COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A Sri Lankan reporter singled out by President Barack Obama as an example of persecuted journalists around the globe was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison on charges of violating the country's strict anti-terror law.
J.S. Tissainayagam's articles in the now-defunct Northeastern Monthly magazine in 2006 and 2007 criticized the conduct of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels and accused authorities of withholding food and other essential items from Tamil-majority areas as a tool of war.
Tissainayagam's conviction, 17 months after the ethnic Tamil reporter was arrested, was the first time a journalist was found guilty of violating the country's Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Rights groups have accused the government of waging a broad crackdown on media freedom that has continued since it routed the rebels and ended the nation's quarter-century civil war in May.
Tissainayagam, who has been labeled a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, was arrested in March 2008 and indicted five months later under the anti-terror law.
During his World Press Freedom Day address in May, Obama highlighted Tissainayagam's case as an example of journalists being jailed or harassed for doing their jobs.
On Monday, High Court Judge Deepali Wijesundara said Tissainayagam's articles violated the law because they were aimed at creating communal disharmony. She also found him guilty of raising money for a publication whose articles violated the anti-terror law and sentenced him to 20 years.
"The constitution guarantees media freedom, but no one has a right to deliberately publish false reports that would lead to communal violence," prosecutor Sudarshana de Silva said in his court filing.
Defense lawyer Anil Silva said Tissainayagam had always fought for human rights.
"He was never a racist and he at no time tried to arouse hatred," he said in his defense filing. "Now he has been punished for what he wrote as a journalist. This will be a lesson to other journalists too."
Silva said his client would appeal.
"We are shocked at this judgment," said Chulawansa Sirilal, convener of the Free Media Movement, a local media rights group.
He said this has posed a serious threat to the country's media freedom and journalists.
"There is no press freedom in this country today, even after the war is over," said Sirithunga Jayasuriya, another local media rights activist. Tissainayagam's conviction would set a bad precedent for media across the country, he said.
"The imposition of this extremely severe sentence on Tissainayagam suggests that some Sri Lanka judges confuse justice with revenge," said Reporters Without Borders, adding that it is "appalled" by the sentence.
International media rights groups say the government has used emergency laws to silence public criticism of its conduct and has failed to investigate violent attacks – and killings – of journalists.
The government has denied the allegations.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 11 Sri Lankan reporters were forced to flee the country in the past year, and Amnesty International said at least 14 Sri Lankan journalists and media workers had been killed since the beginning of 2006.
In June, the government said it would re-establish a powerful press council with the authority to jail journalists it finds guilty of defamation or inaccurate reporting.