganda mouthpieces for you and your brothers... bullied into submission through the draconian 'emergency regulations' you have arbitrarily promulgated." Reporters Without Borders (RSF) notes in its year-end review that 29 Sri Lankan journalists were forced into exile in 2009.

The decision to release Tissainayagam does not change the fact that Sri Lanka's government has "undermined press freedom and independent media by using archaic terrorism legislation to silence... critical journalists," says IFJ. CPJ also welcomed the release but called on President Rajapaksa "to use his constitutional power to extend a full pardon and erase the 20 year sentence." The Tamil editor was detained in March 2008 and indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in August 2008 for articles he wrote criticising government attacks on the Tamil Tigers rebels, and the civilian suffering it caused, reports IPI. An appeals court ordered Tissainayagam to surrender his passport and pay bail of US$500.

As Sri Lanka prepares for elections on 26 January, Colombo-based Free Media Movement (FMM) and seven other groups presented an agenda for media reform to the candidates. The statement emphasised the need for greater access to information in order to monitor the conduct of government. It also highlights the use of national security laws to muzzle journalists, as well as the use of state media as a vehicle to disseminate party propaganda. The eight groups called on presidential candidates to declare a strong commitment to freedom of expression by abolishing the Press Council Law which allows journalists to be jailed for up to 20 years.

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