Tension surrounds today’s presidential election, especially for the press, which has had to face many obstacles. Use of the state media to support President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign for another term has been accompanied by harassment and violence against privately-owned opposition media, culminating in the 24 January abduction of political reporter Prageeth Eknaligoda. Reporters Without Borders appeals to both sides to make every effort to avoid an Iran-style scenario in which the challenging of a questionable election result leads to a cycle of demonstrations and repression in which the press would clearly be one of the victims.
Monitoring of state TV stations Rupavahini and ITN by Reporters Without Borders shows they have been abused by the president and his aides to a rarely seen degree to promote his campaign.
More than 96.7 per cent of the 1,539 minutes (about 25 hours) of news programmes monitored on these two stations was given over to the activities of the incumbent and his followers. Less than 3.3 per cent was accorded to the opposition, including Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the leading opposition candidate. The two stations were monitored for the seven days ending 24 January.
Rupavahini and ITN were mobilised during this period – and even after the official end of the campaign – with the aim of eclipsing Gen. Fonseka’s campaign. On 24 January, for example, two days before the poll, both stations carried a two-hour live broadcast of a religious ceremony in which President Rajapaksa was participating.
Although a crucial day, the opposition got no airtime at all on 24 January, while the president and his supporters got a total of 47 minutes and 45 seconds on Rupavahini and 101 minutes and 45 seconds on ITN. During ITN’s 6 p.m. Tamil-language news programme, for example, the president and his political allies, especially his Tamil allies, got 13 minutes and 10 seconds while the opposition, which is backed by the Tamil National Alliance, was totally ignored.
ITN’s Sinhalese-language news programme at 7 p.m. accorded 4 minutes and 50 seconds to the president and 6 minutes and 10 seconds to his government while completing ignoring the 20 other candidates.
“Such an imbalance in the coverage of the candidates seriously undermines the democratic credibility of this presidential election, the first since the end of the civil war,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It was hoped the government would do better than this, but it failed to resist the temptation of exploiting the state media. We urge the international community, especially the electoral observation missions, to clearly denounce these abuses in their reports.”
Although security concerns may be valid, Reporters Without Borders is astonished that the government has declared the Rupavahini and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation buildings “high security areas” on election day and the day after. Gen. Devapriya Abeysinghe, SLBC’s associated director, has obtained full government powers and has requisitioned a limited number of employees for the two days.
Reporters Without Borders has learned of several incidents in addition to journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda’s abduction. The Criminal Investigation Department, for example, asked for warrants to search the headquarters of Wijeya Newspapers, publishing the Daily Mirror, on the grounds that the company had printed “defamatory” posters and other material. A Colombo court rejected the request yesterday.
A bus carrying journalists to cover an event in which Gen. Fonseka was participating on 24 January was blocked for several hours by military police at Kiribathgoda (near Colombo). The police took down their names and addresses.
The Colombo home of Tiran Alles, a leading opposition member and editor of the now-closed Sinhalese-language weekly Mawbima, was bombed on 22 January. In June 2007, after being accused by President Rajapaksa and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of being a Tamil Tiger spokesman, Alles was detained for two weeks. Mawbima, which at the time was one of the country’s few critical publications, was forced to close due to economic pressure.
Finally, in the northern city of Jaffna, a newspaper editor speaking on condition of anonymity told Reporters Without Borders that the pressure has increased there, especially from pro-Rajapaksa groups. Government minister Douglas Devananda told a political meeting that all Jaffna was under his control “except Uthayan,” referring to a Tamil newspaper that has repeatedly been the target of violence in the past. Uthayan’s police protection was withdrawn for several hours on 22 January for unexplained reasons.
Five people have been killed in the course of more than 300 serious incidents of electoral violence in Sri Lanka since December.
Reporters Without Borders
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