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.
17 August 2015: CMEV deployed a total of approximately 4000 monitors in the field, in polling stations and in mobile teams in the 2015 General Election. In addition, CMEV deployed 75 mobile teams, 21 international observers and 90 observers in counting centers.
On the day of polling, 316 incidents with 109 Major Incidents and 207 Minor Incidents were recorded. Of the 109 Major Incidents CMEV documented 37 incidents against the UNP & 28 against the UPFA. One incident related to the assault of a former Provincial Council Minister by a UNP candidate in Nawalapitiya. Six incidents of threat and intimidation were also reported during polls. CMEV notes that on the day of elections, several other incidents were reported including electioneering and violations of election laws. Despite this, CMEV notes the General Election to be relatively free and fair.
CMEV estimates voter turnout to be between 70- 75%, a decrease from the high turnout of 81.52% in the Presidential Elections. Particular areas which witnessed a lower voter turnout at the General Election as opposed to the Presidential Election in January 2015 include Batticaloa, Digamadulla, Kandy, Kalutara, Gampaha, Galle, Monaragala and Kurunagala
CMEV commends the Commissioner for Elections, Mahinda Deshapriya and the Inspector General of Police, N.K Illangakoon and their officers, for both providing and sustaining an enabling environment for a free and fair election. In particular, CMEV’s monitoring of the pre-election period and Election Day highlights speedy action taken by the Police in implementing election laws. Such measures reinforced public confidence in the respective officials upholding the rule of law and in their taking the steps necessary to protect the integrity of the poll.
The lead up to the General Election created an environment to recognize and provide for the voting rights of persons with disabilities, with specific reference here to the Election Commissioner’s Circular No. De/LI/PR/03 issued in May 2015, directing officials to take specific steps to ensure that persons with disabilities are supported in the exercise of their franchise. CMEV has taken many steps to support this initiative and noted some improvements at the General Election in this regard, but urges the relevant officials to take all necessary steps to provide for the full realization of the right to franchise among persons with disabilities.
Finally, CMEV reiterates its call 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. In this regard, CMEV calls for the full implementation of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the appointment of the Constitutional Council without further delay.
Download this report as a PDF here.
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.
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.
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|
*Kurunegala Police Division did not revealed information related to arrests
16th August 2015 Colombo, Sri Lanka
16th August 2015 – Murder, Hiniduma Electorate, Neluwa, Galle District
It was reported to CMEV that a dead body was found at Lellwala, Neluwa area, Hiniduma electorate in the Galle District around 7.00 am on the 16th of August 2015. According to the report, the victim has been identified as Mr. Chandradasa Wickramasinghe, 63 years old, a UPFA supporter who maintained a party office in support of UPFA Gall District candidate Mr. Piyasena Gamage.
When contacted, Mr.Chandradasa’s brother Mr. Gunapala Wickramasinghe, informed CMEV that he cannot suspect anyone in this regard and further noted that the victim, a father of two did not have any enemies in his private life too.
CMEV contacted UPFA Galle District Candidate Mr. Piyasena Gamage who said that the victim was a key supporter and that he did not have any suspects at this point.
When contacted the Vice Chairman of Neluwa Pradeshiya Sabha, Mr. Piyarathna Gamage, he stated that it was difficult to comment on this incident and as to whether it is linked to the election.
However, the report further stated that a UNP party office is also located around 75 meters away from the place of the incident and it was revealed that the victim used to visit the said UNP party office regularly to play cards. When CMEV contacted Mr. Venura Gunawardane, a person at the said UNP party office, he informed CMEV that the victim Mr. Chandradasa has left around 9.30 pm on 15th August (yesterday).
A complaint has been lodged with the Neluwa Police Station, under CIB 352/13.When contacted the Neluwa Police Station, OIC Mr. Panawela (IP) informed that this incident is suspected to be the result of a personal conflict and not related to the election. However, he further stated that the magisterial investigation is underway and that a sharp tool used in this murder has been taken for further investigation to identify perpetrators.
15th August 2015 – Murder, Oddamavadi, Valachenai, Batticaloa District
An incident where Mr. Ameen, a UNP supporter has been shot dead by two unidentified persons on a motor bike at around 12.00 noon on 15th August 2015 at Savana Hajjiar Junction in Oddamavadi, Batticaloa was reported to CMEV. According to the report, the victim, Mr. Ameen, is said to be one of the main supporters of Batticaloa District UNP candidate Mr. Amir Ali.
