President Maithripala Sirisena may have crossed a red line in shutting down the TNL network owned by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s brother in a worsening power struggle that undermines the government.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) which is directly under Sirisena had obtained an order from the Polgahawela magistrate to seal a TNL transmitter alleging it was broadcasting illegally.
Whatever the legal implications, the political fallout of the TRC action is causing serious damage to Sirisena whose credibility is increasingly undermined by his own recent public statements.
The TRC in a statement issued a day after the shutting down claimed that it had no “undue ambition” and that TNL had illegally used two VHF (very high frequency) channels “from time to time” without permission.
“The TRCSL emphasizes that there is no any (sic) other undue ambition behind this action,” the regulator said. However, the damage was done, and even close aides of Sirisena said the timing was unfortunate.
The run up to the incident suggests that the President was well aware of the impending crackdown.
The action against the TNL network followed a ferocious attack that the station launched against Sirisena over his controversial remarks at the birth commemoration of Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha thero.
Sirisena had disowned the “100-day program” that launched his bid for the January 2015 election. He also suggested that it was Wickremesinghe who authorised two helicopters to ferry defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa to Tangalle soon after Sirisena won elections.
Sirisena himself had told his party that he had become the only president in history to allow Rajapaksa a helicopter ride home after his shock defeat.
The TNL in a brief report juxtaposed videos of Sirisena’s claims with his previous statements which contradicted the President’s latest position.
Unconfirmed reports say the President was also angered by an unrelated statement of the Inspector General Pujith Jayasundara broadcast by TNL. In that video, Jayasundara speaks of a person submerged in a cesspool ridiculing a drop of urine on pure white clothes of another passer-by.
TNL showed this clip of the IGP soon after the scathing attack on Sirisena suggesting through innuendo that it was a reference to Sirisena pointing out the minor faults of others when he himself was at fault.
The crackdown on TNL saw rare unity between the UNP and opposition firebrand Wimal Weerawansa and several others. They condemned the TRC action and wanted the station restored.
Weerawansa accused the president of seeking revenge from the Prime Minister’s family in a worsening power struggle between the two leaders. Neither the UNP nor Sirisena loyalists responded to Weerawansa’s analysis of the events.
Official sources said the TRC attempted to involve the CID in the raid against the TNL, but failed. The CID appears to have resisted pressure as the matter was outside the scope of their work and could be dealt under the TRC act without police involvement.
The UNP-led government has been powerless to reverse another media ban slapped by Sirisena in November last year. Despite appeals from the UNP, the Sirisena-led TRC has refused to lift a blockade of the Lanka E news portal.
The TRC ordered Sri Lankan internet service providers to block access to lankaenews.com which has accused Sirisena and his family of corruption.