Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sri Lanka defends 20-year sentence for journalist

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's government defended a 20-year prison sentence given to a journalist accused of violating the country's strict anti-terror law, saying he was given a fair trial and the decision did not impact media freedom on the island.

J.S. Tissainayagam — who was singled out by President Barack Obama in a May speech as an example of persecuted journalists around the globe — wrote articles for the now-defunct Northeastern Monthly magazine in 2006 and 2007 that criticized the government for its conduct in the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Tissainayagam's conviction Monday sparked international criticism, with rights groups saying the charges were a violation of freedom of expression and calling on the government to grant him his unconditional release.

The government rejected the criticism, saying in a statement late Tuesday that the "verdict was arrived at after following a due process according to the domestic laws of Sri Lanka, and therefore does not amount in any way to a negation of media freedom in the country."

A pardon would only be considered after Tissainayagam exhausted all his legal appeals, the statement said.

It was the first time a journalist was found guilty of violating the country's Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The government has been accused of continuing a crackdown on the media even after it defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in May, ending a quarter-century-long civil war. The government has denied the allegations.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has said at least 11 Sri Lankan reporters were forced to flee the country in the past year, and Amnesty International has said at least 14 Sri Lankan media workers had been killed since the beginning of 2006.

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