Colombo, Elections, Media and Communications, Politics and Governance, Post-War

A bitter feud and an ugly media spectacle in the lead up to Presidential elections

This presidential election is unlike any other.  There are no manifestos published yet to augment a healthy political debate and policies do not appear to concern the two main candidates.

At this moment, the citizenry would have preferred to hear from the chief contenders their formulae for nation building post war. Yet, what we find is both candidates, President Mahinda Rajapakse and the opposition common candidate, General (Retd) Sarath Fonseka harping on two topics. Firstly, on who can justly claim credit for the war victory and secondly, whether The Sunday Leader’s recent story on alleged war crimes is true or not.

The presidential poll is being held two years ahead of schedule, and that too for a reason. The incumbent’s wish was to skillfully capitalize on the military defeat of the LTTE. What he did not bargain for was the former Army Commander Fonseka’s political aspirations that led him to a quick entry into the presidential race.

Enduring diatribe
Instead of campaigns that address public concerns, people are now compelled to endure the diatribes of the two main contenders. Each camp heaps blame on the other, devaluing their joint military achievement. As for the voters who finance this expensive presidential race, it is nothing but Hobson’s choice.

Rajapakse and Fonseka just months ago were partners in a military effort to end the protracted conflict. As they place themselves far apart in a bitter political battle, the liberal exchanges offer voters sufficient reason to be angry, to find cheap entertainment or perhaps both.

With the announcement of a presidential election, the voters had the opportunity to witness another political drama, this time, involving the slain Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.  The government demonstrated a frenzied desire  (after months of pathetic failure to achieve any results in the ongoing or slow going investigations into the murder) to secure speedy justice for Wickrematunge while Fonseka too did his part, promising media freedom under his stewardship and famously visiting Wickrematunge’s grave and placing a floral tribute.

But in the circus that followed complete with mudslinging, the voters had few conclusions to draw. It may be fair to assume both candidates know much more than willing to publicly admit on the murder of the controversial editor. They have simply opened a can of worms and as the weeks go by, more worms are sure to spill out.

Patriotism contest

For impartial observers, the political campaigns are replete with calls to identify the ‘true patriot’ in this race.  In seeking to paint the other black, the two presidential hopefuls have effectively reduced the campaign to one that seeks to selfishly claim credit for the war victory to the exclusion of burning issues affecting the public, the men and women whose votes they hope to garner by January 26.

It seems that both contenders prefer to speak of a glorious victory as opposed to meaningful ideas for our future development. The fact is that both the political and military leadership were required to win the war. Both these men together with thousands of others in the armed forces and the police have played their part. Sri Lanka would not take it away from them. Yet, it is a tragedy to find both men seeking to build their platform on the war victory.

If one were to analyse, issues like the cost of living, economic downturn, the displaced, the retrenchment, education issues, rehabilitation and the development hardly figure. Can claims of patriotism and efforts to patent the war victory be the answer to the post war challenges of a society in transition?

The country has nearly a quarter million people living in camps for the displaced. An election monitoring organization has estimated that nearly a 100,000 displaced may not be able to vote this January.  While there are frenzied attempts to resettle them prior to the conduct of the poll with the intention of securing their votes, is the government prioritizing the other concerns of the displaced?

Political leadership vacuum

If that be the case, Sri Lanka must also acknowledge another malaise, one that goes far deeper than the superficiality of the current presidential campaign.

The decision to hold the presidential poll two years ahead of schedule was based on a political calculation. It offers an unparalleled opportunity for the incumbent whose regime saw the end to LTTE militancy. Two years later, this victory would be a distant memory for most voters.

The common opposition candidate Gen (Retd) Sarath  Fonseka is no star, though a war winning general.  Despite his entry into mainstream politics, again using the war effort as a key campaign slogan, he does not enjoy the popularity enjoyed by the likes of Lucky Algama, Janaka Perera, Wijeya Wimalaratne or Denzil Kobbekaduwa.

