CMEV media and communications operations | Parliamentary Election, August 2015

Overview
The information and communications operations of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) for the Parliamentary Election held on 17 August 2015 was anchored to the foundations laid for the Presidential Election in January this year. Operational security from an information and communications perspective was radically different to the context in January. As subsequent reports have shown, the intelligence services, military and Police under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had invested heavily in surveillance infrastructure to contain, control and censor information, including around elections. CMEV’s info-sec (information security) and op-sec (operational security) considerations in August were not hostage to these same considerations and were thus re-engineered to be less around secure and resilient communications, and more around information dissemination.

Platforms and apps
As has always been the case, CMEV’s central hub remains its website where press releases, statements, communiques, infographics and mainstream media coverage of operations and output were added on a daily basis in the lead up to the election, as well as on election day. Leading up to and on election day, CMEV’s website saw a surge in traffic. On election day, the website was viewed over 1,300 times. Designed to be resilient against denial of service attacks as well as traffic spikes (hosted on WordPress.com) CMEV’s website – the only fully responsive website of an election monitoring body in Sri Lanka (rendering perfectly on whatever browser or device it is viewed on) – coped well.

Continuing what was started in January for the Presidential Election as a means of putting out information around monitoring operations even if CMEV’s website came under attack, WhatsApp was employed extensively in the lead up to and on election day. Two groups, totalling over 300 individuals from Sri Lanka and abroad received over 36 updated which included audio, text and links to documents in Sinhala, Tamil and English plus images in the form of charts and infographics. Every single update put online was sent through WhatsApp. The Sinhala civic media website Vikalpa, anchored to the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), also managed a WhatsApp based information service of its own, with its Editor – who was a CMEV monitor in Jaffna – providing updates in Sinhala throughout the day to over 100 individual subscribers.

CMEV’s Twitter account (@cmev) on election day alone published over 74 tweets. These included retweets of situation updates, engagement with other users, content and updates from CMEV plus links to pertinent news reports from the web. In contrast to the reach of CMEV’s website, CMEV’s Twitter feed alone, on election day, was read 23,534 times, over over the 7-day period ending 17 August, the account got 32,800 impressions – an average of around 5,000 impressions day. Over 230 clicked through to the web links the CMEV account tweeted, 177 retweeted our updates and 27 had favourited them. The level of engagement with CMEV’s content over social media was quantitatively and qualitatively higher than the Presidential Election in January.

In addition to CMEV, Groundviews (@groundviews) also put out updates on Twitter related to the election, complementing the output of CMEV. Whereas CMEV’s feeds stuck to information from CMEV itself or that which was from an official source, Groundviews tweeted opinion and news from other curated sources from Sri Lanka and abroad. Groundviews on Twitter over the 17 and 18 August was read over 80,000 times. Over the 7-day period ending 18 August, the account got 91,200 impressions, an average of around 19,500 a day. Also over the course of the week, 1,700 had clicked links tweeted by the account, over 360 had retweeted updates and close to a hundred had favourite them.

@CPASL, the Twitter account of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) also pushed out over 48 tweets on election day.

It must be noted that for all the accounts above, traffic was organic – in that there was no paid advertising pushing traffic to these accounts.

In addition to Twitter, CMEV, throughout election day, put out audio updates on Soundcloud.com, which were subsequently featured on CMEV’s Facebook, Twitter and sent over WhatsApp as well. Updates were in Tamil, Sinhala and English, at around the start of polling, mid-day and once polls closed. On the 17th alone, over 370 listened to these updates.

CMEV’s Facebook page, on which all output from CMEV is featured along with curated content from other official sources, saw a surge in traffic over the week. Reaching over 15,200 accounts, over 4,500 ‘liked’ the page in the course of the week. Engagement with content on the page was also very high, with over 1,000 fans commenting on, liking or sharing the content published by CMEV. Organic readership on the 17th was exceeded 2,000.

