Polls Chief faces backlash over sudden move to silence ITN | Sunday Observer

Polls Chief faces backlash over sudden move to silence ITN

Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya came under heavy criticism over a letter he issued last night, purportedly on behalf of the Elections Commission, directing the State-owned Independent Television Network (ITN) station to desist from airing any live political programs, and instructing the station to clear the content of all political programs with the Elections Commission. The reason, Deshapriya said in his letter, was that the Commission had received a complaint that such a program aired on ITN had caused duress to presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The move was widely criticiSed, with one of the three elections commissioners, at least two political parties fielding candidates at the election, and private media groups speaking out against the move. Elections Commissioner Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole condemned the move as “Stalinist”, and charged that there had been no Elections Commission decision to censor ITN, not a meeting of the Commission at which such an issue was even discussed.

The Constitution requires decisions of the Elections Commission to be taken by majority decision of at least two out of three commissioners after a meeting at which all three commissioners are present. Hoole’s charge that no meeting took place calls into question the validity of the directive against ITN. “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 this topic,” Hoole told Sunday Observer. “This ill-advised move will deprive the electorate of 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 that our Commission, which must be independent, is also taking sides in this election.”

Professor Hoole was not alone in his suggestion that the move is tantamount to the independent Elections Commission taking sides in the polls fight.

JVP MP Bimal Ratnayake told Sunday Observer that the private media “are worse”, and that the Elections Commission, while being empowered to act against them, have done nothing about it, and are specifically targeting only ITN. Ratnayake believes it is a good thing to slap controls even on the state media, but after a meeting last week with the Elections Commission, Ratnayake complained that the EC refused to act against private media organisations, and even went back on an earlier pledge to convene and warn media organisation heads. “The umpires have abandoned the match,” he lamented.

A legal expert speaking to the Sunday Observer said that the letter contravenes Articles 12 and 14 of the Constitution. “The Elections Commission may be above ordinary laws during an election period,” he said. “But not the Constitution.” The punishment must fit the crime, the expert who did not wish to be named, said. Ideally, the action to be taken would have been asking for a live apology with an opportunity afforded to the affected party to respond. Also they suggest that if programs to be recorded and send to be previewed by the Commission, there should be a competent authority to evaluate it.

Attorney-at-law Chanakya Jayadeva said that in the business of entertainment and television the reason to do live interviews was instant momentum and if they were to record and send and get approval by a different authority political programs of this nature, at a very crucial juncture closer to the Presidential Election, the content might be outdated by the time it’s broadcast.

“As a result the value for the content is less and this will directly affect the business and ratings of television channel,” Jayadeva said.

Other lawyers called it unequal treatment of one organisation using the public airwaves while other entities were allowed to run rampant unchecked on those same airwaves.

“In that case, the Election Commission must be mindful of the biases of private channels as well. The public has ownership of frequencies. The Commission cannot only impose these strictures on state channels,” said Attorney at Law, Upul Kumarapperuma.

Non-Cabinet Minister and UNP MP Dr. Harsha de Silva panned the move as “ridiculous,” accusing the NEC of acting in a biased manner by refusing to reign in violations and bias by private media stations and focusing only on state-media organisations.

The Elections Commission has on multiple occasions reprimanded media organisations deemed to be unfavourable to Rajapaksa, but has come under fire for turning a blind-eye to egregious violations by pro-Rajapaksa media outlets. For example, a private TV station used a doctored audio clip to falsely and repeatedly accuse senior Muslim MP A.H.M. Fowzie of calling for the assassination of Rajapaksa. Despite the story being debunked, no apology has ensued and the EC has declined to even reprimand the media organisation concerned, while turning its guns on institutions whose coverage is deemed unfavourable to Rajapaksa.

Attempts to reach Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya and member Nalin Abeysekera were unsuccessful.