Platform of strange bedfellows
But for the United National Party (UNP), the main opposition party, Fonseka’s desire to run for presidency was a welcome development.  The UNP has a history of some 15 stinging political defeats barring the 2002 general election and the local elections that followed.  The party also lacks a charismatic leader who could lead a presidential a campaign that caused party cadres to agitate for ‘change’.

The same applies to the emasculated Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).  Smarting from the defections staged by the group led by Wimal Weerawansa, this election affords an opportunity for the JVP to show some strategic strength.  Given the leadership vacuum in both the main parties, SLFP Mahajana Wing leader Mangala Samaraweera has managed to bring strange bedfellows together to create a platform for the retired general.

In effect, Fonseka’s entry has caused some ripples and much disconcert in the government camp that prepared for a one-horse race, assuming Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe was to be the likely opponent.

Two weeks since the race began, President Rajapakse’s campaign theme is “Promised and Delivered”, one that aims at ending poverty.  Fonseka’s campaign is to end corruption and nepotism with a larger commitment to abolish the executive presidency.

Seeking to mobilize public support through the media, both candidates are now indulging journalists with free meals.  While the President has virtually converted Temple Trees to a veritable free meal restaurant at the tax payer’s expense, Fonseka too has not shied away from five-star entertaining.

Media conduct
Upon broad analysis, both candidates are by no means well-wishers of free expression, a hard fact the proponents of free expression should bear in mind.

Journalists are also voters, and like all other citizens, enjoy a right to hold and express political opinion. But given the divisions and politically motivated professional practice, it is the politicians who reap benefits of this disunity.

In Sri Lanka, dissenting journalists often have bitter ends as the past few years bear gruesome testimony. Others suffer in the court of public opinion.

The two main contenders now demonstrating their election time love of journalists, a tribe politicians share a complex relationship with and an industry they prefer to control than help liberalize. Despite the absence of manifestos, Rajapakse and Fonseka are competing with each other with pledges to create a free media culture.

As the political heat generated by the two intensify, President Mahinda Rajapakse publicly observed that since Fonseka’s exit from the government camp, there were no recorded incidents of violence perpetrated against journalists. The insinuation was unmistakable.

If the government’s credentials in safeguarding free expression are in want, Fonseka though no politician until recently has a past that does not inspire confidence.  He first paid a glowing tribute to journalists for performing a thankless task for the betterment of society and for risking their lives for their vocation. He has already gone on record having said that he had no animosity towards Lasantha Wickrematunge but only had a difference in opinion with regard to the newspaper’s view on the conduct of the war.

Earlier on, as much as Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse poured scorn on Wickrematunge and others with dissenting opinion, Fonseka too did his bit. For example, in a well recorded statement he referred to such dissenters as ‘terrorist journalists”.

It is also well known that Fonseka enjoyed a hand superior to that of the Lake House newspapers’ editors when it came to the coverage of defence matters and exercised significant control over the state run editorials.  Journalists there speak of a time when certain defence correspondents ordered desk editors to publish articles and photographs at the behest of the former commander.

In another instance, a journalist paid the price for a controversial and derogatory reference the former army commander made to protesting South Indian politicians and activists during the final phase of the Eelam War IV. To avoid a possible diplomatic row over the irresponsible comment, the newspaper editor was removed from his post.

Media freedom pledged
Today, the same Fonseka promises to introduce a Freedom of Information Act, a parliamentary bill to ensure safety to journalists, to end the culture of impunity and strengthen the media.

If Fonseka’s conduct is uninspiring, the president and his own coterie’s conduct would be more scarlet in comparison.

This government has the rare honour of having ministers who barge into media houses or order the assault of journalists on duty in their electorates, those who telephone editors and threaten to kill them, unleash hate speech against institutions and individuals and placing their lives of journalists at grave peril.

During Mahinda Rajapakse’s term as the chief executive, the onetime darling of the media, Sri Lanka recorded an all time low in media freedom indices.  Some 11 journalists have been killed, 27 assaulted and seven abducted since January 2006.  Scores have fled the island fearing for their lives.

