Sri Lanka election commission censors state TV in lead-up to vote

Independent Television Network (ITN) accused of bias against opposition frontrunner Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

    Presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (L) sits with his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa [File: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP]
    Presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (L) sits with his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa [File: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP]

    Sri Lanka's election commission has said it will censor the political coverage of a state-owned TV station  after accusing it of bias against the former president's brother, who is running in the country's upcoming presidential election.

    The unprecedented move came after the Independent Television Network (ITN) aired a programme alleging loyalists to the previous government had thwarted a corruption probe into the family of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

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    The election commission said the broadcast had harmed opposition frontrunner Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of the former leader.

    The channel will be banned from showing political content from Monday without the commission's approval, chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said.

    "ITN cannot broadcast any political content without clearing with the Election Commission until the conclusion of the election on November 16," said a letter sent from Deshapriya to the network late on Saturday and seen by AFP news agency.

    A record 35 candidates vie for Sri Lanka's presidency (2:48)

    The letter also said that any live events filmed by the station must be shown to the commission for approval before being transmitted.

    It is the first time that a Sri Lankan election chief has censored a TV station.

    The commission said it had received many complaints about other channels campaigning for Rajapaksa without declaring their bias, but could not take action as these were all private networks.

    The election has attracted a record 35 candidates, with nearly 16 million people eligible to vote. Last week, the commission said it was working with Facebook to take down posts that defamed election candidates.

    Gotabaya is a hero to many Sinhalese, who are Buddhist and make up about 75 percent of Sri Lanka's 22 million people, over his role in ending a 26-year civil war in 2009.

    As secretary of defence under his brother's rule, Gotabaya played a key role in ending the Tamil Tigers' campaign for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. But during that time, the military was accused of various abuses, including torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies