Update: President Mahinda Rajapaksa was declared the winner of Sri Lanka’s presidential election; General Fonseka, his opponent, immediately rejected the result.
After the long and bloody civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended last summer, 14 million Sri Lankans lined up to vote for a new government on January 26, 2010. The two main candidates are the incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeking a fresh mandate for another six-year term, and his onetime military head and former confidante, General Sarath Fonseka — both of whom are suspected by human rights organizations of committing war crimes.
In a closely fought election, with the opposition rallying behind Fonseka in a bid to oust Rajapaksa at any cost, both candidates courted the votes of the Tamil minority, less than 20 percent of the population, to help put them over the top. (Weird, because the wiping out of the LTTE came with a massive helping of civilian casualties among the Tamil population.)
Now, mere hours before the results of the poll are expected to be announced — and with the General reportedly in the lead —the country’s main internet service provider has blocked access to independent news websites such as Lankaenews, Lankanewsweb, Infolanka and Sri Lanka Guardian.
The press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders said, “The free flow of news and information during an election offers one of the few guarantees against massive fraud… Last March, Reporters Without Borders added Sri Lanka to its list of ‘countries under surveillance’ because of concern about threats to online free expression… Sri Lanka was added to the list because access to Tamil-language sites and the Human Rights Watch website had been blocked, while the Lankadissent site ceased to operate in January 2009 following threats.”
Meanwhile, in the country that supported the Sri Lankan government in warding off a UN investigation into its war crimes against the Tamil Tigers, suppression of the media is also an open secret. What makes independent and investigative journalism in Russia so different is that it battles two enemies: government repression and violence and impunity. (Read our new piece in Columbia Journalism Review, “Moscow’s New Rules“, in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue.) Still, a slender ray of hope lies in the fact that access to the internet in Russia, unlike Sri Lanka, still remains unfettered and unregulated.