Continuing a tri-lingual campaign to encourage the exercise of franchise particularly amongst first time voters and those between 18 – 24 in particular, Groundviews, CPA and CMEV as well as Maatram (CPA’s Tamil language civic media eco-system) and Vikalpa re-featured the #iwillvote campaign across all web properties as well as, on the morning of the election, through an email sent to around 8,000 subscribers. The Editor of Groundviews Sanjana Hattotuwa posted an image at 7.12am on Groundviews noting that he had voted, using the virality of selfies particularly amongst the target demographic to promote the exercise of franchise. At 6.30am, the campaign was published over social media and sent out over email. By mid-day, this had resulted in hundreds uploading to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter images they had taken after voting. Though less in number overall than on the 8th of January, the #iwillvote hashtag was re-ignited independent of CPA/CMEV/Groundviews, demonstrating the interest in the larger community around voter mobilisation through online and social media channels. The use of #iwillvote’s images (copyright free in tri-lingual) also reinforced the enduring validity of the campaign launched by CPA earlier this year.

General observations around social media
In addition to the information eco-systems of CPA, Groundviews, CMEV, Maatram and Vikalpa – reaching hundreds of thousands – the larger social media ecosystems around the Parliamentary Election is worth further study. Snapshots of this landscape on and leading up to election day follows.

For the first time, Facebook encouraged all its users based in Sri Lanka to update their status messages around the election. While opt-in (users could choose to ignore the Facebook prompt) this move by Facebook around voter mobilisation resulted in thousands updating their Facebook status to reflect the fact they were going to vote, had voted and various shades of political opinion. The status message also linked to the Election Department’s official website, which promptly crashed on account of the traffic. While re-instated later in the day, the engineering into such a critical website – which has repeatedly gone down at every single major election – remains hugely suspect and in need of urgent reform. Most citizens were delivered information around the results of the Parliamentary Elections via SMS news services or election results dashboards set up on private media websites, in addition to of course radio and TV broadcasts.

Another key feature around the Parliamentary Elections was the use of Facebook in particular to promote candidates and political parties through individual accounts (i.e. through voluntary disclosure and without paid advertising). Many on Facebook used the platform to publicly reveal who they were voting for, why and encouraged others to vote for the same candidates or party. Others were more discreet and said they were voting to continue the change brought around on the 8 of January.

The open publication of political preferences – not just to Facebook friends, but as public posts anyone even without a Facebook account, or outside one’s friend’s network could see – is a major development in the discursive landscape of social media, and was reflected in updates in Sinhala and Tamil too (though your author’s primary focus was content in English). One possible reason for this is the freedom of expression, felt across the political spectrum, after the change of Presidency in January. Whereas in January there was a groundswell of opinion over social media around regime change, just a handful expressed openly the desire to be rid of the Rajapaksa’s and there was not a single update across any social media observed that to the extent evident on and around 17 August openly stated voting preferences, political opinion and political opposition.

Tacitly acknowledging the power of social media and its reach, the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took to Twitter at 7.29 on the morning of the 18th to counter a story on AFP noting that he had conceded defeat and that his dreams of becoming PM were dashed. The story grew virally across local and international mainstream media as well as social media. @groundviews over Twitter and Facebook first tweeted Udaya Gammanpila’s Facebook update that the UPFA had lost the election, refuting directly the former President’s comment on Twitter that he couldn’t accept victory or concede defeat until the final results were officially released. This interplay of social media and web based mainstream media news resulted in heightened traffic to sites and accounts with updates around what the former President said, or didn’t say, along with others from the UPFA contradicting him or seemingly conceding defeat as well. It is unclear if TV and radio broadcasts picked up on this traffic spike. Reflecting this heightened exchange, at around 7.30am on the 18th, when official election results were trickling in, Twitter updates around the elections reached their peak. Groundviews monitored two hashtags #SLGE15 and #GenElecSL – which were by Sri Lanka’s Twitter community writ large accepted as the two ‘official’ hashtags to use around election updates. #SLGE15 at around 7.30am was peaking at around 9 tweets a minute. #GenElecSL at around 24 tweets a minute. As long as Groundviews has archived public tweets around events in Sri Lanka (Twitter Q&A, UN debates, elections) this was the most amount of tweets ever published in the same span of time.

