Is the Election Commission a capable media monitor?

8 November 2019 12:10 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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On Tuesday morning last, there was a surprising tweet that had copied a post from the FB account “Bring Back Gota” said to be managed by the SLPP social media group. The FB post very openly said, “Election Commission in Sri Lanka is no more an independent Commission. It is a biased Commission. Professor Hooley (misspelled purposely?) is not independent, he is an appointee that represent the Tamil Diaspora and Western interests. He will do his best to manipulate the election results as well.” In Sinhala the concluding appeal said, “Lets save the country”. The post carried a photo of Commission chairman Deshapriya, with Prof. Hoole at a press briefing.   


These speculative posts often with an anti-Tamil or anti-Muslim flavour go viral and get endorsed as “truth” without any valid reasoning. Though not penetrating into rural life, they still influence the social mindset as proved by past anti-Muslim campaigns on FB and gets copied into other social media. This campaign on the social media against the EC claiming it is not independent based on a wild accusation that Prof. Hoole represents the “Tamil Diaspora” and would “do his best to manipulate the election results” should, therefore, be answered by the EC itself with credible and independent conduct.   

 

The holding of a free and fair election itself is being questioned, and that is not for the EC to allow and be publicly seen


There is reason for the “Bring Back Gota” FB campaigners to slander Prof. Hoole. First is his unnecessary intervention in challenging President Sirisena’s October decision to dissolve parliament and hold elections, having appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. If Prof. Hoole on his conscience had wanted to challenge that gazette, he should have resigned from the Commission and filed his petition with the SC as a “concerned” citizen of the country. Judicial fora do not always rule for the petitioner. But with this SC ruling, Prof. Hoole is perceived by Rajapaksa supporters as one member in the EC who is politically not independent and is against the Rajapaksas.   


With that still pungent in their memory, the most recent issue with Prof. Hoole is his statement to media that the letter sent by the Commission chairman censoring ITN of its election-related interviews and programmes, was not a decision by the EC. He said it was a “Stalinist” decision with no discussion on ITN taking place in the EC. This, in fact, is not the first accusation that EC Chairman Deshapriya acted on his own without an EC decision. Dates for the recently held Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha elections were decided without any discussion in the EC it was alleged, by Prof. Hoole. It was also a decision that was spoken of as one in favour of the Rajapaksas. The EC chairman’s letter to ITN restricting the channel from carrying election-related coverage without prior vetting by the EC in that way was a major bonus once again for the SLPP.


Meanwhile this allegation that the EC is not independent gathers water on other counts as well. Apart from the election advertisement in the private Sinhala newspaper on which I challenged the independence of the EC and demanded immediate investigations as to who placed it and to bar the publisher/owner from further publishing election campaign advertisements, there are other serious issues the Chairman and the EC have completely ignored. One is the airing of a video clip on a private TV channel that alleged MP Fowzie was calling for the murder of Rajapaksa at an election meeting in Grandpass on October 24 held in support of UNF candidate Sajith Premadasa. The video clip aired was subsequently proved to be doctored. But the private TV Channel did not even offer an apology to MP Fowzie. Worst was the EC completely ignoring it allowing for more such blatant violations in private media.   
Then came the use of photos of Jaffna ASP D.D.R. Dassanayake and HQI CI Prasad Fernando on SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election campaign. Police media Spokesperson SSP Ruwan Gunasekera told the media, “ASP Dassanayake has submitted a complaint in which he claims he did not permit his image to be used for the election propaganda poster. Both police officers were unaware their images were used in this manner.” Yet the EC has not even warned the SLPP and its candidate for such blatant violations compromising the independence and apolitical status of police and security forces. All those issues picture the EC and its chairman as biased towards the Rajapaksas.   


