Grim poll eve portents for Sri Lankan media

In the run up to the polls the media in Sri Lanka invites threats and intimidation, while its reporting is marked by biases.



  Champika Liyanaarachchi  in Columbo                                                                                                        

  Objectivity has become a casualty on the eve of polls in Sri Lanka, with the national media divided between the president and prime minister, and regional dailies targeted by rival factions of Tamil Tiger guerrillas.  



In a country ravaged by a separatist insurgency for around two decades, threats to journalists are not new. But in the run up to the polls, a prominent editor was recently threatened, Election Commission guidelines flouted and thousands of copies of Tamil dailies burnt.  

Journalists are also getting caught in disputes between the breakaway Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Karuna and LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran. Says a correspondent of a leading Tamil newspaper in the eastern province of Batticaloa, now Karuna`s stronghold, "After the rebellion by Karuna, we all live in fear. If we write one good thing about a poll candidate who supports Prabhakaran, or something critical about Karuna, we might not survive."  In a violent incident on March 8, guerrillas loyal to Karuna set aflame thousands of copies of Tamil dailies "Virakesari" and "Thinakkural" in Batticaloa. Both papers are known to be partial to Prabhakaran.  

On February 11, the editor of independent vernacular daily "Lankadeepa", Siri Ranasinghe, was threatened by Wimal Weerawansa, the powerful propaganda secretary of the Marxist political party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Weerawansa was protesting against an advertisement scheduled to appear in the paper. He threatened to launch an island-wide campaign against the promotion, and stage a protest in front of the newspaper`s office.  

The advertisement highlighted killings by the JVP during the party`s 1987-1990 insurgency. During this period, the JVP killed thousands of people, including the husband of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Surprisingly, this notwithstanding, her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has entered into an electoral pact with the JVP. Usually such advertisements are given by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe`s United National Party (UNP), which is very anti-JVP.  

"The situation is getting dicey day by day and one wonders what will happen to the media if these people come to power," remarks Thushara Gunaratne, the deputy editor of "Lankadeepa." Worse, more than five weeks after the Election Commissioner dispatched media guidelines for the April 2 polls, the state media continues to flout media ethics with impunity.  

Says the convener of the Free Media Movement, Sunanda Deshapriya, "The State media has not only become the trumpet of the SLFP and the JVP, but is also on a vicious mission to destroy the image of all other parties. They had stooped to the level of trying to even tarnish the reputation of Buddhist monks contesting the elections."  

Given the bleak scenario, parties like the key opposition party, the UNP, the main Tamil coalition, Tamil National Alliance and the all monks party Jathika Hela Urumaya, have asked the Election Commissioner to intervene.  

Traditionally, the law allows the Election Commissioner to take over a state media institution and appoint a competent authority to oversee its functions, in case of a gross violation of election guidelines. This week, the Election Commissioner is supposed to receive an independent report on state media behaviour during the election campaign.

But as Gunaratne stresses, "Even if he appoints one now, I wonder whether it would serve the purpose, as there are only two weeks left for the election and the damage is already done."  



In a related development, the heads of state media institutions television, broadcasting and print - have rejected an invitation by Election Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake to meet him Friday to discuss the problem.  

This is probably because they feel the president is likely to back them.

Kumaratunga, who took over the media, defense and interior ministries from Wickremesinghe`s government in November 2003, dissolved the UNP government on February 7,2004, appointing one of her confidantes and SLFP strongman, Lakshman Kadirgamar, as media minister.

Before November last year, the Wickremesinghe government was accused of using the state media for propaganda after sweeping into power in December 2001. Kumaratunga cited this as one of the reasons for taking over the ministry.  

Ironically though, a recent study by independent media monitoring body, Freedom Polls Watch (FPW), shows the private media is no better than its state counterpart. According to the survey, almost all private radio and TV stations are biased in favour of the UNP.

For instance, between February 9 and March 9, the pro-UNP Sirasa TV devoted 41 minutes of its daily 7 pm news bulletin to UNP news, leaving only 19 minutes for news related to the SLFP-led alliance.  

Similarly, the TNL television owned by Wickremesinghe`s brother gave only 14 minutes to news on the SLFP-led alliance in its 6.55 pm daily news bulletin. On the other hand, the UNP got 44 minutes of prime time news.  

Even the comparitively independent TV channel, Swarnavahini, accorded 61 minutes of its popular 8 pm daily news bulletin "Live at Eight" to the UNP as compared to 32 minutes to the SLFP led-alliance.  

Remarks the convener of FPW President`s counsel M.M. Zuhair, "Everybody is preoccupied with allegations against the state media, while almost all private media institutions maintain a strong UNP bias."  

Agrees Kumaratunga`s media director Janadasa Peiris, "The concept of monitoring state media during elections was first introduced in 1960 when there were no private broadcasting or TV stations. But now we have several private electronic media institutions which do whatever they want. " He recommends that, "The solution is to give the state media the same freedom."  

As political parties and guerrillas battle it out, the media seems caught in the crossfire with no escape route visible.








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