EC vows probe on polls advert featuring Army Chief | Sunday Observer

EC vows probe on polls advert featuring Army Chief

Mahinda Deshapriya
Mahinda Deshapriya

The National Elections Commission (NEC) will initiate an inquiry into the election campaign advertisement of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) using a statement by Army Commander Shavendra Silva and using his picture.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) earlier this week lodged a complaint with the Commission on the matter requesting to impose an immediate ban on use of military personnel in propaganda, since there can be a risk of other political parties doing the same.

The CMEV, an independent polls observer wrote to the Election Commission last Sunday after the particular advertisement appeared on three national newspapers.

Drawing the attention of the NEC on this blatant ‘Violation of the Code of Ethics’ the CMEV National Co-ordinator Manjula Gajanayake wrote, “Three newspapers due for distribution on 13/10 /2019 (today) carried full-page advertisements which featured statements made by former triforces Commanders about Presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.”

“One example that stands out is the statement made by the present Army Commander, Lt. Gen Shavendra Silva on the 28th of December 2009. Lt. General Silva is still the Army Commander on active duty and the use of his statement compromises the integrity of civil-military relations in Sri Lanka.”

Gajanayake said as an independent polls’ observer they believed that the integrity of the election would be severely compromised if other candidates also adopted this practice.

People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said this advertisement breached election law and went against media ethics. He said if the advertisement was carried without the present Army Commander’s permission, then he should make a statement clarifying the matter. Hettiarachchi said there is a responsibility on the part of the candidate also to ensure that such things will not be repeated during his campaign trail leading up to November 16.

This matter was also raised at a media briefing at the Elections Secretariat last week.

In response to the clarification called by the NEC, the Defence Secretary, on Friday (18) informed in writing, that the use of the Army Commander’s statement in an advertisement by the SLPP was without his consent. It was also without the consent or the knowledge of the Commander Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva.

“The Commander has no direct or indirect involvement with the said advertisement. He has further taken immediate steps through the Army media spokesperson to issue a statement clearing his non-involvement on the issue,” the letter stated.

SLPP too denied any involvement with the advertisement and stated that its campaign office was not responsible for it.

At a press conference conducted by the NEC, its Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya vehemently condemned the use of the war victory in election campaigning.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, the Chairman said they will initiate an inquiry into the matter.

“The Army Commander has denied any involvement in this and the relevant political party has also stated that the advertisement was not done by them. Therefore, we need to inquire into this matter before taking further action,” he said. He also stated that media outlets have also been advised not to carry such advertisements.

The Chairman at the press conference earlier in the week reiterated that the victory of the war belongs to the citizens of the country and no political party can claim ownership to it.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had used a comment made by the Army Commander on a previous day at a function organised by a private company, in a newspaper advertisement for its presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Analyzing times allocated for each candidate by several TV stations, he said that the Commission will continue to monitor and inform the relevant channels on their coverage.

“Looking at these charts you can clearly say that some channels have given extra time for a specific candidate. This cannot continue. We will take steps to send a summary of time allocated by each channel for candidates and the media outlets will have to fall in line,” he said. It is only state media institutions that are bound by the laws however; private media is expected to follow criteria that have been set by the Commission. These criteria were made with the involvement of private media representation as well.

“If you consider electronic media, frequencies are owned by the public. The government sells them to media outlets. This is like the government issuing license to run private buses. Merely because they are given the license, on the basis that they paid for it, they can’t do as they please,” he said.

State media is not owned by the government. They are owned by the state. And we will write to them about using state owned institutions for the promotion of one candidate.

“Please consider this the final warning to state media,” he said.

He further stated independent monitoring bodies have informed they will file legal action against the Commission if they fail to take action on state media institutions that do not follow regulations.

“We will not object to such litigation, in fact we encourage them to do so. It will only result in media institutions being held responsible for any violation.”

According to the Chairman, the Commission has received an enormous number of complaints and it has become practically difficult to take action against every complaint.

The Commission will closely monitor state media. It has already received several complaints against state media outlets. Promising strict measures against state media institutions if they fail to conduct themselves impartially, the chairman reiterated that even the constitution and subordinate legislature specifies penalties such offences will attract. Speaking on the election results coverage he warned media stations to only release the official result sheet issued by the NEC.

Sharing an incident where a media outlet released an unofficial result of the recently concluded Elpitiya election, he went on to state that all media outlets that cover the election should wait for the official result to be issued and to publicise it.

“I request all to refrain from carrying unofficial results documents that may be shared through social media,” he said.