Make media a level playing field for all during elections - Election Commission chief | Sunday Observer

Make media a level playing field for all during elections - Election Commission chief

21 March, 2021
Nimal Punchihewa-Prof. Tudor Weerasinghe

Stressing the importance of the role played by the print and electronic media, to ensure a level playing field during elections, Election Commission Chairman Nimal Punchihewa said the media failed to live up to its expectations to maintain neutrality on their part during the past elections.

He said that democracy depended on free and fair elections and urged the media fraternity to make their contribution to uphold this people’s right, speaking at a workshop for media organised by the Election Commission at its Secretariat at Rajagiriya last week.

Senior lecturer at Sripali Campus for Performing Arts and Mass Media of the Colombo University, Prof. Tudor Weerasinghe, Director MTV/MBC Asoka Dias, Chief Editor, Irida Lankadeepa Ariyananda Dombagahawatte and Director General Elections Saman Sri Ratnayaka  spoke on different aspects of the role of the media in the coverage of the national election process and related matters.

The opening speech was made by Director, Research and Policy Planning of the Election Secretariat Channa P de Silva. 

Election law

The Election Commission Chairman said the election law before the 1978 constitution had strong provisions and punitive measures where offenders had to face severe punishment including depriving of their civic rights, yet today the Election Commission itself has become a toothless entity helpless to rectify the flaws in the election law.

Referring to the Provincial Councils Election, he said the Commission is of the view that a mixed electoral system combining the First-Past-the-Post system and the Proportional Representation (PR) system was ideal for the country.

Therere divergent views and proposals as to the composition of the FPP and PR in the mixed electoral system, whether it should be 50 percent - 50 or 70 to 30 percent.

Appealing to the media to respond courageously to challenging situations and report the truth during an election phase, the Chairman said, the absence of incidents on the day of the election alone would not suggest the election was free and fair.

Referring to Sri Lanka’s international commitments, Punchihewa said that the country has an obligation to adhere to international agreements, including International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR ) to which we have become a signatory in 1980.

Citing a Supreme Court ruling in respect of a case filed against the attempts by then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to put off a scheduled election in 2005, the Election Commission Chief said that even the Executive President couldn’t interfere with the people’s right to exercise their franchise. Courts have also ruled that no one - even the President or the House Speaker - can enjoy privileged status when casting the vote, that everyone is equal under the election law. Thus, it is mandatory for everyone to cast their vote at an official polling station.

Prof. Tudor Weerasinghe said the role of journalists has transformed drastically and the media has deviated from their primary objective which is to inform the masses. He said the media has instead become a ‘manipulator’, disseminating ‘prescriptive information’ and a slave of political and industry needs.

Independent opinion

He said that the media must essentially have their opinion independent from political voice. “It is for the betterment of the country, if the academia, politicians and the media held independent opinions rather than shared agendas that would only serve each other,” he said.

Editor Ariyaratne Dombaghawatte said the Fourth Estate is much more important than the other three pillars of democracy - Executive, Legislature and Judiciary - since it is the organ through which the public is educated on the ‘operation of governance’ executed by the other three. 

However, he said it was unfortunate that this sector is not regulated properly and anyone with a smartphone can become a journalist today. “Media must consist of people with self-discipline and proper training,” he said, adding that a quest for truth, impartiality, minimising damage and accountability should be the driving forces of a sound reportage.

Saying that the newspaper industry too depended upon profit, Dombagahawatte added, yet, journalists must always fight for editorial independence for which they must strike a balance between the industry needs and ethics.

Responding to criticism by the Election Commission Chairman that polls reporting by the media was biased, MTV Director Asoka Dias reminded the risks taken by the media in the performance of their duty during an election phase.

Recalling the December 1999 Presidential Election where two television camera crew members from Sirasa and ITN died in a suicide bomb attack which targeted Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s Peope’s Aaliance final rally, he said they came under scrutiny of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) which kept on asking why the news was not relayed immediately.

“The delay was because we were in a dilemma whether the news should be telecast before it is privately conveyed to the 25-year-old wife of our crew member. The CID kept on questioning us for the reasons for our delay,” Dias said.

Indika Paththiniwasam of Sirasa and Anura Priyantha of ITN were killed in the bomb attack carried out by the LTTE. He said the ITN would also have been in a similar situation, torn between ethics, compassion and professional conduct.

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.

He emphasised the need to revisit the whole electoral process, including the law on ‘48 hour silent period’ before the election day as social media platforms and satellite TV networks operating from overseas continue propaganda and campaign work despite this law. According to him, this ‘silent period’ has become redundant due to technological advancements in the media world.