Following a series of fundamental rights petitions filed by five private TV stations and six media organisations, the Supreme Court on Friday issued an interim order suspending the impugned Regulations of Private Television Broadcasting Stations gazetted on October 10 by Minister of Mass Media Anura Priyadarshana Yapa.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, the Free Media Movement, MTV, EAP Networks, TNL, Derana TV, the Sri Lanka Press Institute, Dialog TV, Power Lanka and a resident of Piliyandala filed fundamental rights petitions, citing Minister Yapa, Ministry Secretary A. Dissanayake and the Attorney General, among others, as respondents.
The bench comprising Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, Justices Shiranee Tilakawardane and K. Sripavan granted the petitioners leave to proceed. The petitioners alleged that their fundamental rights to equality, freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to engage in any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise had been infringed by the regulations which they claimed violated the constitution.
Appearing on behalf of the respondents, Senior State Counsel Nerin Pulle requested court not to issue the stay order as the Media Minister had deferred the implementation of the regulations by one month. But lawyers representing the petitioners claimed that the minister took this action only after a petition was filed challenging the regulations. They also argued that the minister did not have the power to defer the implementation of the regulations once they were gazetted but he could revoke them.
Attorney Lakshman Perera appearing for the private TV stations said that the regulations were draconian in nature. For instance, he said that if the ownership of a television stations was to change hands from father to son, the minister’s permission had to be obtained and therefore he saw the regulations as a breach of fundamental rights.
The bench then opined that when renewing licences for private TV stations, three main factors should be taken into considerations -- professional, technical and financial standards. Observing that these standards could not be achieved by imposing regulations, the court ruled that the licences issued for these TV stations were still valid.
The court then turned its attention on health hazards posed by television towers.
Justice Tilakawardane advised the senior state counsel to look into the possibility of bringing down the number of broadcasting towers in the country as they were hazardous to the health of the public.
Chief Justice Silva said that under health and environmental laws one tower could be used to broadcast all TV channels since their emissions were harmful to humans. He said the tower on the Pidurutalagala mountain,one of the highest points of the island, could be used for this purpose and informed the senior state counsel to discuss this matter with the media minister. The Chief Justice said that what the media minister should do was to implement such proposals instead of announcing regulations such as those that were being contested.
Lawyer Sarath Jayawardene appearing for MTV said that if the regulations were implemented, any programme telecast by a private TV channel could be subjected to screening at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), which was a rival television station, and therefore the new rules posed a question of rights in terms of intellectual property law.
The Chief Justice said that these regulations could not be justified and that the powers given to the minister by these regulations were far beyond what had been vested in him by the constitution.
He informed the senior state counsel and lawyers appearing for the petitioners to hold talks with the minister and submit to court a list of transparent guidelines for TV stations instead of regulations.
Senior State Counsel Nerin Pulle appeared on behalf of the respondents, while attorney-at-law Sanjeewa Jayawardene appeared for the petition by MTV on the advice of Attorney-at-law Sudath Perera. Attorneys-at-law Lakshman Perera, J. C. Weliamuna, M. A. Sumanthiran and Viran Corea appeared on behalf of the other TV stations.