Sri Lanka: Propaganda, intimidation and voter rights of IDPs denied in presidential election

Reporters Without Borders/Centre for Monitoring Election Violence

26 January 2010: Tension surrounds today’s presidential election, especially for the press, which has had to face many obstacles. Use of the state media to support President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign for another term has been accompanied by harassment and violence against privately-owned opposition media, culminating in the 24 January abduction of political reporter Prageeth Eknaligoda. Reporters Without Borders appeals to both sides to make every effort to avoid an Iran-style scenario in which the challenging of a questionable election result leads to a cycle of demonstrations and repression in which the press would clearly be one of the victims.

Monitoring of state TV stations Rupavahini and ITN by Reporters Without Borders shows they have been abused by the president and his aides to a rarely-seen degree to promote his campaign.

More than 96.7 per cent of the 1,539 minutes (about 25 hours) of news programmes monitored on these two stations was given over to the activities of the incumbent and his followers. Less than 3.3 per cent was accorded to the opposition, including Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the leading opposition candidate. The two stations were monitored for the seven days ending 24 January.

Rupavahini and ITN were mobilised during this period – and even after the official end of the campaign – with the aim of eclipsing Gen. Fonseka’s campaign. On 24 January, for example, two days before the poll, both stations carried a two-hour live broadcast of a religious ceremony in which President Rajapaksa was participating.

Although a crucial day, the opposition got no air-time at all on 24 January, while the president and his supporters got a total of 47 minutes and 45 seconds on Rupavahini and 101 minutes and 45 seconds on ITN. During ITN’s 6 p.m. Tamil-language news programme, for example, the president and his political allies, especially his Tamil allies, got 13 minutes and 10 seconds while the opposition, which is backed by the Tamil National Alliance, was totally ignored.

ITN’s Sinahalese-language news programme at 7 p.m. accorded 4 minutes and 50 seconds to the president and 6 minutes and 10 seconds to his government while completing ignoring the 20 other candidates.

“Such an imbalance in the coverage of the candidates seriously undermines the democratic credibility of this presidential election, the first since the end of the civil war,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It was hoped the government would do better than this, but it failed to resist the temptation of exploiting the state media. We urge the international community, especially the electoral observation missions, to clearly denounce these abuses in their reports.”

Although security concerns may be valid, Reporters Without Borders is astonished that the government has declared the Rupavahini and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation buildings “high security areas” on election day and the day after. Gen. Devapriya Abeysinghe, SLBC’s associated director, has obtained full government powers and has requisitioned a limited number of employees for the two days.

Reporters Without Borders has learned of several incidents in addition to journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda’s abduction ( The Criminal Investigation Department, for example, asked for warrants to search the headquarters of Wijeya Newspapers, publishing the Daily Mirror, on the grounds that the company had printed “defamatory” posters and other material. A Colombo court rejected the request yesterday.

A bus carrying journalists to cover an event in which Gen. Fonseka was participating on 24 January was blocked for several hours by military police at Kiribathgoda (near Colombo). The police took down their names and addresses.

The Colombo home of Tiran Alles, a leading opposition member and editor of the now-closed Sinhalese-language weekly Mawbima, was bombed on 22 January. In June 2007, after being accused by President Rajapaksa and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of being a Tamil Tiger spokesman, Alles was detained for two weeks. Mawbima, which at the time was one of the country’s few critical publications, was forced to close due to economic pressure.

Finally, in the northern city of Jaffna, a newspaper editor speaking on condition of anonymity told Reporters Without Borders that the pressure has increased there, especially from pro-Rajapaksa groups. Government minister Dougla Devananda told a political meeting that all Jaffna was under his control “except Uthayan,” referring to a Tamil newspaper that has repeatedly been the target of violence in the past. Uthayan’s police protection was withdrawn for several hours on 22 January for unexplained reasons.

Four people have been killed in the course of more than 300 serious incidents of electoral violence in Sri Lanka since December.

Centre for Monitoring Election Violence

Monitoring election violence in Sri Lanka

CMEV Briefing: Inability of Authorities to Address the Voter Rights of IDPs and Others in the North

26 January 2010: CMEV was informed that approximately 24,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) presently living in government run camps and with host families were also registered on the 2008 electoral register. Out of this number, 16,000 IDPs applied to cast their vote within the Vavuniya district while 8,000 were eligible to cast their vote in areas such as the Killinochchi district at today’s Presidential election. CMEV was informed by the Government Agent (GA) Vavuniya that 55% of IDPs in Vavuniya were able to cast their vote with only 8.3% voting in Mullaitivu district. CMEV was also informed by the authorities in Jaffna that there was a turnout of 22% in the Jaffna district and 3.5% in Killinochchi.

