Sri Lankan journalists caught in the middle of prime ministers' power struggle

Supporters of ousted Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe shout slogans during a protest against his removal, near the Prime Minister's official residence in Colombo on Oct 30, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's journalists have become caught in the centre of the bitter power struggle between the country's rival prime ministers, an international media watchdog said on Wednesday (Oct 31), urging the authorities to ensure their safety.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) said supporters of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa stormed state-owned media institutions shortly after he was controversially named prime minister last Friday.

Sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has refused to hand over power, however, saying the move was illegal.

"The violence with which Mahinda Rajapakse's bully boys took over the state media is absolutely unacceptable," said an RSF statement.

"We call on all parties to act responsibly by guaranteeing journalists' safety and by respecting their editorial independence, so that impartial news coverage is available to the public."

RSF said that minutes after Mr Rajapaksa was sworn in, his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party activists "invaded the newsrooms of various state media".

"They took control of the two public service TV channels, Rupavahini and ITN, the radio stations that are part of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, and the Lake House press group," it added.

RSF said the SLPP activists "forced journalists at the Daily News and the Lake House group's two leading weeklies, Silumina and Sunday Observer, to change the front pages of their next issues".

Journalists said that in general, state media has become pro-Rajapaksa, while private networks have kept up coverage of Mr Wickremesinghe and his party.


RSF said the constitutional crisis recalled the "darkest hours of the Rajapaksa presidency between 2005 and 2015", when he lost an election to current President Maithripala Sirisena.

During Mr Rajapaksa's tenure, 17 journalists and media workers were killed, according to rights organisations.

In 2015, Mr Wickremesinghe helped Mr Sirisena to defeat Mr Rajapaksa and formed a unity government, but the two have drifted apart over policy and personality clashes.

Tens of thousands of Wickremesinghe supporters blocked roads in Colombo on Tuesday, stepping up a showdown with Mr Rajapaksa.

Official sources said Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was to meet the President on Wednesday to try to convince him to end a suspension of Parliament so that deputies can vote on which prime minister they back.

Mr Sirisena suspended Parliament last Saturday to forestall any attempt by Mr Wickremesinghe to prove he has a majority among the 225 lawmakers. Mr Jayasuriya has warned that the crisis could lead to a "bloodbath" on the streets if the assembly does not hold a vote soon.

Behind the scenes, the rivals are seeking to tempt lawmakers to defect to bolster their numbers if a vote is held.

Mr Rajapaksa has given five legislators from Mr Wickremesinghe's party ministerial portfolios in his Cabinet after persuading them to change sides.

Mr Wickremesinghe has convinced at least two lawmakers from Mr Sirisena's camp to join his United National Party.

Following the latest defections, Mr Wickremesinghe has 104 MPs in the 225-seat chamber, while Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Sirisena together have 99.

A majority of the 22 remaining MPs are expected to back Mr Wickremesinghe in any vote, observers said.

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