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Tissainayagam, Northeastern Herlad and Reporters Sans Borders

by Kath Noble

When J.S. Tissainayagam was sentenced to 20 years in prison last week, the entire world howled in protest. Rarely has a decision of the Sri Lankan courts been so roundly condemned.

It is natural. Although we have been told very little about the case, we do know that it rests on what Tissainayagam wrote. The Government says that he took money from the LTTE for the purpose, but the sum alleged is so tiny as to be insignificant, especially for a person like him with marketable skills and connections to funding agencies.

An article on the Defence Ministry website claims that Rs. 150,000 was deposited by an LTTE cadre in the account that Tissainayagam used for a publication called Northeastern Monthly. He would later come to raise many times that amount from an international organisation with whom the Government has signed a memorandum of understanding.

This is the first occasion on which somebody has been pursued through the legal system for what they have written about the conflict, and that shocks. So much has been said and argued by people on all sides during the last three decades. It seems bizarre to start prosecutions now, with the main threat to the country neutralised. That the sentence Tissainayagam received was so harsh simply compounds our horror.

Reporters Without Borders demonstrated its usual lunacy in blaming the judge.

Judges can do nothing other than assess the case before them and apply the law as it currently stands. They cannot look into whether others who have committed similar offences have been punished, nor can they check to see whether the legislation in force remains appropriate or whether the minimum sentences decreed under it are reasonable.

The fact is that the Prevention of Terrorism Act is a draconian piece of legislation, as all such bills tend to be when they are introduced at times of great stress. It is said that the Sri Lankan law is based on its British equivalent, passed just days after the worst of the IRA bombings on the mainland, in which 21 people died and almost 200 were injured. Our Home Secretary actually described the act as draconian when he introduced it in Parliament in 1974, adding that nobody would want such powers to remain in force for a moment longer than was necessary.

That turned out to be quite a while. A new and rather more circumspect law was drafted in 2000, after the Good Friday Agreement that put an end to the Northern Ireland conflict had been signed. There continued to be violence by dissidents, but the authorities recognised that the situation was much less dangerous than it had been previously.

Some of the harshest measures had been relaxed earlier, of course. The use of internment for those suspected of being members of terrorist organisations, which in practice turned out to mean the IRA and other groups from the Catholic community, was discontinued in 1976. Interrogation techniques that were found by the European Court of Human Rights to amount to torture had been officially abandoned by then as well.

I hope readers will permit me a small deviation from the point to note that the latter didn’t happen in practice. Ironically, it was the debate on the Channel 4 video apparently showing Sri Lankan soldiers executing prisoners in the Vanni that reminded me of British involvement in torture. Reference was made in one article to fake photos that were published in The Daily Mirror in 2004, resulting in the sacking of its editor. In fact, we discovered later that the soldier who is suspected of having duped the newspaper had actually been involved in abuse in Iraq, albeit not recorded on film.

One of his colleagues, who is the only British soldier to be convicted of a war crime to date, was found guilty in 2007 of causing the death of an inmate at a prison in Basra. Two years had passed before anybody was charged, and it had taken another two years for him to be given a sentence of one year in prison. Six others were acquitted of torture for lack of evidence.

The more sanctimonious of foreign critics should pay attention. Meanwhile, the rest of us ought to remember that the fact that what was published had been faked, which the Ministry of Defence proved rather than just asserted within a matter of days, didn’t mean that the basic story wasn’t true.
Coming back to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a number of parallels with the Sri Lankan scene immediately spring to mind.

The admissibility of confessions has always been a highly questionable part of the legislation, given the longstanding inability of the Police to wipe out the use of torture, and it should be dropped at once. Likewise, the length of time a suspect can be held without trial must surely be reduced immediately too. Eighteen months is a long time by any standards, providing the Government with an unnecessarily effective weapon to use against its detractors.

The threat to Sri Lanka was far greater than that posed by the IRA, giving the authorities some justification for retaining these very dangerous powers since 1979, but nobody could argue that this is still the case. As in Britain, the change in situation necessitates a review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to see which measures are genuinely needed and which could be dropped in the wider interests of society. That measures introduced to combat terrorism have been most injurious to Tamils cannot be questioned, so moderation of the approach would make a useful contribution to reconciliation as well.

The prevailing law and the penalties available under it need to be suited to the circumstances in which the country finds itself at the time.

It would help the Government to avoid some of the blame, too. Reporters Without Borders was in the minority, with just about every other commentator declaring that the administration was responsible for the fate of Tissainayagam.

This returns us to the case itself.Mystery has surrounded what Tissainayagam wrote ever since he was arrested, thus permitting the usual suspects to claim that it showed that the media was completely shackled. We knew his rather innocuous work for The Sunday Times, but interviewing Prabhakaran seemed easier than finding aficionados of Northeastern Monthly. The Government contributed to this information blackout by publishing only two sentences with which they had taken issue, one claiming that the Army had deliberately withheld food from civilians trapped with the LTTE during the offensive in the East, and the other suggesting that they were behind many of the killings happening in the Province at the time. This encouraged people to think that there wasn’t much to the case.

It turns out that Northeastern Monthly is available on the internet, and readers interested in understanding the background should go through the archives. They can be found on the Tamil Canadian website.

One of the most fascinating aspects of what Tissainayagam wrote over the four year period that he was editing Northeastern Monthly is how wrong it turned out to be, politically speaking. From his rather innocent assumption that Ranil Wickremasinghe would triumph in the 2004 general election, through the curious assertion that Karuna’s defection would not prove to be important, to his very entertaining claim that the LTTE’s decision to help Mahinda Rajapaksa get elected president in 2005 was smart because he would be less capable of running a military campaign, Tissainayagam was quite ludicrously misguided.

More relevantly to the case, he wasn’t a moderate. Tissainayagam wrote in support of the LTTE, and I don’t mean in the way that some extremists on the other side claim that anybody critical of the Government is pro-terrorist. He made it clear in his articles that he was a Tamil nationalist who believed that the LTTE had an important role to play on behalf of his community. He treated them as the sole representative of Tamils and never had a critical word to say. Calling for his fellows to rise up against the Government wasn’t beneath him either.

This casts a different light on the matter. Reporters Without Borders had better change their minds about that new award they have created in honour of his journalistic integrity, because it is going to make them look very stupid indeed. Whatever the truth of the two sentences the Government has emphasised, these debatable assertions are not the real issue.

Tissainayagam is not being punished for his reporting. He may have done useful work in the process, drawing attention to some genuine problems and putting across a different point of view that challenges our understanding of events, but that was not the purpose of Northeastern Monthly. Anybody who reads it will see for themselves.

It is right to challenge such activities, but we instinctively know that the route taken with Tissainayagam is not the correct one. The LTTE is destroyed, and a line should be drawn under all that has gone before this point.

Many people have contributed in different ways to the incitement of communal disharmony and violence over the years, and from all communities. It would be impossible to go into it all now, and perhaps to do so would only stir up unhelpful feelings. What matters now is the prevention of further terrorism.

Tissainayagam may well have changed his mind about the wisdom of his position in the new circumstances, as politicians are wont to do, and giving him the chance to do so would have been infinitely better than continuing the prosecution.



Thank you for a researched article, not the kind from the likes of Paton Walsh, or Jeremy Page whose claim to being journalists is rather suspect.

Posted by: Ram2009 | September 9, 2009 03:03 AM

Kath Noble tries to have her own trial for Tissanayagam. What is important is what transpired at the trial itself and evidence considered to impose the maximum penalty of 20 yrs RI.

Posted by: Jury | September 9, 2009 07:24 PM

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