CMEV in its Election Day Media Comminque No 3 raised problems faced in the north and especially those faced by IDPs with regard to voting, including insufficient identity documents and the authorities failing to organise transport for them to travel to other areas to cast their vote. CMEV further notes that concerns of IDPs and returnees toregarding the exercise of the franchise were raised with the Election Commissioner and other government officials earlier and proposals presented to them to address these concerns.

CMEV raises continuing concerns regarding the exercise of the franchise by IDPs. These are listed below.

  1. CMEV was informed that hundreds of IDPs were unable to cast their vote in Killinochchi as a direct result of inefficient transport arrangements. For example, in Arunuchalam and Ramanathan camps 300 IDPs waited from 6am till 1pm for buses to arrive to transport them to Killinochchi to vote. The buses only reached the camps at 1.30pm and the IDPs were transported to Killinochchi at 3.55pm, allowing them only 5 minutes to vote. Unfortunately these 300 IDPs were not allowed to vote on the grounds that the polls had closed. CMEV has been informed that they have no way of returning to the camps in Vavuniya and are presently stranded in Killinochchi without accomodation. This is only one case which illustrates the problems faced by IDPs living in Vavuniya with a vote in Killinochchi.
  2. CMEV was also informed that IDPs who were promised transport by the authorities faced several difficulties in travelling to the cluster centres in the Vanni. At the present moment there still remain restrictions on freedom of movement of IDPs which have been previously challenged by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a constituent member of CMEV. CMEV was informed that IDPs were issued tokens for transport on election day on the 25th night and early 26th morning. At around 4am on the 26th, IDPs were informed through the public address system that they were required to be present sharp at 6am at a specific location to board the buses provided by the authorities. As a result all those who were eligible to travel gathered at 6am to board the bus but were kept waiting for several hours with no information as to what arrangements had been made. Only at 10am did the first few buses arrive to transport IDPs to cluster centres. The second contingent of busses arrived around 1.30pm. During the time period between the first contingent of buses and the second, there was no information given to IDPs regarding voting procedures.
  3. CMEV monitors further reported that IDPs who were travelling to Killinochchi were stopped at the Omanthai check point and checked by military which further delayed their travel. This checking seems unnecessary when IDPs had left government camps where they are regularly checked. They should have been directly transported to the polling centres so that they could vote without delay.
  4. There were several cases where IDPs who are presently in camps with a vote in Vavuniya had no public transport to polling centres and as a result had to walk a distance of around 7km. This is an issue that could have been dealt with previously and steps taken to ensure that all IDPs who needed transport were provided with it. CMEV was informed that as a result of not having adequate public transport, many turned back and did not cast their vote.
  5. Further and this is pertinent in the above cited case, IDPs have expresed fear of repercussions if they could not show proof of having voted after having left camps in order to do so, such as the indelible ink mark on the fingers of all those who have.
  6. CMEV received reports that several residing in Jaffna with a vote in Killinochchi were unable to vote. This was mainly due to insufficient transport arrangements for IDPs and those having returned to Jaffna being unable to travel to cluster centres to cast their vote.  CMEV has been unable to obtain the exact figure of the numbers involved in this regard.

Upon receiving the above complaints, CMEV contacted the GA Vavuniya and Killinochchi. According to the GA of Vavuniya, 70 buses to transport IDP voters and 40 buses to transport IDPs within Vavuniya as well as 30 to other areas were deployed respectively. The GA Killinochchi stated that efforts had been coordinated with officials in Vavuniya and Jaffna to transport voters. Authorities in Jaffna also confirmed that arrangements had been organised. Though these measures may have been taken, CMEV notes that many were disenfranchised as a result of delays and shortcomings.

Those affected and displaced by the conflict and presently living with host families and in camps and those returned to areas in the North and East need special attention. This has been continuously raised by CMEV and its constituent members. Today’s effective disenfranchisement of several hundred of those most affected by the conflict needs immediate attention.

CMEV also raises concern about the security situation in several parts of the North where explosions took place in the course of election day which impacted voter turnout. The deterrent effects of the resulting fear on voter turnout and the inability of many to cast their vote, has compromised the integrity of the electoral process in the north.  It is especially regrettable given the imperatives of reconciliation and national unity in this our first post war election.  We strongly urge the Election Commissioner to take the necessary steps to prevent this from occuring in the forthcoming General Election and stop short of calling for a repoll of the north in this presidential election because we are not in possession of the exact figure of effective disenfranchisement.