If that’s what is on offer by way of political choice, the citizenry have to also deal with a nauseating media culture to boot, with some exceptions.

State media role

The state media institutions, maintained with the tax payers’ money have been effortlessly converted into propaganda machines. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) coverage of the nominations day was so biased that the UPFA candidate was introduced as the ‘heroic man who unified the nation, the true patriot’.  The announcers shied away from introducing all other candidates as they handed their nomination papers.

The above is an indicator of a deeply entrenched problem. The fact is that journalists are more polarized than politicians. At least, politicians have binding and permanent interests. But journalists are a divided community, now further fragmented by political and commercial interests.

This defect of the ‘watchdogs tribe’ has led to the journalists’ inability to safeguard the industry’s common interests. The Sri Lankan reality is that if a journalist is attacked, a dozen other journalists would willingly justify such violence or label him/her as a ‘terrorist’.

This fragmentation has rendered it impossible to organize journalists to achieve their professional demands as doctors, lawyers, nurses do through collective bargaining. And it fosters the politicians’ unrepentant practice of divide and rule. And every effort is made to convert the watchdogs into lapdogs, and worse still, into pet poodles.

Watchdogs to lapdogs
Journalists in Sri Lanka have professional issues that need urgent addressing.  But the space to perform an honest communicator’s job is first invaded either by the state or by the private media house owners. They have their own political biases and commercial interests.

Then there are issues that concern journalists themselves.  Most media institutions do not have in house ethics and most journalists, as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) polls prove, do not have the vaguest idea about the existing Code of Ethics for journalists. The electronic media does not have a self regulating mechanism altogether.

Polarized, divided and politically and/or commercially manipulated, journalists should apportion significant blame upon themselves for the plight they are in. it is best to remember that media freedom, utopian as the concept is, was never handed over to practitioners on a platter by politicians.

Recording some appalling media practices, we find accredited journalists unofficially assisting Fonseka’s campaign.  Those who are more brazen and in state media are openly using their media outlets to campaign for the incumbent.

Worst practices
Chairman, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) Hudson Samarasinginhe’s media conduct is a case in point. Each morning he unleashes his venom on the common opposition candidate Gen. Sarath Fonseka through his programme that is a travesty of free expression and one that defies ‘good journalistic practices’ by any standard.  Samarasinghe is a SLFP organizer for Colombo.

The Independent Television Network (ITN) too has its own example in SLFP Kurunegala electoral organizer Sudharman Radaliyagoda. He has no qualms about keeping his job as a television journalist and ‘balances’ his twin acts merely by not conducting his ‘significantly titled’ programme named ‘Thulawa’ until the conclusion of the presidential election.

It is not as if journalists before refrained from dabbling in politics and were not involved in political campaigns and strategizing. They certainly have. But often there had been some sense of decorum in playing these roles.

There were the hosanna singers for those in political power to the exclusion of other political expression. But under President Rajapakse, the conversion is complete. Today there are card carrying cadres of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) still working as journalists in violation of Chapter 32 of the Establishment Code.

The state media houses have, for decades, suffered from the incarcerating influence of party politics. But this example of politicians heading media institutions and departments is unprecedented and truly a first.

On the one hand, there are candidates whose attitude towards media is the least inspiring. On the other, there are journalists turned into politicians, preaching good practices in journalism and using public airwaves and newspapers space to propagate candidates. That indeed is a case of the devil quoting scriptures.

As for the voters, overlooked in this struggle for power, it is a time to witness a bitter feud between the two main presidential aspirants and an equally ugly media spectacle.

Be it in politics or media, did anyone say Hobson’s choice?


Dilrukshi Handunnetti is an award winning Sri Lankan journalist and a lawyer by training. A journalist for over 17 years, Dilrukshi has extensively covered the areas of politics, conflict, environment, culture, and history and gender. She has widely traveled within and outside Sri Lanka covering the ethnic conflict from a non-military perspective and written extensively on issues of good governance, graft and corruption.