Sri Lanka has just elected its 13th parliament and people are breathing a collective sigh of relief that the polls were relatively free of violence (‘only’ five political murders). But the dust never settles. The debate over the country’s state-controlled media is still a hot issue. The manipulation of the media here has been in the spotlight ever since last November, when the eventual election winner Chandrika Kumaratunga, then in opposition (though she was President) used her powers to take over the media ministry.
This provoked an unprecedented discussion about political influence and meddling. For as far back as anyone can remember, the state-controlled media have been commandeered by successive governments for their own propaganda purposes. At least two generations have grown up simply taking this for granted. Despite some private ownership the state media’s influence remains considerable. There are still lots of people for whom the ‘day is not complete’ until they have read their Daily News or Sunday Observer. This despite front pages that read like government press releases.
Allegations of bias resulted in the Elections Commissioner appointing a Competent Authority to run these institutions until the conclusion of the election. After a Sri Lankan government falls, the first heads to roll are those of the state-controlled Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (television), the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and the Associated Newspapers of Sri Lanka (ANCL).
At the time of writing, the editor of the Sunday Observer remains ‘temporarily relieved of his editorial responsibilities’. The management’s order came a week after a journalist who offended religious sensibilities was also dismissed. Both cases are being challenged by the International Federation of Journalists.
Every few years, elections visit trauma on the state media staff of some 3,000 workers, leaving them unsure who will be there next day. One can only guess at the harm done to the wider society by the manipulation of media content to suit the needs of those in power.Lasanda Kurukulasuriy
*For more about Sri Lanka’s recent election, read Making Waves on the Nonviolent Peaceforce.