Rivals take campaigns out into cyberspace

As battle hots up, the President and General Fonseka go online with their election websites. Chandani Kirinde reports

This week marks the first full week of campaigning by the two main contenders for the upcoming presidential election. Over the past few days, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and General (Rtd.) Sarath Fonseka have addressed a slew of public rallies across the country, and they have also taken their campaigns into cyberspace with the launch of their official websites for the 2010 poll.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s website, under the banner “Promised, Delivered”, went online on Thursday morning, while General (Rtd.) Fonseka’s website, bearing the slogan “Let’s do it for the country”, went online on Thursday evening.

The President hosted various representative groups at his official residence, Temple Trees. He told one group of guests, comprising principals and teachers from schools in the Central Province, that the government made sure that funds were always available for the country’s development even while it was fighting the economically draining war against the LTTE.

Meanwhile, common Opposition candidate General (Rtd) Fonseka wooed both the public and the media at various events over the past week. Besides presiding at several public rallies, the former Army Commander hosted some 100 media persons to dinner at a star-class hotel in the city.

Known for his averseness to journalists when he was in uniform, the former military strongman projected a very cordial disposition to his media guests.

He promised that if he was elected President, he would investigate all aggressive attacks on journalists over the past few years, and give media personnel a better work environment.

The media was also much on the mind of Elections Commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, last week. Responding to calls from opposition political parties, election monitoring groups and religious leaders, the Elections Commissioner issued a gazette notification asking government officials, commanders of the armed forces and others holding public office not to engage in discussions via the media that would favour any single candidate in the upcoming poll.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa launches his election website, titled “Promised, Delivered”.
General Fonseka at the Colombo launch of his election website. Pic. by J. Weerasekara

Asked how these new regulations would be enforced, an Elections Department official said those to whom the rules applied would be expected to abide by the rules. “We have written to all media institutions and heads of government institutions. So far, not one has acknowledged our communication,” the official added.

Responding to comments that the state media was heavily biased in favour of the ruling party candidate, Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene said state-run media institutions and newspapers were expected to highlight developing news, and naturally much of the coverage would focus on the ruling party. “We are also monitoring the private television stations, and we note that many times these are heavily biased in favour of the Opposition candidate,” he said.

The Minister pointed out that the state media had been shut out from meetings and press conferences convened by General Fonseka. “Rupahavinia and ITN personnel have been attacked for trying to cover these events,” he said. “They are not allowed into venues where Opposition meetings are held.”
Under the Constitution, the Elections Commissioner may appoint an independent authority to ensure fair media coverage during an election. But no steps have been taken so far to set up such an authority, an Elections Department official said.

The Elections Commissioner said private media institutions have been biased in their coverage.
“I am expected to enforce certain controls on the state-owned media and issue guidelines only to the private media,” the Elections Commissioner said recently, adding that some media institutions had been behaving in the “most despicable manner”.

Meanwhile, the fact that state sector employees are helping out in election campaign work has given rise to criticisms. Hundreds of health sector employees, some of them recently appointed, have been asked to engage in election work.

Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), the local body of the independent worldwide anti-corruption organisation, has invited the public to report instances of misuse of public resources.

This includes the misuse of government buildings and other services, government vehicles, helicopters and other forms of transport, state banks (that might provide special loan facilities) and state print and electronic media.

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