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J S Tissainayagam

This essay was written some months back, when the sentence against J S Tissainayagam was first pronounced. It may be worth rereading now, after he has been pardoned. As indicated there, I feel we should feel primarily sympathy for someone who fell victim to a mindset propagated by those who should have known better. Correspondingly, while we respect those who held themselves aloof from the mad scramble to dignify the LTTE, we should continue to be cautious about funding agencies that pursue their own predilections, even if these are contrary to Sri Lankan interests and the policies of our elected government. 



 The sentence passed on the journalist J S Tissainayagam has prompted diverse reactions, but to my relief they have generally been more civilized than I expected. Happily, there have been no triumphant justifications of the prison sentence, excessive as it seems. Conversely, except for the few usual suspects, there have been no categorical condemnations of the verdict of guilty, perhaps because the sentence itself has seemed ample grounds for complaint for those who deplore what seems a betrayal of a fundamental right, that of free expression. 

Underlying this comparative restraint perhaps is the fact that everyone recognizes that there should be certain limits to freedom of expression, namely when it could contribute to the erosion of other freedoms. Hate speech is an obvious example of what should be controlled, and equally obviously, as Subramaniam Swamy put it in an article in the Economic Times of India, ‘when a state fights a secessionist terrorist outfit, then press freedom suffers as a consequence’. Swamy himself believes, having read Tissainayagam’s writings, that ‘they are pure LTTE propaganda’. And, even if one does not go as far as that, the comments of a relatively liberal foreign journalist, who was instinctively against the sentence, make clear what a detached observer would have felt, namely that ‘he was clearly supporting the LTTE’. 

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Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2010
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