Social media – Facebook and Twitter in particular – were also used to fan discord and sow unrest by spreading false rumours. The LTTE and UNP were frequently joined, and others claimed the result of the election was “an international conspiracy”. Yet others on Twitter said the new Government would lead to Eelam’s fruition, and many published derogatory comments about Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Leader of UNP, and surprisingly, also on President Sirisena. Given reports that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa employed vast numbers of individuals in strategic, carefully planned media operations including over social media to construct his image, and shape the discourse (including by planting false information and rumours), the effect of these disinformation and misinformation was minimal. One reason for this could be, as noted early, the opening up of the discursive spaces online resulting in the former President’s modus operandi – controlling the meta-narrative in a tightly censored space – falling apart. With hundreds of independent voices all publishing at the same time and calling to question the record of the former President and those in his government, attempts to incite hatred and the use of incendiary language did not have the same impact as intended, and would have been possible under a repressive political context.

Overall, the information and communications operations of CMEV, complemented by the updates put out by Groundviews, Maatram, Vikalpa and CPA itself, remain unparalleled. From field based information gathering to communicating in real time to CMEV’s HQ, from the use of social media to the coverage CMEV operations received across Tamil, Sinhala and English mainstream print media – including the international press – was qualitatively and quantitatively more than the Presidential Election. CMEV’s information generation, dissemination and storage remains a model for other electoral processes to emulate, especially those operating in austere, censorious and authoritarian contexts.

All CMEV output is in the public domain, and copyright free.

Parliamentary General Election 2015: Interim Report

Download this report as a PDF here.

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Profile of Major Incidents

At the end of the campaign on August 14th, 2015, CMEV received 810 complaints of which 143 were classified as Major.  Of the latter category, Murder was recorded at 04, Hurt at 05, Grievous Hurt at 03, Assaults at 46, Threat and Intimidation at 08, Misuse of State Resources at 47, Robbery at 01, Arson at 16, Abduction at 02, Damage to Property at 10 and an incident of Bribery. In 12 incidents the use of firearms was recorded. Of the latter, the UNP was identified as the alleged perpetrator in 03 incidents, the SLMC in 01 and in the rest, the alleged perpetrator has not been identified.

Of the Major Incidents, 07 occurred in the Batticaloa Polling Division, 05 in Mannar, 05 in Jaffna and 05 in Minuwangoda.  In the incidents where the perpetrator has been identified, the UPFA has been named in 49 incidents, the UNP in 38, ITAK in 08, EPDP in 06, the SLMC in 08 and the AITC in 01.

Trends

Four (04) Murders have marred the election campaign, which has otherwise recorded incidents of violence of a relatively low scale and intensity in comparison to the past.  As shown in the graph below the percentage proportion of Major Incidents of the total of those reported throughout the campaign is 17% as opposed to 45%, 56% and 54% in the 2010 Presidential and General Election campaigns and the 2015 Presidential Election campaign, respectively.

Picture1

CMEV monitors have reported on the enabling political environment for campaigning and political discussion and about the space and freedom for action without interference on the part of the Election Commissioner and the Police. Both have acted to ensure adherence to the election laws, though there have been complaints about the lack of clarity and consistency with regard to implementation and in some cases the ad hoc nature of such.  CMEV notes too that the strict adherence to existing election laws in respect of posters, could in practice work to the disadvantage of first time candidates and those with less resources to resort to advertisements on the electronic media.  According to the Police, 790 suspects have been arrested with regard to election violence and violations of election laws. CMEV has details of 382 arrests as follows:

District No. of Arrested Persons Police Division No. of Arrested Persons
Colombo 40 Galle 33
Kaluthara 32 Matara 20
Gampaha 26 Hambantota 10
Mahanuwara 05 Monaragala 01
Matale 05 Badulla 31
Nuwaraeliya 08 Digamadulla 30
Ratnapura 18 Batticaloa 03
Kegalle 19 Trincomalee 08
Anuradapura 11 Jaffna 05
Polonnaruwa 20 Vanni 02
Kurunegala 21 Puttalam 34

*Kurunegala Police Division did not revealed information related to arrests

Presidential Election 2015: Statement at the Conclusion of Polling 8th January 2015

Download this as a PDF in English here.

