Saturday, January 02, 2010

"I’ll show who killed the journalists" says General Fonseka

By Yohan Perera - General Sarath Fonseka said yesterday that he would hold inquiries and arrest those who had been behind the killings and assaults of journalists, within 24 hours of assuming office if elected president.

“Some say I killed journalists and harassed them but I will show who is behind those acts and put them behind bars within 24 hours of coming to power,” he said.

General Fonseka made the pledge when he met employees of State media at his office in Colombo yesterday.

He also pledged to depoliticize the State media and make them independent if he came to power.

"I’ll show who killed"

Countering the allegation that he would create a military government he said it was the ruling party which is trying to create such a government. He said there were 24 officers of the army who had been given government appointments and four Major Generals slated to contest the General Elections under UPFA ticket.

Recalling how he disciplined the army he said he ordered inquiries on two senior officers who were found trying to enjoy physical pleasure in an illegitimate manner.

Gen. Fonseka also admitted that some ex-army personal were supporting him and are working at his office. General Fonseka made this point when he addressed the district organizers of the SLFP (M) earlier yesterday.

He said some of this ex officers were arrested shortly just for supporting him.

He said the corruption that is taking place in the country today is like a garbage mountain. He indicated that it was a horrendous task to eradicate this corruption.

“There is no place to dump this garbage,” he said.

Coming up with some details of his campaign he said he had invited SLFP (M) leader to become his campaign manger but Mr. Samaraweera had not accepted this invitation. However he said he is happy that Mr. Samaraweera is playing a role in the campaign.

© Daily Mirror

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

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

by Dilrukshi Handunnetti - 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.


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Saturday, January 02, 2010

169 complaints received by Police Election Secretariat

The Police Election Secretariat has so far received 169 complaints according to Chief of the Police Election Secretariat Senior DIG Gamini Navaratne.

Of the complaints, 95% are reported to be minor complaints, some involving drunken supporters.

DIG Navaratne’s comments follow allegations by UNP Ampara district organizer Daya Gamage that election violence is on the rise and opposition UNP and JVP activists have been harassed and their party offices subject to attacks.

DIG Navaratne however stated that vehicle checks are to be stepped up and that more measures will be taken to tighten security as elections draw closer.

© Daily Mirror

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

SL presidential contender woos Tamil voters

Sri Lanka's former military chief Sarath Fonseka took his presidential campaign on Saturday to the ethnic heartland of the Tamil Tiger rebellion he helped crush last year.

The retired four-star general, who is seen as the main challenger to President Mahinda Rajapakse in polls slated for January 26, visited the northern region of Jaffna, where he toured a historic Hindu temple and addressed a rally.

Fonseka, 58, was also due to meet the influential Roman Catholic Bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Savundranayagam, a spokesman for his office said.

In an interview with an Indian television network on Friday, Fonseka had warned that Rajapakse was out to rig the election and said he feared a violent campaign.

"You can see the election is going to be a very violent election and we want every friendly country to put pressure on the president to ensure democracy is established," he told the NewsX network.

Both Fonseka and Rajapakse are from Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community and appeal largely to their own ethnic group. Both claim credit for the final defeat of the Tiger rebels in May, which ended a decades-old ethnic conflict.

The possibility that they might split the Sinhalese vote has added weight to the intentions of the Tamil electorate and officials said Rajapakse, 64, was expected to visit Jaffna later this month.

The defence ministry effectively blocked independent journalists travelling to Jaffna, even though the authorities had announced last month that travel restrictions had been withdrawn.

Rajapakse called the early January poll in a bid to capitalise on the victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who had launched their campaign for a Tamil homeland from Jaffna in 1972.

Fonseka and Rajapakse have been at loggerheads since the end of the conflict. Fonseka quit after accusing the government of sidelining him and falsely suspecting him of trying to stage a coup.

© Hidustan Times

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Sri Lanka President accused of misusing state funds for election campaign

Click here to read the full report by the Transparency International

The global corruption watchdog Transparency International has accused the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on misusing state funds and properties to campaign for his 2010 reelection bid.

