Sri Lanka’s Election Commission chief Mahinda Deshapriya withdrew the censorship he slapped on state-owned ITN after protests that his action was supporting Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the main opposition candidate at November 16 presidential polls.
Deshapriya shocked his own fellow commissioners by firing a letter to ITN saying that they are prohibited from broadcasting any politically-oriented programs or interviews from Monday till results of the November 16 presidential election are declared.
However, within hours, he backed down. In another letter to the ITN on Sunday afternoon, Deshpriya said he was withdrawing his original order against ITN.
ITN’s broadcast of an interview on Wednesday night was seen by Deshapriya as unfavourable to 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 too was opposed to direct action against ITN. On Sunday, Deshap5riya admitted that he received “many representations from several parties” saying that the censorship on ITN was “discriminatory.”
The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections said private TV networks openly flouted campaign laws and supported Rajapaksa while Deshapriya had failed to take any action against those offenders.
“Our position is that all channels should be treated on an equal footing because they are all using frequencies which belong to all people of this country,” PAFFREL chief Rohana Hettiarachchi said.
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 earlier that 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.