Amidst a deepening crisis in the ruling coalition over last Wednesday`s controversial electoral pact between Premier Mahinda Rajapakse and the JVP, President Chandrika Kumaratunga has intervened to ensure a balanced coverage of the presidential election campaign.
President Kumaratunga Friday afternoon directed state media bosses to be fair by both candidates. This comes in the backdrop of the UNP calling on Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake and President Chandrika Kumaratunga to ensure an unbiased coverage in the state-run print and electronic media.
Chief Opposition Whip Mahinda Samarasinghe last week told The Sunday Island that they expected President Kumaratunga to ensure a level playing field for both contestants. `We appreciate the pledge given to this effect at the recent SLFP Convention by the President,` he said.
The president, who also handles the media portfolio, emphasised that there should be no mud slinging, a participant at the meeting said. She emphasised the need to handle the coverage in a `dignified way.`
Deputy Media Minister Dilan Perera, Plantations Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Media Ministry Secretary W. B. Ganegala met Rupavahini Chairman M. M. Zuhair, Rupavahini Director General Nishantha Ranatunga, Lake House Chairman Janadasa Peiris, and SLBC Chairman Hudson Samarasinghe. She insisted that they act on the instructions of the Media Ministry, another source said.
The meeting took place at President`s House in the afternoon. The President placed the state-media under Dilan Perera`s purview hours before she left for New York, where she was scheduled to attend the UN sessions.
Premier Rajapakse was at Friday`s Presidential Film Awards ceremony at President`s House. The president-aspirant sat next to Kumaratunga after returning from Kiribathgoda, where he addressed a propaganda rally organised by Deputy Minister Sripathy Sooriyaarachchi, a staunch Rajapakse supporter. Both presented awards and were seen engaged in animated conversation. According to an aide to a minister, the president pulled up Rajapakse earlier in the day over his agreement with the JVP, but behaved at the awards ceremony as though nothing had happened.
Kumaratunga left for UK on her way to New York Friday night. Foreign Minister Anura Bandaranaike left on Saturday morning for the same destination.
Political sources said that Bandaranaike attacked Rajapakse-JVP deal at a meeting with a group of SLFP supporters at Gampaha on Friday. In an obvious reference to the controversy over `Helping Hambantota` account initiated by the premier, Bandaranaike declared that Bandaranaikes never maintained secret accounts. He emphasised that they were at the helm and `political interlopers` would not be allowed to take over their place. He went on to remind the JVP`s blood spattered past and vowed to block the unholy alliance.
The sources dismissed attempts to portray the recently concluded agreement as a Mahinda-JVP pact. There were several rounds of talks and the SLFP/PA were represented by Premier Rajapakse, SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, Chief Government Whip, Nimal Siripala Silva, Mangala Samaraweera, Susil Premjayanth, they said.
Samaraweera Friday afternoon referred to the latest deal as historic at a joint SLFP-JVP press conference at the Gramodaya Mandalaya. Rajapakse`s camp accused the state media of crippling Rajapakse`s campaign.
They had been advised to liaise with respective print and electronic media institutions through the Media Ministry. `We are under tremendous pressure,` one aide revealed, admitting that they could not do anything about it. He claimed that a presidential appointee `killed` some articles supportive of the deal with the JVP scheduled to appear in the Silumina, Lake House`s Sinhala Sunday paper.
The source ridiculed the president`s call for the state media to be impartial. `The PM is not getting the due coverage,` he said accusing the President`s camp of sabotage.
Political sources speculated that Anura Bandaranaike may not appear on Rajapakse`s election platform. He would not have attacked the architects of the latest political deal if he intended to get on the same platform, the sources said, adding that President Kumaratunga and Minister Bandaranaike were expected to plot their political future during their ten-day overseas stay.
The sources said that CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman, on Kumaratunga`s delegation to the New York, was expected to finalise his stand at the forthcoming presidential election during this period.
`It is actually a foregone conclusion,` a well informed source said revealing the CWC`s chief`s decision would largely be influenced by an influential businessman married to a former PA Deputy Minister. `The businessman plays both sides,` he said referring to a massive project he handled with a person involved in Rajapakse`s campaign.
The sources said that Kumaratunga met UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema at the latter`s residence last Sunday night in the company of Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva where the discussions focused on the latest political developments. The President called at Samarawickreme`s home to express her condolences over the death of his mother and the meeting turned to be a lively political discussion.