President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election campaign was coloured by the blatant abuse of state resources says Sanjana Hattotuwa
A day after Sri Lanka’s presidential elections an army spokesman was quoted claiming that the military had been deployed to provide security for media organisations, ostensibly because their resources were under threat. This was rich, coming from a regime which has fuelled the deterioration of the freedom of expression.
A year ago, the president’s brother and Secretary of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, laughed on BBC television when questioned over the murder of the Editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickremetunge. It was a revealing response from a man condemned for violent insults against the independent media, and with the necessary military clout to give effect to such threats.
A year later on 26 January 2010, his brother the president was elected to a second term in office with a large majority. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term in office was coloured by a record of media freedom that put Sri Lanka on par with the likes of Iraq, Sudan and Russia. There is little hope his second term will be any different.
Transparency International has been monitoring the governments misapproation of public resources during the campaign. It estimates propaganda broadcast by the state media was worth hundreds of millions of rupees. Media monitoring conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives showed explicit guidelines issued by the Commissioner of Elections on media behaviour were flouted during the campaign. The state print and electronic media showed an overwhelming bias towards the president and government, including the dissemination of outright propaganda as news.
12.6m subscribers were sent an unsolicited partisan SMS by the President on New Year’s day, on the instructions of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), which is a public institution. The transmission of this SMS was illegal, and one mobile operator has admitted it was done free of charge. The TRC also allowed the jamming of Shakthi TV, a private terrestrial television station, by ITN, a channel owned by the state, during the election campaign, denying audiences in the North of Sri Lanka information to make an informed choice at the elections. In yet another bizarre example, banner ads were purchased on leading foreign media websites to promote the President’s re-election campaign. Thus, those from Sri Lanka who chose to read base London tabloids on the web saw the president’s visage cheek by jowl with photos of inebriated British celebrities. It is unclear how these online ads and such unintended juxtapositions helped re-election prospects. A letter by your author to the President’s election campaign to ascertain the exact amount and source of the money spent on online advertising, unprecedented in any election campaign, has yet to elicit a response.
Sri Lanka’s main Internet service provider, state-owned Sri Lanka Telecom, blocked access to the websites of Lanka E News, Lankanewsweb, InfoLanka andSri Lanka Guardian. All these websites publish or aggregate links to news and information that scrutinise policies and practices of the incumbent presidency and government.
More seriously, Prageeth Ekneliyagoda, an independent journalist and contributor to the Lanka E News website, has been missing since 24 January. His abduction is the latest in a spate of verbal and physical attacks made against the independent media under the Rajapaksa regime, and often by members of government and the armed forces. It is frustrating and frightening to recognise that even post-war, the challenges facing independent journalists grow.On a positive note however, under pressure to demonstrate its bona fides towards media freedom, the government has released of imprisoned Tamil journalist JS Tissainayagam on bail, pending the appeal of his conviction under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Human rights activists had called his case a travesty of justice. Even after his release, Tissanaiyagam’s tragic ordeal reminds us that the PTA and Emergency Rule still remain in our statute books as instruments of fear, censorship and repression. Both have been used to clamp down on the free press. Neither has any place or role in post-war Sri Lanka.
57.88% of voters have re-elected a regime that sadly sees any expression of dissent as unpatriotic and justifies violent suppression as a remedial measure.
Sri Lanka once had rich history of dissent, beyond the partisan bias of traditional print and electronic media. Given the significant growth of web and mobile-based media, it will be much harder to suppress the inevitable growth of independent critiques. If during his second term, the president chooses to do this through repression and violence and emulating the disastrous examples of Myanmar, Iran and China, he risks political capital and condemnation both domestic and international. However, I am confident that the same citizens who re-elected him for a second term will not countenance it.