Mr. Amir Ali, speaking to CMEV stated that this shooting can be considered as a continuation of the assault of the previous day (14th August 2015), in which UNP supporters were allegedly assaulted by SLMC supporters. Mr. Amir Ali further stated that he suspects the SLMC as the perpetrators of this murder and SLMC Batticaloa District Candidate Mr. Rialdeen in particular. CMEV has a video record of Mr. Amir Ali in relation to this allegation.
In the absence of the OIC, an officer of the Vallachenai Police Station confirmed this incident. The Police further stated that no suspect has so far been taken in to custody in this regard and that investigations are underway.
CMEV contacted Mr. Rialdeen, SLMC Candidate who categorically rejected these allegations against him and his party supporters.
CMEV received the following from Ms Nimalka Fernando and Mr Sudharshana Gunawardene respectively, in response to the CMEV report of 7th August 2015. CMEV publishes them below:
The following is from Ms Nimalka Fernando
It is regrettable to note that a complaint has been logged in your website with my name
as Executive of INFORM (including Sudarshana’s) as violating election laws.
a) Before this complaint was keyed into your complaint list a verification should have been
made re the details. Verification was not made.
b) I am NOT an Executive of INFORM
c) I am NOT a monitor(not in any list) nor am I a member of the Election Monitoring Committee of MDL and is representing MDL for General Election 2015 monitoring process. We have our own internal rules in MDL re these matters and regulations.
d) The complainant obviously has given you a biased report. I did participate in a meeting convened by the Jathika NGO Sammenalaya as a member of the Advisory Council appointed by the Prime Minister to explain to NGO representatives re the removal of circular issued by the MOD and assure them of `freedom of assembly and association’ as per ensured in our Constitution.
f) I have also informed the Election Commissioner I am involved in field work promoting Yahapalanaya and not to panic about me violating election laws.
The following is from Mr. Sudharshana Gunewardene
I am also writing this with regard to the report appeared in your cmev.org website. I regret that my name has been mentioned in the report without making an effort to make a clarification from me, as I have violated the election law by speaking at a meeting organized by the UNP.
I support the facts mentioned in the letter sent to you by Dr. Nimalka Fernando with regard to the nature of the meeting.
I also state that I have participated in the above mentioned meeting in my capacity as a member of the advisory committee to the National NGO secretariat appointed by the hon. Prime Minister who is also the minister of policy planning and economic affairs.
I further state that this was not a meeting organized by UNP or any other political party.
I further state that I deny the allegation that I have addressed the above mentioned meeting, let alone criticizing Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse.
Therefore, I would like to kindly request you that you make a correction to that report by stating your report was incorrect. If you still stand by on your report then I request an inquiry be held on this regard which I am willing to take part.
Download the PDF of the report here.
10th August 2015 Colombo, Sri Lanka
Below is a summary of the major cases of election related violence reported to CMEV from the 6tt of August to the 8th of August 2015.
06th August 2015- Preventing Election Monitoring, Trincomalee.
CMEV field monitor in the Trincomalee district was prevented from carrying out election monitoring activities by the Assistant Returning Officer and another elections officer when attempting to monitor the postal voting at the 6th Wijayaba Army Camp in Trincomalee.
This incident took place at about 1.45 P.M. after the monitor presented credentials and received permission from the officer in charge of the polling station Mr. A.M.P.A Chandrasekara (Major). However, when attempting to commence monitoring, the monitor was prevented by the Election Department officers who demanded that he present his credentials again. Thereafter, the monitor was questioned as to what CMEV was and as to what right Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Co-Convenor of CMEV, had to authorize the monitoring activity, was demanded of him.
As the monitor was under duress at the station, he had chosen to leave the station and report to another polling station to monitor the postal voting.
06th August 2015-Use of Fire Arms, Rathnapura
It was reported to CMEV that an unidentified group has shot at the residence of UNP supporter Mr. Janaka Pushpakumara at around 12.00 A.M. Mr. Pushpakumara had immediately called the police emergency services who had responded to the location in Dammusawana in Ratnapura.
CMEV can confirm that a complaint has been lodged at the Ratnapura Police station under EIB 319/48 and that investigations have commenced.
07th August 2015- Election Offence, Trincomalee
It was reported to CMEV that a supporter of the TNA has been arrested while in possession of forged ballot papers at around 11.30 A.M. Mr. Yogaiah Prabhakaran, the accused was arrested by the Sampur Police station after a tip off was received by police intelligence services
Mr. Prabhakaran, was produced before the Muttur Magistrate courts under M.C 31721/15 and was released after paying a personal bail of Rs.100, 000.