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CMEV deployed a total of approximately 4,500 monitors in the field, in polling stations and in mobile teams in the 2015 Presidential Election. On Election Day, CMEV recorded 223 incidents with 101 major incidents and 122 minor incidents. Out of the 223 incidents CMEV documented 124 incidents against the ruling UPFA with unknown actors cited as the alleged perpetrator in 81 incidents. Out of the major incidents, six incidents related to assault and six were of threat and intimidation. Election day witnessed several other incidents of election related violations including electioneering and misuse of state resources with most violations attributed to government politicians and supporters.

Notwithstanding the above and the incidents in the campaign noted below, CMEV believes that the voting in this Presidential Election was not significantly distorted by violence and malpractice and we salute our fellow citizens for ensuring this.

Turnout was relatively high reflecting the level of interest in the election despite the short campaign period. There were challenges however, that impacted the ability of some voters to freely exercise their franchise. For instance, on Election day, CMEV also raised concerns with the Commissioner of Elections about of an estimated 6,000 eligible voters in Puttalam being unable to travel to Mannar to vote. The inability to address this issue resulted in a significant population being deprived of their constitutional right to the franchise and is indicative of the political thuggery embedded in our political culture and practice. CMEV received reports as well of voters having to mark their ballots in full view of election officials and others.

The Northern Province witnessed a number of attempts to impact voter turnout on Election Day through intimidation, threats and confusing messages. The call for a boycott and attempts to discourage voting for the common opposition candidate through the circulation of unsolicited text messages and handbills, all contributed to a charged and confused environment. This coupled with two explosions – one each in Jaffna and Vavuniya, respectively, may have impacted the relatively lower turnout than expected in these districts.

The pre election report released by CMEV on 6 January 2015, raised concerns about shortcomings in the postal voting process, the role of the military in particular in the intimidation of voters and the unprecedentedly large- scale abuse of state property including the employment of the state –controlled media, even after the end of the official campaign period and on polling day, for relentless government propaganda. CMEV welcomed several court orders against perpetrators of election violence, but is dismayed that no one has yet to be held to account. The campaign witnessed several instances where CMEV monitors were threatened and attacked, human rights defenders and media activists threatened. This election, although not seen as one of the most violent in recent history, witnessed attacks against election officials by supporters of ministers, which CMEV condemned and called for swift action in respect of.

CMEV takes this opportunity to commend the decisive action taken by the Commissioner for Elections, Mahinda Deshapriya to insist on a correction on air by Rupavahini to a false news item broadcast this morning, claiming that UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa had joined the Government.

The Commissioner of Elections issued a number of instructions prior to voting day in order to minimise abuses of electoral law. Furthermore, recognising international standards on the important role election monitors can play in increasing transparency and public confidence in the electoral process, Mr. Deshapriya granted election monitoring organisations the opportunity to monitor the counting process for the first time in Sri Lanka.

Whilst CMEV notes the constructive responses of the Commissioner and his officials on a number of occasions, we also note that there were instances where our efforts to monitor the process were thwarted. On Election Day, CMEV was unable to access two polling centres – one each in Kalutara and Matara, respectively. When apprised of this, the Commissioner of Elections remedied the anomalies. CMEV places on record its appreciation of the Commissioner’s response and looks forward to similar constructive engagement in the future.

In this context, CMEV reiterates the need for independent institutions including independent commissions for elections, police and public services, underscoring the need for constitutional and legal reform to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.

We conclude this report by thanking the Commissioner of Elections and the Police for the cooperation extended to CMEV, and very especially to our monitors and the public for their steadfast commitment and support which made our monitoring exercise possible.

Presidential Election 2015: CMEV Interim Campaign Report

Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) was formed in 1997 by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the Free Media Movement (FMM) and the Coalition Against Political Violence as an independent and non- partisan organisation to monitor the incidents of election related violence. Currently, CMEV is made up of CPA and INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre. CMEV monitors all national, provincial and local elections.

