(NB: Press release contains annexure)
In order for a free and fair election to take place Transparency International Sri Lanka believes that it is imperative that media coverage be balanced.
Particular attention must be paid to any electronic media which is managed by state resources.
Internationally recognised Article XIX along with the local media monitoring agency INFORM, conducted a survey during the 2000 general election and found that state media had been systematically abused. A series of well-founded recommendations were introduced with the hopes of improving quality of information. Unfortunately thus far no state authority has taken any meaningful steps on implementation. (Please see annexure)
TISL has observed that state controlled media has not made any progress and has made an appeal to the Commissioner of Elections to act under relevant constitutional provisions to stop the abuse of state managed media. It is hoped that unfair coverage in the electronic media and election misinformation would not take place. TISL calls on the President, Prime Minister, Minister of Media, secretary to the Ministry of Media, heads and board members of state owned media institutions to immediately use their authority to take the following steps.
(a)Engage in non-political voter education programmes;
(b)Give equal opportunities for all political parties to explain their respective manifestos and programmes;
(c)Resist political influence in all programmes including news bulletins and special adhoc programmes;
(d)Introduce in a transparent manner, comprehensive guidelines to be strictly followed by the media during elections;
(e) Ensure that all political parties have equal opportunities in all political broadcasts during the campaign period. This should cover equal opportunities in terms of time, technical quality as well as right of reply;
(f) All media institutions should have a political / media expert who is to be responsible to the Election Commissioner and the public, and such person should not be selected and appointed to cater to political parties.
(g) Ensure that the reporting done during an election period does not contain election manipulations;
(h) All political leaders including the President should be considered as political party leaders (whether they contest or not) and selected leaders should not be given preferential treatment in coverage, during the entire period including blackout period.
ANNEXURE TO PRESS RELEASE
Summary of Findings & Recommendations (2000 General Elections with regard publicly funded electronic media)During the 2000 General Elections, INFORM in collaboration with the internationally renowned NGO Article XIX monitored the conduct of the publicly funded electronic media. The report was released in 2001 and policy makers and political parties were appraised of the full report. The survey was conducted by a group of over 30 researchers led by Mr. Tilak Jayaratne, a pioneer Sri Lankan broadcaster.
The 2000 General Elections were conducted while the PA was having the Executive Presidency as well as Parliamentary majority and all Cabinet Ministers. The Media Minister was from the PA.For the benefit of the public and authorities, we wish to summarise the main observations and conclusions of the 2000 survey.
Guidelines relating to the media complying with primary legislation and the Election Commissioner’s Guidelines, if existing, were neither available for scrutiny nor followed. The coverage was in contravention of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Act, the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation Act, the Parliamentary Elections Act and the Parliamentary
General Election of 2000: Guidelines for Media by the Commissioner of Elections.
Coverage of the party controlling the Media Ministry, in quantitative and qualitative terms, exceeded that of all the other parties combined. There was no space to reply to constant allegations made against the opposition politicians and their political stances. A number of programmes focused on ruling party members while no programmes featured opposition members.
The public media gave political coverage, with partiality towards the ruling party, during the campaign blackout period. There was a narrow range of voices heard with specific individuals dominating the airwaves. On many occasions, the PA Media Unit served as a reliable source but non-governmental or alternative political sources were scarcely given any coverage.
The state media made direct appeals not to vote for a certain party or candidate. Attempts were made to influence particular voter groups by broadcasting in different languages. No distinction was made between the roles of public media personalities and political representatives with the media being directly involved in election propaganda activities.
There was little or no coverage advocating the voters’ freedom of choice. Issues of interest to the electorate were never covered without political input. There was a number of programmes critically addressed the election-monitoring process. Independent civil society and foreign election monitors were portrayed in a negative light. An appallingly low amount of time was spent on voter education.
While news items spent a considerable time broadcasting the requests of the political
parties stressing the necessity for free and fair elections but not much time was spent explaining the conditions, which would ensure that elections did conform to such standards.
News programmes, not featuring ruling party politicians, generally dealt with government’s achievements in development activities and focused entirely on positive aspects of the government. The election campaign period was beset by political violence, yet only incidents allegedly committed by UNP supporters were reported in large numbers.
Balanced and impartial coverage of concrete political issues and party platforms was almost non- existent. While broadcasting unbalanced political comments, the public media failed to independently investigate important matters of public interest. There was a substantive failure to cover two of the top issues of public interest; the conflict and the Government’s proposals on how to end it.
Most documentary type programmes focused on the past, mixing allegation and fact to create a set of arguments as to why the PA was the best election choice and why voting for the opposing party was a bad choice.
The technical quality and approach seen in the live coverage of PA rallies was markedly different to that of UNP rallies. There was also evidence of blatant distortion in the coverage of election activities of the opposition party.
Summary of recommendations Public funded radio and television have a special role to play in election campaigns by enabling the voters to make an informed and thus independent choice as to which party or candidate they should support. It is only when the independence of the broadcasters is guaranteed, both in law and in practice, that the public funded media can fulfill this role and act as servants of public interest.
To achieve this goal, the Survey proposed following recommendations:
(a) Independent funding for public interest television and radio
(b) Make the state media administratively independent from the Executive.
(c)State control media should be separate from the Government, thus establishing credibility with the public.Publicly funded media should enter into agreements with government and NGOs to produce programmes, which educate the public and enhance citizens participation.
(d) Must resist outside influence and make decisions based solely on public service principles and not on interests of political parties and individuals.
(e) Set up an appropriate pluralistic and independent Governing Boards for media institutions without allowing Ministers to manipulate media.
(f) Enact comprehensive guidelines to be strictly followed by the media during elections. The public should have access to remedies against violations of these guidelines.
(g) Ensure that all political parties have equal opportunities in all political broadcasts during the campaign period. All media institutions should have a political / media expert who is to be responsible to Parliament and the public.
(h) Those media officers who manipulate news and other material for the benefit of any political party should be made personally responsible along with the media institution concerned.