Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam, who was sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment in Sri Lanka for links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and whose case has been highlighted by United States President Barack Obama, has received two prestigious international awards.
Global Media Forum and the US branch of Reporters Without Borders on Monday announced that J S Tissainayagam has been selected as the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. The award would be presented in October.
Tissainayagam, 45, who contributed to the local Sunday Times and also ran a website that focused on the country's Tamil population, was found guilty of spreading 'racial hatred' and 'supporting terrorism,' an official at Colombo's High Court said.
"We are happy to reward J S Tissainayagam in 2009, a terrible year for Sri Lanka," said Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders. "This country needs journalists who are determined and concerned with finding the truth. J S Tissainayagam is one of those and should never have been imprisoned," he said.
The US criticised Sri Lanka on Monday for sentencing Tissainayagam, a Tamil reporter whose case has been highlighted by US President Barack Obama. Simultaneously, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists announced that it will honour Tissainayagam with the 2009 International Press Freedom Award.
"We were disappointed to learn of the verdict and the severity of the sentence," State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said. He is one of the five journalists who will be honoured by the CPJ at a ceremony in November.
The full slate of awardees, selected by CPJ's board of directors this summer, will be formally announced in September. "We are announcing this award today to highlight the depth of outrage at this unjust sentence," said CPJ executive director Joel Simon.
US President Barack Obama highlighted Tissainayagam's case during his World Press Freedom Day address in May.
"The harshness and the retroactive nature of the charges reflect vindictiveness and intolerance. We are calling today for Tissainayagam's release in an appeal we plan to repeat at our awards ceremony, when the world's leading journalists gather to demand press freedom for all of our colleagues," he said.
"The imposition of this extremely severe sentence on Tissainayagam suggests that some Sri Lanka judges confuse justice with revenge," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
"With the help of confessions extracted by force and information that was false or distorted, the court has used an anti-terrorism law that was intended for terrorists, not for journalists and human rights activists," it said.
Image: Tamil journalist J S Tissainayagam arrives at the Colombo High Court in a prison bus | Photograph: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Reuters