Through years of experience, and utilising the latest in communications technology, CMEV has established an effective island-wide mechanism to speedily capture election related information and updates in Sri Lanka, and to verify and report these in a professional, unbiased and timely manner, supplying news to a number of media organisations, both local and international. CMEV works to protect and strengthen the integrity of the electoral process and the democratic rights of the peoples of Sri Lanka.

www.cmev.org and its linked social media sites https://www.facebook.com/electionviolence and https://twitter.com/cmev, along with the WhatsApp messaging service (over +94 727772810) provide some of the most up-to-date, impartial and credible information on election violence and malpractice, as and when incidents occur.

Download the full report here.

Offences Breakdown Districts

Presidential Election 2010: Election Day Media Communiqué No. 3

Read this in full as a PDF here. Map of location here.

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3rd Media Communiqué, 26th January 2010, 1030Hrs

CMEV received reports of multiple explosions in Nallur, Uduppidy, Manipay, Vaddukottai, Chavakachcheri and Tellipallai. CMEV’s mobile teams were dispatched to a number of locations where the attacks had reportedly taken place. CMEV teams verified damages at the following locations.

  1. A push bike parked overnight in front of the polling station, J/Chunnakam Roman Catholic Tamil Mixed School (Polling Station Nos 28) was damaged.
  2. A tea shop has been damaged on Point Pedro Road, behind Nallur Temple, 500m of J/Nallur Station Church of Ceylon Tamil Mixed School (Hall No 1-3 Polling Stations 35-37).
  3. A tree has been damaged in front of the Jaffna Municipal Council’s Fire Brigade, Point Pedro Road within 500m of J/Nallur Station Church of Ceylon Tamil Mixed School (Hall No 1-3 Polling Stations Nos 35-37).
  4. A shop Arasady Road in Nallur within 150m from J/Kandarmadam Saivapiragasa Vidyalayam (Polling Centre No 41).

CMEV spoke with eye witnesses who said that within an hour of the incident a white van passed by the location in Arasady Road and Point Pedro Road.

CMEV contacted the police station in Jaffna, which is investigating one of the attacks following a police complaint.  CMEV also received reports of attacks on polling centres including J/Waddukodai Hindu College(Polling Centre No 21) but observed no damages. These incidents are in addition to the hand grenade attack on the residence of Subramaniam Sharma, SLFP Uduppidi Coordinator, in Valvattithurai at around 3.30 am today reported by CMEV earlier.

CMEV was informed that most internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps in Vavuniya and having a vote in other districts were still waiting to travel to their polling centres. CMEV was previously informed by Returning Officers of the areas that transport arrangements would be arranged and IDPs informed of the arrangements. At 11am CMEV was informed that only two busses with IDPs from Ramanathan camp in Vavuniya had left for Killinochchi and many others were waiting by the road outside the camp to be transported to their polling centres. CMEV monitors report that as of 09:00 am, potential voters in zone 5, 6, 7 and 8 (1,098 registered voters) were still waiting for transport. CMEV raised this issue with Assistant Transportation Officer, Mrs Pathmaraanjini who reported that 48 buses had been deployed within the Vavuniya District and 30 buses to transport voters to areas including Killinochchi and Mullaitivu. Sixteen of the 30 buses had arrived as of 11.30 a.m and the 14 are reportedly on the way.

CMEV was further informed that many IDPs had turned up to vote in Manik Farm camps in Vavuniya though not all were in possession of the specified identity documents recognized by the Election Commissioner. As a result authorities had allowed temporary camp cards issued by the Police to be used as identity documents. Though this measure allows those displaced and affected by conflict to cast their vote, CMEV is concerned that the use of temporary camp cards alone can lead to possible abuse.

CMEV was also informed of a case of a released ‘surrendee’ from the PRI Technical College currently living in Point Pedro with a relative who is registered to vote at the College but who has not been notified of travel arrangements. The Assistant Election Commissioner Kugathanan informed CMEV that he has no information from the Government relating to the whereabouts of releases and returnees and therefore cannot inform them about transport arrangements.

CMEV is deeply concerned that the spate of violent incidents in Jaffna immediately before the commencement of polling and in the early hours of polling, indicate a systematic attempt to disrupt voting and ensure a low voter turnout in the peninsula.  CMEV’s concern is reinforced by the simple fact of this election being our first post war national election and the one in which the people of the north have an opportunity to demonstrate their faith in and commitment to democratic processes in Sri Lanka. This is especially regrettable given the imperatives of peace, reconciliation and national unity.