Issuing its first report today the Programme for the Protection of Public Resources of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) criticized the President for using state property and public funds for the campaign activities and urged the public to raise their voice against such abuses.

The report evaluating the non compliance with the guidelines introduced by the Elections Commissioner for the election campaigns say the government is using the armed forces, police and public servants to campaign for the ruling party in the forth coming polls on January 26.

Sri Lanka's election law prohibits the use of state property or public servants for the benefit of candidates.

"The abuse of public resources at elections seems to be a continuing activity in every election in Sri Lanka. The trend seems even more ominous at the current presidential election," TISL said in its report.

Continually violating the election laws the hoardings, cutouts and other election related materials continue to be displayed in public places irrespective of the guidelines to the IGP by the Commissioner of Election to remove such materials.

The TISL report highlighted several instances where some key officials of few public media institutions are concurrently holding political party positions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party violating election laws.

The report accused the President of holding functions at the Temple Trees to entertain various groups.

"At these events, most of the participants were transported to the venue at State expense and were provided with food and in some instances, even with liquor. The President justified such entertainment events where the cost was borne with the public money as a 'normal cultural practice'," the report said.

The President is facing a fierce competition from his former Army commander General Sarath Fonseka and 20 other at the January polls.

The Sri Lanka branch of the Berlin-based watchdog cited the misuse of funds by the youth organization 'Tharunyata Hetak' led by President's son Namal Rajapaksa.

The youth organisation is reportedly receiving high contributions (by way of sponsorships) from several public institutions such as Bank of Ceylon and National Lotteries Board, both of which fall under the purview of the President, the report pointed out.

The organization has spent over 84 million rupees for advertisements to support the President's campaign, it said. In addition 5.84 million rupees has been spent on radio advertisements.

Given the gravity of such abuses and its impact on the country particularly on its democratic values, the watchdog urged a public outcry to condemn and call upon law enforcement authorities to deal with those powerful persons who abuse public finance for personal gain at elections.

© Colombo Page

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

'Many civilians killed' in Sri Lanka's war : Senior opposition politician

Many civilians, including those tried to surrender, have been killed during the last phase of the conflict in Sri Lanka, a recently defected senior opposition politician has claimed.

SB Dissanayake, the former national organiser of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) accused the main opposition candidate of betraying the armed forces.

In an interview with Sunday Leader newspaper, Gen (retd.) Sarath Fonseka has reportedly accused the defence secretary of ordering the armed forces to shoot senior LTTE leaders who tried to surrender at the last stages of war.

With white flags

Denying the comments, Gen Fonseka has sent a letter of demand to the newspaper seeking Rs. 500 million as damage.

Addressing the journalists on Friday, SB Dissanayake who recently defected to President Rajapaksa's campaign said nearly 200 LTTE cadres have tried to surrender "with white flags" at the last stages.

But the security forces have retaliated as the LTTE cadres have started firing, he said.

"Many civilians might have been killed" in the carnage, he said, and 17 soldiers also lost their lives.

© BBC Sinhala

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Policeman involved in youth's drowning in Sri Lanka dies

A policeman directly involved in an attack that led to the drowning of a youth in the sea off Bambalapitiya died today after falling ill while in remand custody.

According to the Prisons Commissioner V.R. De Silva, the suspect, police Sergeant Dimuthu Somnas fell ill this morning and was admitted to the hospital.

The suspect who was attached to the Bambalapitiya police surrendered to the Bambalapitiya police on October 30th for his part in the attack on a mentally disabled youth Balawarnam Sivakumar (26) in the sea.

The youth drowned trying to fend off the attack that was caught on live TV and his body was washed ashore the following day.

Four suspects allegedly involved in the forced drowning on October 29 were arrested and remanded by the Colombo Fort Magistrate Gihan Pilapitiya on December 18.

The other three suspects are sub inspector H.M. Wirendra Weerawardena, Nishantha Samarasinghe and Pathiranage Raja.

© Colombo Page

Related Links:
The Police `forced` a mentally retarded man to drown in Colombo - JDS

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