Media: ensuring a level playing field | Daily News

Media: ensuring a level playing field

The decision taken by Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya to reverse his own decision on banning a State-run Television channel from conducting political programmes would certainly not be faulted by those keenly observing the passing media scene. Deshapriya said he decided to rescind his earlier decision following representations made in this connection by political parties and other stakeholders in the presidential race.

This is as it should be, if the stated objective of the Commissioner was to ensure a level playing field. Deshapriya came in for high praise for his stellar role in acting evenhandedly at the last Presidential Election against severe odds at a time when none of the present safeguards to ensure a free and fair election was in existence. There was no Independent Elections Commission or an Independent Police Commission at the time and the State media violated all election laws with impunity while the police and even the Security Forces were used by the political hierarchy in attempts to make the ruling party candidate victorious.

Deshapriya however stood his ground and led from the front to ensure a level playing field to the best of his ability. When asked by a journalist at a media conference if he had ordered the police to shoot individuals who may storm the polling booths to stuff ballot boxes his prompt reply was “why below the knee? I ask that they be shot through the head (oluwatama thiyanda).”

He also warned a state TV channel to withdraw a false news item to the effect that Sajith Premadasa had joined the Rajapaksa camp, while polling was in progress on Election Day in 2015, on pain of holding up the declaration of election results if the TV channel failed to comply.

Last year armed with full powers thanks to the 19th Amendment he was able to conduct a free and fair and incident free Local Government Election where there was not even a whiff of a complaint from the Opposition which went on to prevail at that election, for the first time inflicting defeat on the ruling party at an LG poll.

Besides, the EC Chairman, no doubt, would have formed his own opinion as to the conduct of certain private media institutions, particularly some private TV channels vis-a-vis their content, before making up his mind. That these private TV channels were brazenly promoting only a single candidate in the fray was only too obvious. The biased coverage, the blatant falsehoods and the twisting of facts to favour a single candidate and show up his main rival in a poor light was evident since the day of the nomination to all and sundry.

Of course the owners of these private channels had their motives. It is all too well known that the owner of one these TV channels was a front man for the real operator acting behind the scenes who is a front runner in the current Presidential race. Another TV channel is obviously working overtime, perhaps in the hope of securing the release of its owner’s sibling now serving time after being convicted for murder, in the event of the victory of their favoured candidate.

With the law silent on the course of action that could be taken against the flagrant promotion of only a particular candidate by private media, the only option before the EC Chairman was to make things less one sided. Based on this premise he, no doubt, would have come to the conclusion that restraining only the State TV channel(s) was a gross injustice that would queer the pitch for a level playing field where one candidate would gain the upper-hand over his rival.

In order to get over the issue of biased coverage by the print and electronic media during elections, organisations such as CMEV had proposed the establishment of a separate media unit under the Elections Commission. This is a suggestion the EC should give its thought to at least for future elections. This way media establishments that run roughshod over norms of media practice during elections could be reined in and their owners made liable for prosecution.

In terms of upholding the public interest, it is arguable that the publicly-owned mass media (known loosely as the State media) should necessarily be impartial since they are owned by the public and must be accountable to the public interest. It is likewise arguable that since the radio transmission frequencies are a public resource that is administered by the State, the radio wavelengths should also be used as public property and hence should, especially at a moment that is as vital for governance as the Presidential election, be utilised with public accountability by both the private and public media. During election time it is incumbent, therefore, on all broadcast media – whether State or private – to fairly present all the necessary facts and news to the general public without bias in favour of any candidate. At the same time, all the candidates too should be equitably treated by all media. Hence, what is needed is a clear cut law and regulatory instrument to define the parameters of the public stake in this respect, so that all ambiguities are eliminated and a unified piece of legislation drafted to bring all media institutions -state and private -in line with the election law.

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