We call on election officials to ensure that the transport arrangements for IDPs are met.  It is important that delays in transport arrangements do not affect voter turn out adversely.

Presidential Election 2010: Election Day Media Communiqué No. 2

Read this press release in full as a PDF here. Map location here.

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Vaddukottai, Chavakachcheri and Tellipallai. CMEV’s mobile teams were dispatched to a number of locations where the attacks had reportedly taken place. CMEV teams verified damages at the following locations.

  1. A push bike parked overnight in front of the polling station, J/Chunnakam Roman Catholic Tamil Mixed School (Polling Station Nos 28) was damaged.
  2. A tea shop has been damaged on Point Pedro Road, behind Nallur Temple, 500m of J/Nallur Station Church of Ceylon Tamil Mixed School (Hall No 1-3 Polling Stations 35-37).
  3. A tree has been damaged in front of the Jaffna Municipal Council’s Fire Brigade, Point Pedro Road within 500m of J/Nallur Station Church of Ceylon Tamil Mixed School (Hall No 1-3 Polling Stations Nos 35-37).
  4. A shop Arasady Road in Nallur within 150m from J/Kandarmadam Saivapiragasa Vidyalayam (Polling Centre No 41).

CMEV spoke with eye witnesses who said that within an hour of the incident a white van passed by the location in Arasady Road and Point Pedro Road.

CMEV contacted the police station in Jaffna, which is investigating one of the attacks following a police complaint.  CMEV also received reports of attacks on polling centres including J/Waddukodai Hindu College(Polling Centre No 21) but observed no damages. These incidents are in addition to the hand grenade attack on the residence of Subramaniam Sharma, SLFP Uduppidi Coordinator, in Valvattithurai at around 3.30 am today reported by CMEV earlier.

CMEV was informed that most internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps in Vavuniya and having a vote in other districts were still waiting to travel to their polling centres. CMEV was previously informed by Returning Officers of the areas that transport arrangements would be arranged and IDPs informed of the arrangements. At 11am CMEV was informed that only two busses with IDPs from Ramanathan camp in Vavuniya had left for Killinochchi and many others were waiting by the road outside the camp to be transported to their polling centres. CMEV monitors report that as of 09:00 am, potential voters in zone 5, 6, 7 and 8 (1,098 registered voters) were still waiting for transport. CMEV raised this issue with Assistant Transportation Officer, Mrs Pathmaraanjini who reported that 48 buses had been deployed within the Vavuniya District and 30 buses to transport voters to areas including Killinochchi and Mullaitivu. Sixteen of the 30 buses had arrived as of 11.30 a.m and the 14 are reportedly on the way.

CMEV was further informed that many IDPs had turned up to vote in Manik Farm camps in Vavuniya though not all were in possession of the specified identity documents recognized by the Election Commissioner. As a result authorities had allowed temporary camp cards issued by the Police to be used as identity documents. Though this measure allows those displaced and affected by conflict to cast their vote, CMEV is concerned that the use of temporary camp cards alone can lead to possible abuse.

CMEV was also informed of a case of a released ‘surrendee’ from the PRI Technical College currently living in Point Pedro with a relative who is registered to vote at the College but who has not been notified of travel arrangements. The Assistant Election Commissioner Kugathanan informed CMEV that he has no information from the Government relating to the whereabouts of releases and returnees and therefore cannot inform them about transport arrangements.

CMEV is deeply concerned that the spate of violent incidents in Jaffna immediately before the commencement of polling and in the early hours of polling, indicate a systematic attempt to disrupt voting and ensure a low voter turnout in the peninsula.  CMEV’s concern is reinforced by the simple fact of this election being our first post war national election and the one in which the people of the north have an opportunity to demonstrate their faith in and commitment to democratic processes in Sri Lanka. This is especially regrettable given the imperatives of peace, reconciliation and national unity.

We call on election officials to ensure that the transport arrangements for IDPs are met.  It is important that delays in transport arrangements do not affect voter turn out adversely.