Election commissioner takes over Sri Lanka 's state media ahead of vote
Mon March 29, 2004 10:49 EST .
SHIMALI SENANAYAKE - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) Sri Lanka - 's independent election commissioner took control of state-run television and radio Monday in an unprecedented move, following allegations of media bias toward the president's party ahead of Friday's parliamentary elections.
Election Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake put W.D.L. Perera, a retired civil servant, in charge of the state's broadcast media, according to a statement from the commissioner's office.
While legal, it was the first time in Sri Lankan history that the election commissioner had made such a move.
The announcement came amid an ongoing struggle for political prominence between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and just days before parliamentary elections that could help resolve that struggle.
In a November power grab, the president took control of the media ministry from the prime minister, and announced snap polls three months later.
Since then, Wickremesinghe's party has accused state media of giving favorable coverage to Kumaratunga.
While the commission did not specifically accuse state media of backing the president, the move was appeared aimed at ensuring less broadcast bias toward Kumaratunga.
``Letters will be sent out to the state media shortly drawing their attention to ensure unbiased reporting,'' Perera told The Associated Press from his office at the Election Secretariat. Perera has held several positions including assistant election commissioner.
The statement announced Perera will oversee state media until the conclusion of the election, but he said his term was likely ``to spill over for a few days until the results were out.''
Kumaratunga's party, meanwhile, has accused the premier of manipulating private stations.
Sri Lankan law bars the manipulation of state media for election propaganda.
``The media should take a very responsible role and we will be spell out the laws saying this,'' Perera said, adding that private stations will also be reminded of the laws.
Supporters of the prime minister have alleged that state media would be used to support Kumaratunga's Freedom Alliance in Friday's voting.
A day before the 1999 presidential election, state-run media televised a weeping Kumaratunga who had just survived a rebel assassination attempt in an apparent attempt to garner votes. Kumaratunga narrowly emerged victorious in an election that analysts had expected Wickremesinghe to win.
The independent Free Media Movement welcomed the commission's move.
Sunanda Deshapriya, spokesman for the movement, said 80 percent of air time on state media had been used in support of the president's party. ``There has been no diversity in their reportage,'' he said.
However, Harim Peiris, the chief of state television, condemned the takeover as ``quite regrettable.''
``This move came as a complete surprise. Not once has the commissioner been able to intimate a specific violation of his guidelines,'' Peiris said.
State media officials filed petitions with the Supreme Court challenging the guidelines, arguing they violate free speech. The court is set to take up the issue Tuesday.
Kumaratunga ordered the elections more than three years ahead of schedule amid her feud with Wickremesinghe, whom she accuses of being too soft on Tamil Tiger rebels.
A cease-fire in February 2002 between the government and the Tigers halted two decades of fighting, which had killed nearly 65,000 people. But a recent split in rebel ranks has raised the prospect of renewed violence.
More than 6,000 candidates from 24 political parties and 192 independent groups will be contesting the election, the highest number of candidates ever in this island nation. At stake are 225 seats, 196 of them elected directly and 29 chosen from party lists based on the party's percentage of the vote.
Published: Mon Mar 29 11:24:25 EST 2004