Flouting a 15 January supreme court ruling, state-owned TV stations Rupavahini and ITN continue to openly favour President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign to win another term in the presidential election to be held on 26 January with a total of 21 candidates taking part.
Detailed monitoring by Reporters Without Borders has established that 98.5 per cent of the news and current affairs air-time on these two stations on 18 and 19 January was given over to the president and his supporters. This violates the constitution, above all its seventh amendment and article 104 (b) empowering the electoral commission.
“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 reelected,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The TV propaganda is deafening and the figures we are releasing today are worthy of the Burmese or North Korean regimes.”
The press freedom organisation added: “We urge the supreme court and the electoral commission to use all the powers at their disposal to force Rupavahini and ITN to come to reason. This glaring media imbalance shows that the incumbent is benefiting from an advantage that is unacceptable in a democratic election.”
The Reporters Without Borders monitoring on 18 and 19 January found that, of a total of 472 minutes and 5 seconds of news and current affairs air-time on Rupavahini and ITN, Gen. Fonseka and the other opposition candidates were granted only 7 minutes and 50 seconds, or 1.6 per cent, while the president, his government and his party were granted 465 minutes and 25 seconds, in other words, nearly eight hours of air-time in just two days.
On ITN, one had to wait until the 7 p.m. Sinhalese-language news programme for coverage of opposition activity (Gen. Fonseka for 30 seconds, the UNP for 40 seconds and the JVP for 45 seconds), while President Rajapaksa got 3 minutes on the 9 a.m. programme, 2 minutes on the 10 a.m. programme, 4 minutes 45 seconds on the noon programme and 4 minutes 20 seconds on the Tamil-language programme at 6 p.m.
Rupavahini is giving the government an overwhelming air-time advantage. In the 8 p.m. Sinhalese-language news programme on 18 January, for example, the government got 8 minutes and 30 seconds and the president got 7 minutes and 10 seconds, while Gen. Fonseka, the UNP and the JVP got a combined total of just one minute. And it is deplorable that the twenty or so other candidates are totally ignored by the state media.
Granting so much time to propaganda on behalf of the incumbent is not new. On 11 January, for example, Rupavahini carried a live broadcast of President Rajapaksa’s election programme launch that lasted one hour and 15 minutes.
Even if some privately-owned media are campaigning openly for the opposition or are giving more space to the activities of all the candidates, the extremely biased coverage on the main TV stations is having an undeniable impact on the campaign. Meanwhile, Sirasa TV, a privately-owned station based in Colombo, has not resumed its independent style of coverage since it was attacked by gunmen in January 2009.
The coverage imbalance is being accompanied by a smear campaign against Gen. Fonseka, the former army commander, in certain pro-government media, prompting him to write to eight newspapers requesting apologies for articles he regards as libellous. And the website of the defence ministry, which is headed by the president’s brother, is openly campaigning against him.
Control of the state media has become crucial to the election campaign. The Commissioner of Elections has issued several reminders about the rules requiring balanced coverage and tried to introduce a Competent Authority to monitor the TV stations, but the president’s office resisted. The supreme court’s ruling has also been ignored.
The president and his allies have abused other state resources in the course of the campaign. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, for example, forced all mobile phone operators to send SMS messages signed by President Rajapaksa to all their clients, while soldiers have been seen putting up the president’s election posters.
Cases of intimidation and violence against the media have also increased. Thakshila Dilrukshi, a journalist with the BBC’s Sinhalese-language service, was hospitalised after being attacked by supporters of a minister in the central city of Polonnaruwa on 13 January. Her equipment and personal effects were stolen during the assault, which occurred after she covered a clash between Rajapaksa and Fonseka followers.
The Colombo-based Sunday Leader, outspoken weekly, was raided the same day by police bearing a warrant who claimed to have been tipped off about the printing of "defamatory" posters.
Freelance journalist Jude Samantha was assaulted while covering clashes between government and opposition supporters on 16 January in Madurankuliya, in the western district of Puttalam.
Reporters Without Borders issued an appeal for calm in early December, after the first incidents: http://www.rsf.org/Reporters-Without-Borders-calls,35277.html