Curbing my enthusiasm over a presidential pardon

May 5, 2010

Yesterday, on World Press Freedom Day, the Sri Lankan government announced that President Rajapaksa had pardoned J.S. Tissainayagam (often referred to as “Tissa”), a Sri Lankan journalist who had been unjustly convicted under draconian security laws and sentence to 20 years in prison.  His crime?  Writing two articles critical of the government’s war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.  Amnesty International considers Tissa to be a “prisoner of conscience” imprisoned solely for his journalistic activities.  We welcomed his release on bail on Jan. 13 while he was appealing his conviction.  We nonetheless asked the Sri Lankan government to strike down his conviction and free him from all charges against him.

The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders have all publicly welcomed the announced pardon.

So am I jumping for joy over this announcement?  Well, not yet.  For one thing, as the CPJ press release mentions, Tissa’s lawyers were not notified of the pardon prior to the announcement.  There are important details that are still not known.  Will he be able to freely practice his profession and have his freedom of movement restored, including getting his passport back?  Will his safety be assured by the government?  As Amnesty has reported, at least 15 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2006 without anyone being held accountable for these murders.

A commentator on a Sri Lankan website has pointed out that the announcement of the pardon was made by the new External Affairs Minister.  I checked the recent Sri Lankan presidential announcement allocating duties and functions to the various Cabinet Ministries.  Interestingly, the External Affairs Ministry does not appear to have anything to do with pardons.  That belongs to the Ministry of Justice.

I hope the details of Tissa’s pardon are clarified soon.  Then, perhaps, I may feel like celebrating.