Economynext – Sri Lanka’s Election Commission plunged into crisis on Saturday after its Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya ordered a censorship of state-owned ITN television network without the consent of the other two members of the three-man panel.
Deshapriya shocked his fellow commissioners by firing a letter to ITN saying that they are prohibited from broadcasting any politically-oriented programs, interviews from Monday till results of the November 16 presidential election are declared.
He said ITN broadcast an interview on Wednesday night and that it was unfavourable to opposition candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The controversial move of Deshapriya caused a deep rift within the independent commission. One of the three members, Prof Ratnajeevan Hoole said there had been no decision, through consensus or a majority vote, to impose censorship and questioned the ability to carry it out.
The other commissioner, Nalin Abeysekara would not comment, but official sources said he was opposed to direct action against ITN. It is understood that others wanted President Maithripala Sirisena as minister of Media involved to rein in all TV stations, including the private networks.
The censorship order followed a complaint that remarks of former additional solicitor general Wasantha Navaratne Banda broadcast over ITN on Wednesday night was harmful to Rajapaksa.
Deshapriya said if ITN wanted to broadcast any political content, it must be submitted to the Election Commission for prior approval. He said the October 30 program known as “Seethala Ethala” (cold arrow) broadcast at 10.00 p.m. was “one-sided and caused harm to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign.”
In the ITN program, Navaratne Banda had responded to former justice minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and former senior Additional Solicitor General of the Attorney General’s Department Suhada Gamlath who had claimed they were under pressure to arrest members of the Rajapaksa regime.
Navaratne Banda had said that it was minister Rajapakshe and Gamlath who had inexplicably blocked other members of the Attorney General’s department who had independently recommended the arrest of those connected to the former regime after studying the case files.
Prof Hoole said he was completely unaware of the purported EC decision until it had already been conveyed to the ITN.
The Commission set up under the 19th amendment to the constitution should either work through consensus or majority decision of its three members, all of whom are required to be present to ensure a quorum for its decision-making meetings.
“This is just out of the blues,” Hoole said adding that he was opposed to unilateral action of Deshapriya. There had been intense criticism of the Commission’s failure to rein in private electronic media amid allegations that they were biased.
“I heard about the restrictions on ITN and I am shocked. Although the so called order is purported to be one signed on behalf of the Elections Commission, there has been no Commission decision like that. We have not had a meeting on the topic. “
Hoole also questioned the EC’s ability to enforce any censorship.
“Are we going to edit ITN programs and delay them? Do we have the resources? We cannot get our Tamil and English circulars right at the Commission. How will we do this?
“This ill-advised move will deprive the electorate from balanced news coverage and put the people at the mercy of private media organisations who seem committed to a particular candidate, and it would show the people that our Commission, which must be independent, is also taking sides in this election.”
Hoole called the restriction “Stalinist”.
“The correct thing is to impose heavy fines for violations for fake news as provided in the Elections Laws whether by private or state media. We cannot just say “don’t do it again”, which only leads to these violations happening again – and again and again.” (COLOMBO, November 2, 2019)