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Campaign expenditure: How JRJ Constitution paved way for corruption



…continuing need for finger painting with indelible ink and ‘silent period’ questioned, EC reminded of risks taken by media

Text and pics by Shamindra Ferdinando

Chairman of Election Commission Attorney-at-Law Nimal Punchihewa on Tuesday (16) explained how the 1978 Constitution had abolished specific laws meant to ensure financial integrity of lawmakers. In terms of the pre-1978 laws, those who had acted in violation of them not only lost their parliamentary seats but civic rights, as well, Punchihewa, one-time member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, said. Punchihewa cited several examples while pointing out even the losers faced punitive measures in case of transgressions. However, the 1978 Constitution had changed the situation overnight.

 Punchihewa made the above observations at a workshop arranged by the Election Commission at its Rajagiriya Secretariat where senior lecturer Tudor Weerasinghe, Asoka Dias, Director MTV/MBC, Ariyananda Dombagahawatte, Chief Editor, Irida Lankadeepa, and Saman Sri Ratnayaka, Commissioner General of Elections, discussed the role of the media in the coverage of national election process and related matters. The opening remarks were made by Channa P de Silva, Director, research and policy planning.

 Punchihewa compared the powers enjoyed by his Commission and that of India as he explained the weakness of the EC here. Punchihewa pointed out EC in Sri Lanka lacked the power to reject even a candidate who had been found guilty by court in respect of a bribery charge.  “Therefore, we have no option but to accept nominations handed over by such persons,” he said.

Punchihewa succeeded Mahinda Deshapriya as the Chairman of EC after the last general election, in Aug 2020.

Having flayed a section of the media for pursuing agendas inimical to free and fair election process, Punchihewa emphasized the responsibility, on the part of both print and electronic media, to ensure what he called a level playing field. The media should never be a cat’s paw of racketeers. The lawyer discussed the coverage of elections in terms of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments while asserting both the print and electronic media failed to live up to expectations of those who desired neutrality on their part.

Emphasizing that any elected government should follow the basic principle that it was only the caretaker andcertainly not the proprietor, lawyer Punchihewa said that the democracy depended on free and fair elections. However, the absence of incidents on the day of the election didn’t mean a free and fair election, Punchihewa said, urging the media to respond courageously to challenging situations. Referring to Sri Lanka’s international commitments, lawyer Punchihewa said that the country couldn’t afford not to adhere to agreements, including ICCPR accepted over the years.

Pointing out that the law prevented lawmakers from engaging in business with the government, Attorney-at-Law Punchihewa mentioned two cases of members of Parliament losing their seats. Albert de Silva lost the Galle seat he won at the 1977 general election after one-time Prime Minister Wijayananada Dhanayake filed an election petition over the former having a government license to deal in kerosene, Punchihewa said. Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, too, lost his seat on the same grounds though he was immediately accommodated on the UNP National List.

Punchihewa categorized the 1981 Jaffna District Development Council polls, the 1982 referendum, and the 1999 Wayamba Provincial Council poll as having had the worst abuses in Sri Lanka’s electoral history.

Citing a Supreme Court ruling in respect of a case filed against the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga putting off a scheduled election, lawyer Punchihewa said that even the President couldn’t interfere with the people’s right to exercise their franchise.

The  EC Chairman also referred to another court ruling in respect of the Army preventing those living in LTTE controlled areas from entering the ‘cleared’ area to vote at the 2001 general election to underscore the privileged status of voters to exercise their franchise under any circumstances.

 The Island

 drew the attention of EC Chairman Punchihewa to his failure to act in spite of the inordinate delay in the UNP not filling its solitary National List slot, privileged status given to ex-lawmakers to contest presidential election thereby causing a sharp increase in public expenditure (the EC was reminded its former Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya on record as having said that the cost of the 2019 presidential poll went up to Rs 8 bn from 4 bn due to doubling of the number of contestants), the Election Department/Election Commission and Parliament turning a blind eye to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ordering Northern electorate not to vote at the 2005 presidential election and recognition of the LTTE, in late 1989, as a registered political party. 

 We also sought an explanation from the EC as regards the responsibility on its part as well as that of the Parliament. The meeting was also told how the two largest political parties, represented in Parliament, the SLPP and the SJB, with 145 and 54 lawmakers, respectively, happened to be unknown political parties. The EC owed an explanation as to how registered political parties were re-registered under controversial circumstances in spite of tough measures to prevent registration of new political parties, The Island pointed out.

 Responding to criticism of the media directed by EC Chairman Punchihewa, Asoka Dias reminded the risks taken by the media in the performance of their duty. Declaring that the Dec 1999 presidential had been the first national poll that received high profile coverage by state and privately owned media, Dias recollected the Dec 18, 1999 election night suicide bomb attack directed at the then People’s Alliance final rally at the Town Hall.

The LTTE suicide attack claimed the lives of two media persons, namely Indika Paththiniwasam (Sirasa, assistant cameraman) and Anura Priyantha (ITN, assistant cameraman). In addition to them, five media men, including three foreigners, received injuries. A separate suicide attack at Ja-Ela, directed at an UNP rally, also on the same day, claimed the lives of several persons, including retired Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Lakshman Algama.

Dias said Sirasa faced a dilemma whether to report the death of Paththiniwasam before informing his 25-year-old wife. The CID, however, found fault with Sirasa over the delay in reporting the Town Hall blast. Dias said that the ITN, too, would have been in a quandary.  “We were repeatedly asked why Sirasa has not reported the blast immediately”. Dias questioned the rationale behind the CID questioning Sirasa over the delay in reporting the blast.

