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Propaganda and intimidation of critical media ensured President's victory

Sri Lankan President consolidates his power by silencing critics.
Sri Lankan President consolidates his power by silencing critics.

via AP

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidential elections on 26 January after state-owned media took an extreme partisan approach and openly favoured him with its coverage, report the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). There was widespread election-related violence with supporters of both major candidates attacking journalists, including the abduction of a political reporter, say IFEX members.

The two main presidential candidates, Rajapaksa and the leading opponent, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, have launched lawsuits against media organisations who have reported critically about them or their political parties, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In the run-up to elections, state-controlled media supported the President, ignoring a court ruling and the Commissioner of Elections, says RSF. Last week, Rupavahini and ITN TV stations gave more than 96 per cent of their news and current affairs airtime to the President and his supporters. "Alarmed by Gen. Sarath Fonseka's candidacy, President Rajapaksa and his followers are using and abusing all of the state's resources to get the president re-elected," RSF said. "The TV propaganda is deafening and the figures we are releasing today are worthy of the Burmese or North Korean regimes."

The main opposition parties were given trace amounts of media coverage and 20 or so candidates were completely ignored, says RSF. Pro-government media launched a smear campaign against the former army commander. Sirasa TV, a privately owned station, has not carried out any independent coverage since it was attacked by gunmen in January 2009. As well, the defence ministry's website, controlled by the President's brother, openly campaigned against Fonseka, says RSF. On election-day, troops surrounded the hotel where Fonseka was staying while votes were counted, say news reports. In addition, access to several independent news websites was blocked hours before election results were broadcast, reports RSF.

Other press freedom violations took place throughout the country. A busload of journalists on its way to covering an event in which Fonseka was participating on 24 January was held up for several hours by military police, reports RSF. The police recorded their names and addresses. Also, the home of an opposition leader and editor of the now-closed Sinhala-language weekly "Mawbima" was bombed on 22 January.

Media Freedom in Sri Lanka told CPJ that election-monitoring networks recorded hundreds of incidents of campaign-related violence. Journalist Thakshila Dilrukshi Jayasena, BBC's Sinhala service reporter, was attacked with clubs by government supporters on 13 January, report CPJ and IFJ. Her equipment was stolen and she was hospitalised. And freelance journalist Jude Samantha was assaulted on 16 January while covering clashes between government and opposition supporters, reports RSF. At the same time, the outspoken "Sunday Leader" newspaper office was raided by police, says RSF.

Meanwhile, cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda was abducted on 24 January, report Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), CPJ and RSF. Last week, Eknaligoda wrote a comparative analysis of the two presidential candidates, sympathetic to Fonseka, for the Lankaenews website. Recently he attempted to find a venue for a cartoon exhibit but could not because of fears of reprisals for offending the ruling party, says CRNI.

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