07th Election Offence, Colombo
It was reported to CMEV that a discussion has been organized by the UNP at the Solis Hotel in Kotte from 10 A.M to 2.00 P.M at which members of election violence monitoring bodies have spoken in a biased manner in support of the UNP. Those who spoke have been identified as Ms. Nimalka Fernando, executive at INFORM, Mr. Sudarshana Gunwardhene executive at ‘Rights Now Collective for Democracy’ and two other entities involved in monitoring election violence.
Those speaking at the event had criticized former president, Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse.
07th August 2015- Assault in Colombo
Colombo district candidate Ven. Wataraka Vijitha thero, of Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) was assaulted by an unidentified group near Keselwatta, Panadura Police station. The thero was admitted to ward No: 72 in the Colombo National Hospital.
When CMEV contacted Vijitha thero, he said that the incident happened while he was engaging in propaganda activities in the Keselwatte area when he was attacked by 4 unidentified individuals who were clad in robes. Elaborating on what had since transpired the thero said that he had discharged himself from the National Hospital as more individuals clad in robes had come to threaten him.
Upon contacting the Keselwatte Police station Mr. J.K.S Jayanetti OIC, he said that there were inconsistencies in the statements made by Ven. Vijitha thero. He said the thero has engaged in canvassing with a group of Muslims near the Keselwatte temple and had acted in manner that incited racism. Mr. J.K.S Jayanetti said that it was at this point the villagers had tried to assault the thero. Responding to the situation, the police officers had rescued the thero and dropped him near Peliyagoda Bridge. After this the thero had gone to a police patrol near the Victoria Bridge and claimed that an unidentified group was following him and requested protection. Subsequently, the police patrol had handed him over to Grandpass Police station.
When CMEV contacted Grandpass Police station OIC Mr. Vimal Shantha, he said that when they attempted to question Ven. Vijitha thero, he has refused to answer claiming that he was feeling hungry and traumatized. Subsequently, the police has offered him food and admitted him to Colombo National Hospital.
When CMEV contacted NSSP leader, Dr. Wickremabahu Karunaratne, he confirmed the claims made by the Ven. Thero.
08th August 2015- Attack on party office, Colombo
A UNP campaign office of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, at Abdul Hameed Mw, Colombo 12, was attacked by supporters of UNP candidate Mr. Mohommed Mujibur Rahuman. The incident occurred at around 3. 30 P.M. when about 150 individuals gathered in support of UNP candidate Mr. Rahuman whose campaign office is a short distance from Mr. Wickremesinghe’s office. The group was reported to have been drunk and to have lit fire crackers and yelled in front of the campaign office of Mr. Wickremesinghe.
Subsequently, the group has broken into Mr. Wickremesinghe’s office and damaged cut-outs, after which the two groups had confronted each other. Responding to the situation the Keselwatta Police had arrived at the location and fired into the air to dispel the crowd.
08th August 2015- Attack on party office, Hambanthota
A JVP campaign office at Thalagahahandiya, Polonnaaruwa was attacked and additionally, the cut-out set ablaze by a group of 4 unidentified individuals and at around 1.30 A.M.
An entry has been lodged with the Tangalle police station under EIB 127/33. A Police sergeant confirmed the incident and said that they have commenced investigations.
Complainant Mr. H.K Thilekeratne, said that he was unable to identify those involved in the attack but suspected the participation of villagers.
08th August 2015- Assault, Nuwara Eliya
An unidentified mob attacked Mr. Sellaiyah Vigneshwaran a supporter of the Citizen’s Front while canvassing in Pundalu Oya Watta.
Mr. N.P.M Suraweera OIC, of the Pundalu Oya Police station confirmed that a complaint had been lodged in under EIB 2/15. Elaborating on the incident he said that five perpetrators had arrived at the location in a van and assaulted the supporters. However, he confirmed that none of the victims had been hospitalized. He also said that investigation had commenced to locate the owner of the van and press charges.
When CMEV inquired with the Nuwaraeliya divisional election operational unit, they confirmed the claims made by Mr. N.P.M Suraweera. The complainant Mr. Vigneshwaran suspects that the perpetrators were supporters of UNF candidate Mr. Palani Digambaram. He also identified the driver of the van as Mr. Mylvaanagam Raja, and claimed the van was owned by Mr. Palaniwenna Vijitha.