Dias compared the experience gained by the Sri Lankan media in covering elections under exceptionally difficult circumstances and that of the foreign journalists. Referring to a spate of attacks on the media over the years, Dias asserted that the Sri Lankan media faced far more challenges in covering elections than their foreign counterparts.

Commenting on what Dias called lethargic attitude of political parties, he said that in 2000 Sirasa had offered three free minutes each to political parties contesting the general election. In spite of receiving free air time, Sirasa found it difficult to convince political parties to make use of the opportunity, Dias said.

 Responding to almost doubling of the public expenditure as a result of the number of candidates at the last presidential poll being closer to 40, Dias said that the electorate found it difficult to identify genuine contestants and dummy candidates.

Dias raised a number of questions including one on the usefulness of marking voters fingers with ink to prevent organised impersonation against the backdrop of national identity card or some other official document being made compulsory for voting. The Sirasa representative said that a substantial amount of public money could be saved by doing away with futile marking of little fingers. Dias emphasized the need to revisit the whole process, including the contentious of ‘silent period’ in the run-up to elections as social media platforms, satellite TV et al continued to campaign. According to him, the 48-hour ‘silent period’ was irrelevant due advancements made by the media.

Dias recollected how media openly backed selected candidates in 1902 at the Kotahena local government poll. At the first legislative council election in 1912, two newspapers backed P. Ramanathan (The Ceylonese) and Dr. H. M. Fernando (Morning Leader).

The Island 

pointed out the media had been conveniently silent on some contentious issues. The media largely remained silent when the EU alleged in 2004 the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led TNA, won 22 seats at the April 2004 general election with the LTTE’s support. Another instance of media apathy was war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka contesting the 2010 Presidential, poll under the Swan symbol, a political party that hadn’t been represented in either local government institutions or provincial councils or Parliament. The Swan alliance contested 2015 (Maithripala Sirisena) and 2019 (Sajith Premadasa) presidential polls though the media never bothered to examine the story behind such political projects.

Tudor Weerasinghe explained how media, too, contributed to the gradual deterioration of public sector institution. Weerasinghe discussed the responsibility on the part of the media to recognize real issues. The failure to do so could be catastrophic, the lecturer said, urging the media to take on institutions instead of targeting individuals. Misdirected criticism of individuals could have a devastating impact on the entire electoral process, Weerasinghe warned. The academic explained how in spite of the change of governments the systems continued much to the dismay of those who expected genuine transformation. According to him, foreign electorates experienced the same dilemma.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s further deteriorated the global balance of power. Referring to the Suez Canal and Cuban missile crises, Weerasinghe pointed out how the West exploited the collapse of the Soviet Union to take unilateral decisions in respect of Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Weerasinghe discussed how the media exploited situations as part of various political and other strategies regardless of consequences.  According to him, Sri Lankan media is no exception.

At the conclusion, Saman Sri Ratnayaka explained the role of the EC, difficulties and challenges as the electorates continued to expand as the system came under increased pressure. Ratnayake discussed responsibilities and accountability on their part to ensure a level playing field. The Island asked Ratnayake who would take responsibility –the EC or the parliament-for increasing the number of Local Government members from 4,000 to 8,600 at a massive unbearable burden to the taxpayer. The official explained the circumstances leading to the increase. According to him, the parliament took the decision.

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SF claims thousands of police and military personnel leaving



By Saman Indrajith

Thousands of police and military personnel had left the services recently as they did not want to carry out illegal orders, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka told Parliament yesterday. According to the war-winning army commander 200 policemen have resigned during the past two months and 25,000 soldiers have left the army during the last two years.

“We urged the law enforcement and military officials not to follow illegal orders. We will reinstate them with back pay,” he said.

Fonseka also urged the President and the government MPs not to take people for fools.

“Sri Lanka owes 55 billion dollars to the world. Ranil’s plan is to borrow another seven billion during the next four years. So, in four years we will owe 62 billion to the world.

Ranil and his ministers ask us what the alternative to borrowing is. These are the people who destroyed the economy and society. They must leave. Then, we will find an alternative and develop the country,” he said, adding that the IMF loans had made crises in other nations worse.

“Ranil says that by 2025, we will have a budget surplus as in Japan, Germany and South Korea. These countries are economic power houses, and this comparison is ludicrous.”

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CEB hit by exodus of technical staff



By Shiran Ranasinghe

At least five technical personnel of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) resigned daily for overseas employment, a senior CEB official said.They included electrical engineers, electricians and foremen, he added.

“Most of them are quitting due to the economic crisis while others are simply disillusioned. Trained and experienced technical staff are in high demand in many countries,” he said.

CEB United Trade Union Alliance President Ranjan Jayalal said that the CEB had lost about 2,000 employees in recent times due to the above reasons.

“We had about 24,000 such personnel a few months ago. Now the number has come down to 22,000. A number of people had to retire on 31 December, 2022.

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Sajith questions sudden decision to charge Rs. 225,000 from students following NDES



By Saman Indrajith

The government had decided to charge Rs 225,000 from those enrolling at the Institute of Engineering Technology, Katunayake under the National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA), Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa said yesterday in Parliament.

Premadasa said that the institute awards the National Diploma in Engineering Sciences (NDES) and no fee was charged from students until 2023.The IET awards the National Diploma in Engineering Sciences under the three major fields of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, and eight sub-fields.

“This is an institute that has created over ten thousand tier two engineers. NDES is a four year programme,” he said.

The opposition leader said that the sudden decision to charge 225,000 rupees from students at a time when the average Sri Lankan family is facing significant economic challenges is unfair.

“This institute offered free tuition. We should continue this tradition. A large number of engineers are leaving the country and we need to ensure that we have a continuous supply of engineers to ensure we can maintain our essential technical services,” he said.

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