On the eve of 2 April 2004 legislative elections, Reporters Without Borders has recorded a series of physical attacks and threats against journalists and fears a further deterioration of the situation in the run-up to polling.
The international press freedom organisation has appealed to candidates to see that such violence and threats against the press are stamped out.
It pointed out that several journalists were killed or assaulted during the last legislative elections. One of these was a journalist in Jaffna, Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan, murdered in October 2000. It urged all political parties and armed groups, in particular the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), to guarantee the safety of journalists covering the elections.
Violence against the press
A grenade was thrown, injuring a guard and damaging several vehicles, against the Colombo home of Raynor Silva, managing director of Asian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on 28 March. It was probably intended to intimidate the director who has had to defend his five FM stations from hostility on the part of the media minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. Last February the minister informed ABC its terrestrial TV licence had been cancelled.
Police raided the premises of the newspaper The Sunday Leader, in Colombo on 28 March. Its publisher Lasantha Wikramatunga, said they did not have a search warrant and believed that the illegal search was part of ongoing government harassment against the weekly, which is known for its investigative reporting.
Wimal Weerawansa, head of propaganda for the People’s Lberation Front (JVP - nationalist and Marxist party allied to President Chandrika Kumaratunga), made telephone threats on 10 March to Siri Ranasingha, editor in chief of the Sinhala-language newspaper Lankadeepa. The threats were prompted by the fact that the newspaper had carried advertising from another political party that had questioned his reputation. The head of the JVP apologised.
The journalists’ organisation FMM said another newspaper boss, Dinesh Vihagun Fernando of the weekly Laknada had been threatened with reprisals by armed men.
A crew from Young Asia Television was attacked on 2 March a rally by the extremist Buddhist party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in Kandy, central Sri Lanka. The crew were carrying out interviews in the crowd when JHU members surrounded and attacked them. They seized and destroyed their tapes and a woman member of the crew was targeted when the JHU members discovered she was a Christian. Supporters of JHU manhandled two cameramen from a privately-owned TV network during a meeting at Panadura in February.
Political Interference in public and privately-owned media
Once again, coverage of the electoral campaign by the public and privately-owned media has not been fair and balanced. The public media, under the control of President Chandrika Kumaratunga since her declaration of a state of emergency in November 2003, has largely carried the policies of her party and those of political allies.
In a bid to end this abusive use of state media, the independent electoral commission took control of public television and radio on 29 March 2004, under Article 27 of the 17th amendment to the Constitution. Retired high-ranking official Lakshman Perera was named as the head of public broadcast media. He said he would also control the government written press until the declaration of election results.
Reporters Without Borders welcomes this decision that sets a significant precedent in Asia for the respect of the independence of publicly-owned media during elections.
According to the main journalists’ organisation FMM, "the state media has not only become the trumpet of the SLFP and the JVP (coalition parties in the alliance headed by Chandrika Kumaratunga), but is also on a vicious mission to destroy the image of the other parties."
On 18 March, Laskman Gunasekara, editor in chief of the state weekly Sunday Observer, was suspended from editorial responsibility apparently because of his support for the independence of the media at election time.
Journalist Asif Hussein had earlier, on 11 March, been sacked by the weekly for "causing irreparable harm to the company’s reputation by offending the feelings of the world community of Buddhists." In January 2003, he published a polemical article on the relic of the Buddha’s tooth preserved in Sri Lanka. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the head of a public radio station in south-eastern Uva province was removed from his post by the authorities. The journalists protested against his political interference.
Harim Peiris, head of television named by the president, termed the decision of electoral commission as regrettable and unexpected. "At no time has the head of the commission been able to point to a precise violation of the code of conduct", he told the press.
This supporter of the head of state questioned the credibility of the electoral commission which, he said, has not imposed the code of conduct on the privately-owned media, who support the party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremensinghe. People close to the head of government in fact run several private media.
The free elections observatory (FPW) revealed that from 9 February to 9 March, the privately-owned media had been overwhelmingly favourable to the prime minister’s party. Private network Sirasa TV gavel 41 minutes coverage in its evening news bulletin at 7pm to the activities of the UNP and only 19 minutes to parties backing the president. This biased coverage is replicated in the news programmes of the channel TNL, which is owned by the prime minister’s brother.
Reporters Without Borders has called on the independent electoral commission to challenge the private media proprietors to explain the advantages given to the party of Ranil Wickreminsinghe.
Incitement to hatred in the media
Reporters Without Borders deeply regrets that some privately-owned media have been using hate speech towards religious and ethnic minorities.
The organisation has found remarks that could incite hatred carried in some Sinhala publications. The minutes of meetings of the extremist Buddhist Party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) are often carried by newspapers without proper controls when they contain racist attacks against Tamils and Muslims. The daily Lankadeepa regularly carries speeches of JHU candidates hostile to the Tamils.
These verbal abuses can also be found between two Tamil factions who are in opposition to one another since the withdrawal last March of the guerrilla leader Karuna from the LTTE. One journalist said recently, "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 to Karuna, we might not survive." No journalist has been directly targeted in this struggle between Tamil factions, but the murder in eastern Batticaloa of a Tamil candidate favourable to Karuna can only be a bad omen.
Aginst this background of political and community tensions, Reporters Without Borders is calling on the media not to incite vioIence and racism.