It is with such duplicity in responding to election campaign violations the EC pays extra attention to State media. The EC, especially Chairman Deshapriya is creating a huge myth through vague verbal statements that the Commission does not have the “authority” to regulate or censure private media as it could the State media in justifying his arbitrary censure on ITN, which he was forced to withdraw. JVP MP Bimal Rathnayake was extremely critical of EC chairman Deshapriya after meeting with him a fortnight ago to discuss the role of the media during the Presidential elections. While conceding the private electronic media was the worst, MP Rathnayake said the Commission Chairman refused to act against errant private media. He said the Chairman backtracked on the earlier agreement to call all private media organisation heads to brief them on guidelines. “The umpires have abandoned the match,” MP Bimal Rathnayake told media, adversely referring to the EC and its chairman.   


The 19 Amendment does not restrict the EC to “State media” only. It allows the EC to regulate all media during any election and at any Referendum, under Article 23(5)(a) which reads as, “The Commission shall have the power to issue from time to time, in respect of the holding of any election or the conduct of a Referendum, such guidelines as the Commission may consider appropriate, to any broadcasting or telecasting operator or any proprietor or publisher of a newspaper, as the case may be, as the Commission may consider necessary to ensure a free and fair election.”   


This is why EC Chairman Deshapriya cannot respond to my complaint on October 20 demanding he takes action on the publication of the election campaign advertisement in a privately owned Sinhala newspaper. This is where the controversy begins. To ensure a “free and fair election”, the EC is provided with a legal handle within the Constitution to issue “guidelines” to all media; broadcasting, telecasting and newspaper publishing. It does not say “guidelines” should be issued for “only State media” and “not private media.”   


Present-day elections are fought not only as grassroots campaigns where voters are directly addressed in “house to house” campaigns and through local meetings popularly called “pocket meetings”. That was the practice over almost three decades ago. Present-day campaigning is different. During the past decades, with people tied to a gruelling lifestyle in a very competitive market economy, electronic media became the most influential media in electioneering. Massive amounts are now spent on election campaign advertisements what the corporate sector wouldn’t spend in a whole year to promote their products and services. In fact, private media slap increased special rates on election campaign advertisements which is a big business during presidential and parliamentary elections. Apart from that, especially telecasting and broadcasting media promote special programmes focused on elections that could rank their station high in popular demand, to attract more advertising. Social media is a thick periphery around all other media. Most media keep a tab on social media and at times pick speculative news stories from social media. Even platform speakers use “juicy” anecdotes and “memes” from social media to draw the attention of their audience.   
These new developments in media and its usage cannot go without independent monitoring, irrespective of their ownership and become more important during an election. The EC and the Chairman have ignored that responsibility. For telecasting and broadcasting media, ownership is totally irrelevant, as I explained in a previous article published here on October 25. Electronic media that is wholly and completely dependent on digital frequency for broadcasting and telecasting, does not have the freedom to back political parties and candidates of their choice. Digital frequency as a natural resource is property owned by the people. The State is only its “guardian”, I explained.   

 

These speculative posts often with an anti-Tamil or anti-Muslim flavour  go viral and get endorsed as “truth” without any valid reasoning


More pathetic is the role the funded non-governmental “election monitoring organisations” play in allowing the EC and its chairman to act and be seen as acting with bias. They are running behind political candidates and election campaigning to collect “violations” and issue statements. They have, to date, not questioned the EC on any of the issues cited above and the apparently partisan role of the EC and Chairman in regulating the media. They don’t take it as their responsibility for obvious reasons. Funds for these non-governmental organisations depend very much on their acceptance by the EC.  


Therefore, the EC and Chairman Deshapriya also have the blessings of the funded NGOs and their reports to play a partisan role that is being questioned openly. The holding of a free and fair election itself is being questioned, and that is not for the EC to allow and be publicly seen. The EC does not have the capacity to monitor and regulate the media, and its understanding of media responsibility is flawed as seen in its “guidelines”. The EC depends on complaints and is selective in how they act on complaints. We, therefore need to have a special media monitoring mechanism with powers to regulate the media. The EC is not that “regulator” for sure. 

 

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