“Umpires have abandoned the match” | Sunday Observer

“Umpires have abandoned the match”

This election advertisement, calling on public servants to “do their duty” and vote for him, so that he could do his duty towards them, was posted on Rajapaksa’s official Twitter account on October 30.
This election advertisement, calling on public servants to “do their duty” and vote for him, so that he could do his duty towards them, was posted on Rajapaksa’s official Twitter account on October 30.

With 13 days left to the November 16 presidential election and mounting complaints about flagrant election violations, the Elections Commission is under fire for failing to act

On Thursday (31) morning, ASP Jaffna D.D.R. Dassanayake and Jaffna Headquarters Inspector (HQI) Prasad Fernando made frantic calls to the Police Headquarters in Colombo. The officials were in a panic over their photographs being used in propaganda material circulated by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa on social media. On October 30, Rajapaksa’s official Twitter account posted an election advertisement, calling on public servants to “do their duty” and vote for him, so that he could do his duty towards them. Both ASP Dassanayake and HQI Fernando featured prominently in the advertisement. The photograph had been taken during Candidate Rajapaksa’s visit to Jaffna last week, where he held an election rally.

Making calls to Police HQ on Thursday, ASP Dassanayake and HQI Fernando begged their superior officers to ensure a clarification was immediately issued on their behalf. As public servants, the police officers are barred from issuing statements defending themselves.

Hours later, the Police Department issued a clarification on behalf of the two senior cops, saying their permission had neither been sought nor obtained before their photographs were used in the campaign advert for the SLPP candidate.

The picture had been taken by an unknown person when the two police officials were engaging in a casual chat with the SLPP candidate when he was in Jaffna on October 28, the statement from the Police HQ said. The picture had subsequently been given a different interpretation, with certain lines of text added in the election material, the statement explained.

“Just because the officers spoke with the candidate does not mean it was okay to use their images in an election advert,” said Police Media Spokesman SSP Ruwan Gunasekera. Asked if the Police Department would lodge a complaint with the Elections Commission, SSP Gunasekera replied that the “Commission is probably already aware”.

However when the questions were raised about this violation at a press conference at the Elections Commission last Thursday (31), Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya claimed no complaint had been lodged in this regard so far.

Three days after the clarification issued by the Police, the advert remains prominently displayed on Rajapaksa’s Twitter page. Despite repeated flagging of the issue on social media, the Rajapaksa campaign is yet to remove the image that is a flagrant violation of election law. No candidate is permitted to use public servants in campaign propaganda material, the Elections Commission has decreed.

Around the same day, the Sajith Premadasa campaign also released a campaign advert featuring a military parade. It was not certain whether the officers portrayed in the photograph were still in service. However the use of the photograph is a violation of election laws, polls observers said.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) has flagged both complaints. National People’s Movement Presidential Candidate and former Army Chief Mahesh Senanayake has also made an official complaint with the Elections Commission about both main candidates using service personnel in their campaign material.

Article 104 B (4) (a) of the Constitution expressly prohibits state property from being used in the promotion of a party or candidate during the period of an election.

A few weeks ago, the current Army Commander also featured in an election advertisement promoting SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Elections Commission called for an explanation from the Army Chief and the Ministry of Defence, which replied that the statement had been used without his approval.

The SLPP meanwhile denied it had placed the advertisement. The Elections Commission did not pursue the matter further despite repeated calls to do so. Journalist Kusal Perera in a letter to the Commission urged that invoices for the advertisement be called for from the privately owned media that published the advertisement. However, Sunday Observer learns that when at least one of the Commissioners sought to write to the private media concerned, Elections Department officials had indicated the Commission had no authority to write to non-state entities.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna whose leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is a candidate in the presidential race, also held discussions with the Elections Commission last week, about extremely biased broadcast coverage of election candidates by the private and state media. JVP Bimal Ratnayake took to Twitter to complain bitterly that the Elections Commission had simply thrown up its hands and said it had no power to act against the mounting complaints.

The JVP MP said that earlier however the Commission agreed to inform the public about the biased, illegal behaviour of the media and to summon media bosses. Both decisions have not been implemented, Ratnayake noted.

This was despite the Election Commission Media Guidelines applicable to both state and private media being gazetted in 2018, the JVP MP pointed out. The gazette and corresponding constitutional provision makes it clear that the Commission has the power to act, he said.

“But the umpires have abandoned the match,” Ratnayake charged.

UNP State Minister Dr Harsha De Silva also took the Elections Commission on using his Twitter account last week. De Silva posted pictures of Kotte Municipal Council vehicles being used for preparations ahead of a SLPP rally in Rajagiriya.

The Kotte MC is run by the SLPP. De Silva said it was unbelievable that the abuse of state property was happening just outside the Elections Commission premises, and still the commission would not act.

Once again responding to questions from the media at his Thursday press briefing, Commission Chairman Deshapriya claimed that no such complaint had been filed with the department.

Controversy erupted again, when Colombo District Secretary Sunil Kannangara who is also Returning Officer for the Colombo District in the forthcoming presidential poll, posted material denigrating NDF candidate Sajith Premadasa on his official Facebook page. The post shared by Kannangara called Premadasa “booru puthaano”.

During the constitutional crisis in October last year, Kannangara made similar partisan statements on his Facebook, in support of the controversially appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Kannangara personally registered the marriage of Hambantota District MP Namal Rajapaksa in September this year.

The controversial social media posting comes amid claims that another senior Elections official had told personnel in his department that Candidate Premadasa would get no more than 30% of the vote at the November 16 election.

“The statement is a clear signal to the Department about how the potential victor is to be treated,” a senior official at the Commission, speaking on condition of anonymity told Sunday Observer yesterday.

Asked about the Facebook post by the Colombo Returning Officer at the press briefing, Commission Chairman Deshapriya responded “I don’t think he would do this, he is a good man.” Deshapriya also repeated the mantra that no complaints had been lodged with the Commission with regard to Kannangara’s conduct. Hours later, Kannangara took the post down on Facebook and changed the privacy settings on his account. He issued a clarification on his Facebook that there was information circulating that his account was promoting or denouncing presidential candidates.

“These posts are being circulated without my approval. If it is happening, it is part of a conspiracy,” the statement on Kannangara’s Facebook account said.

A pro-Gotabaya Facebook page published an image purporting to be initial results of postal votes with incorrect percentages, using the name of the Election Commission.

The CMEV has complained to the Election Commission on this matter.