Public opinion too muted

With a month to go before the country goes to the polls, two people have already been killed in pre-election violence and it is anybody’s guess whether the eventual score will exceed the sixty plus the last time round. Hopefully not, though not due to the efforts of some of the heavyweights in the fray who seem to be least concerned about the need to desist from violence. And when such violence leads to loss of life, the remand jail is not for these worthies. They get themselves hospitalized. And that is permitted if they belong to the ruling party.

We pass no judgment on whether or not former Minister Reggie Ranatunge is guilty of whatever offence for which he had been arrested. Published reports indicate that he was the member of a group that had got into an altercation with rival supporters and angry words had led to blows. One man lay dead at the end of it. Ranatunge, it has been reported, had first got himself admitted to a private hospital in Colombo complaining of chest pain. The law requires that in cases such as this the offenders are arrested and the police, often accused of pussyfooting where VIPs are concerned, had acted on the arrest warrant issued by the Magistrate. Ranatunge had thereafter been transferred from one hospital to another where he remains under prisons custody.

The public cannot be blamed for being cynical about privileged people being better treated than ordinary folk even on matters such as falling foul of the law. Remand jails are not for the likes of former ministers or, for that matter, anybody with money, power or influence. If such people get into trouble, they always find ways and means of ensuring the comfort of a hospital bed for themselves until a bail application is made. Ranatunge is not special in this regard. There are umpteen precedents of the well placed obtaining similar facilities whatever the hue of the government in office. That is the way that life has long been lived in this island of ours.

What is important is that at least now, contestants from all sides learn the lessons of this incident. It is not necessary that people can suffer mortal wounds only from gunshots or other injuries inflicted by lethal weapons. Even a seemingly innocuous pole can do some deadly damage as can a broken bottle or even the wheel brace of a vehicle that may be readily at hand. Arguments can lead into scuffles and these can lead to exchange of blows. One thing leads to another and seemingly minor incidents can balloon into tragic conclusions. That is why it is important that candidates and their leading supporters ensure that they do not get into conflict situations with rivals. A string of green or blue bunting or somebody’s poster which is illegal in any case is not worth serious injury or even a life snuffed out.

Violence apart, the 17th amendment does not seem to have done very much to ensure that this election is better than the last one. While illegal posters are less visible than at the last election, there are four weeks more to go before polling day when we can judge whether those who seek to represent us have at least been partly enlightened on this score. The law is clear that state resources and property cannot be used for election purposes. But many state-owned buses are carrying posters of at least some government party candidates and the police certainly have done nothing in this regard. Rather than getting them torn off, cannot the Elections Commissioner demand that the offenders be prosecuted?

The JVP’s Tilvin Silva has seen the PA as a deflated tyre. As a columnist in this issue has put it, given the fact that the JVP decided to be the jack for that flat tyre, will it turn its eagle eye on the post-dissolution behaviour of its erstwhile friends? As both the UNP during its time and the PA at present have routinely used state resources for political purposes, the pots can hardly call the kettles black. But the JVP, which prides itself on imposing "good behaviour’’ on the PA at least for 34 days before President Kumaratunga dissolved parliament, can objectively assess whether the standards it espoused are being maintained. Unfortunately, we did not get the State Media Commission to ensure fair play on the part of the government media which continues to be abused as the propaganda instrument of the ruling party.

Mr. Dayananda Dissanayake, following a Supreme Court directive, is trying to do something about this. How successful these efforts would be only time can tell. It has been argued that any requirements imposed on the state media must equally apply to the privately owned media. But it must be remembered that the private media is not a state resource, and thus does not belong to all the people unlike the state media. That is not to say that the private media should be granted free rein to lie, slander and defame during the election campaign in support of whoever they favour. They must conform to accepted standards and ethics in these matters. But the blatant propaganda trumpeting of the state media on behalf of the ruling group is totally unacceptable.

We are still far away from seeing our Elections Commissioner, like Mr. Seshan in India, making the Prime Minister pay for the use of Indian Air Force helicopters to fly to campaign rallies. True, Mr. Dissanayake does not have the same powers as his Indian counterpart. While the 17th amendment is a start, how good a start it is remains doubtful. The police transfers issue seems to have died a natural death. Whether the state media will be brought to heel is equally questionable. A major drawback is that the people are not what they should be and public opinion is not pressuring the concerned establishments to at least use what muscle they have to the best possible purpose. Such being the case, the incumbents will exploit the advantages of office to the maximum however many fundamental rights actions the opposition may file.

Your comments to the Editor