The media, which was a major talking point after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks due to the deplorable behaviour of a section of it that was bogged down in racism, has again been making headlines for other reasons. The issue was seriously discussed during a seminar organised by the Denmark based International Media Support (IMS) recently where Election Commission (EC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya also participated. Two major incidents that took place this week have also refreshed the debate on media and ethics.
Last Saturday EC Chairman Mr Deshapriya ordered the State-owned Independent Television Network (ITN) to desist from airing any live political programmes, while instructing the station to clear its content of all political programmes with the EC if it wanted to telecast them. However, he revoked his order the following day after discussions with ITN authorities, possibly due to criticism by concerned sections of society.
On the other hand, the United National Party’s (UNP) Colombo District Parliamentarian S.M. Marikkar told journalists on Wednesday that his party had decided they would neither participate in political discussions and debates conducted by a certain television station, nor would they advertise with it. He charged that the particular TV station had made it a habit to distort facts in a manner that was advantageous to a party that was rival to his party.
It is argued that the order by Mr Deshapriya cannot be deemed as one made by the EC as he had not made it with the consent of the other two members of the Commission. Nevertheless, he had clamped the ban on the television station following a complaint that one of its programmes called “Seethala Eethala” (cold arrow) broadcast at 10pm on October 30 had been one-sided and detrimental to Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
In the ITN programme, former Additional Solicitor General Wasantha Navaratne Banda had responded to former Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and former Senior Additional Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath who had claimed they were under pressure to arrest members of the Rajapaksa regime.
Mr Navaratne Banda had said it was Minister Rajapakshe and Mr Gamlath who had inexplicably blocked other members of the Attorney General’s (AG) Department who had independently recommended the arrest of those connected to the former regime after studying the case files.
It is no secret that the State media is aligned to the NDF candidate and the majority of private media, especially television stations, are openly campaigning for the SLPP candidate
The interesting point here is that the polls chief had taken the television station to task despite Mr Navaratne Banda’s remarks having been a response to remarks made by two others possibly in the media itself. Had the remarks by the two been made in private there would be no question of responding. It is even more interesting to note that as Mr Navaratne Banda’s remark was detrimental to the SLPP candidate’s campaign, those made by the other two men were detrimental to New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa’s campaign.
This incident has taken place at a time when almost all media outlets and the majority or a sizable number of journalists have been politicized to varying degrees. Some media institutions and journalists seem to attempt to maintain journalistic ethics at least to some extent, whereas some others shamelessly breach them.
A ludicrous situation has arisen where a level playing field in Sri Lanka’s media landscape is maintained at least to some extent not due to individual media institutions striking a balance in their political programmes and news bulletins, but by the division among them on party lines. It is a preposterous situation of “two wrongs making a right.” Therefore, one has to accept the contention of those who are against the EC Chairman’s order that he had disturbed this outlandish “balance.”
Against this backdrop, despite the elections chief having acted on a complaint against ITN, throttling one media institution on charges of not being balanced in their programmes could itself be argued to be a one-sided act, as all other media outlets are allowed to carry on with their lopsided programmes and publications unabated.
It is no secret that the State media is aligned to the NDF candidate and the majority of private media, especially television stations, are openly campaigning for the SLPP candidate. Nonetheless, almost all media institutions give space or air time for the candidates other than the one they support, just to show that they are unbiased and fair, but sometimes making the very time and space allocated to those candidates harmful to them.
Balance in media, especially during elections, is measured by election monitors in terms of the time and space that various media institutions allocate to various candidates, especially to the two main contenders. The contents that are broadcast or published using that time and space is not considered, and there is no yardstick to measure the fairness of the contents either. They pick up slips of the tongue and out-of-context remarks by their adversaries, unpleasant incidents in their meetings and even total distortions of their speeches to fill the time and space allocated to them.
A classic example of how some media institutions provide time and space to their adversaries is the way a certain TV station telecast the decision by the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the largest constituent party in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), to support NDF candidate Sajith Premadasa last Sunday.
The ITAK along with four other Tamil parties had decided last month to put forward 13 demands, including their traditional and seemingly separatist ones, to the two main candidates and National People’s Power (NPP) candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake. When none of the three presidential hopefuls accepted them in toto, the ITAK decided to support Sajith Premadasa, claiming that their decision was based purely on the comparison of the manifestos of the trio. Responding to a question by a journalist, ITAK Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said their 13 demands had nothing to do with their decision to support Premadasa. Yet, the particular TV station while telecasting the ITAK decision took more time to read out those demands.
Students of media ethics discuss fairness and the difference between the truth and accuracy. This is a classic example and a case study for them.
The ITAK along with four other Tamil parties had decided last month to put forward 13 demands, including their traditional and seemingly separatist ones, to the two main candidates and National People’s Power (NPP) candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake
There is a significant difference in the two periods this year - the aftermath of the April 21 terrorist attacks and the run up to the presidential election - when the media’s behaviour came under scrutiny at the IMS seminar. Several media institutions with apparent political affiliations had been hell bent on demonizing Muslims and Islam, apparently for political reasons, after a group of Muslim terrorists attacked three tourist hotels and three churches targeting Christians. Therefore it was expected that anti-Muslim propaganda would last at least till the end of the presidential election. However, they have now totally abandoned the issues of Burqa, Niqab, madrasas, Arabisation and Quazi courts which they claimed to be detrimental to national security and social integration.
They might have first been of the view that minority votes would not matter at the presidential poll, given the results of the last year’s local government elections. But now, with a real fight for the topmost post of the country approaching, they appear to deem that each vote would count.
It is pertinent to paraphrase a clause in SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto for the November 16 presidential election. Accurate information and knowledge are essential in making accurate decisions, it says.
Balance in media, especially during elections, is measured by election monitors in terms of the time and space that various media institutions allocate to various candidates, especially to the two main contenders