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Is the Media behaving like the Wild Ass?

“In a democratic society, there is an expectation that professionals will behave in a proper manner. We cannot legislate decency; that has to come from within them.” - Dr Deepika Udagama

Media in Sri Lanka becomes very controversial during election times, and allegations of bias, malicious reporting and fake news become as common as Tuk-tuks on the streets of Colombo.

This is also the first major election being fought after the Media was granted unprecedented freedom following the advent of the Good Governance administration in 2015.  But, that freedom has now resulted in questions being raised as to whether the media is acting in a professional manner.

The last Presidential election was fought in the shadow of Media repression. Fresh in the minds of the practitioners were the memories of journalists murdered on the streets of Colombo, others taken in the dreaded White vans and beaten, allegedly by military squads.

This time there is no fear of that, but unfettered freedom has become an issue throwing up new challenges, prompting some to say, it has the Freedom of the Wild Ass.

As always, the National Elections Commission has issued a comprehensive series of 34 guidelines for Print, Electronic and Social Media to be adhered to during this particular period. While most of them are acceptable and any ethical and fair Media organisation would have no issues in following them when a violation does occur, the Commission, it seems, has little recourse to punish a violator of these rules.

The most recent example was when Hiru TV reported last Thursday, Oct 24, that Senior Vice President of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party A H M Fowzie told a public event that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Presidential Candidate “should be assassinated” to save the SLFP from ruin. Hiru had edited the voice clip, but other channels played the whole sentence uttered by Fowzie and it was clear the veteran politico had said Rajapaksa “should be defeated.”

At a recent forum organised by International Media Support (IMS) which discussed the NEC’s guidelines for Media, the Chair of the Human Rights Council Dr. Deepika Udagama made the point that the Commission can take action only against State Media under the law and the rest need to “exercise self-censorship, self-control.”

This, she says raises the question as to why the laws are not amended to enforce the guidelines and make them justiciable. “But do we need to have this type of enforcement to follow these guidelines,” she asked. “We must have the common decency not to do these things.”

The NEC Chief Mahinda Deshapriya insists that the Commission cannot act without a formal complaint. “We can’t go hunting for violations,” he told RepublicNext. “If we pick one or two violations we have spotted, and then take action we will be accused of favouritism.”

Deshapriya says that once a complaint is made, the three-man Commission needs to decide on a course of action. “We prefer persuasion, not enforcement,” he says.

He has a point; engagement with the Media and a good relationship with these institutions is vital for the NEC to perform its duties, but Sajith Premadasa’s team is very upset at the private Media, which they say is favouring the SLPP’s Rajapaksa and even maliciously twisting stories to blacken their candidate’s name. In turn, Rajapaksa’s spokesman Dullas Alahapperuma has repeatedly pointed out how unfair State Media has been to his candidate.  Both sides want the wrongdoers punished, but neither side seems to ‘see’ that the media institutions partial to their respective candidates are acting unprofessionally.

The Media being biased or unfair is a fundamental problem says Dr. Udagama. “There has to be a free marketplace of ideas and we as a society need that to make an informed decision to exercise our fundamental right to vote,” she told the IMS seminar.

Such behavior is actually harmful to society.  After all, voters make their decisions based on what they learn from the media.  And when media is biased, they rob the right of voters to make informed choices.

Statistics made available to RepublicNext by a team of researchers at the National Secretariat for Media Reform led by Dr. Pradeep Weerasinghe on news broadcasts on private TV networks indicate bias towards one candidate or the other. This research is limited to private media only.

This is their assessment on 10 October

This study found that Derana and Hiru were consistently favouring Rajapaksa by allocating more time for him, while the other stations were more balanced.

A similar study was done by the Information Department and released by the NEC found similar statistics, but the Commission refused to name the channels. This study found that there were channels hugely favouring Premadasa as well.

The right of the private media to support a candidate of their choice is also up for discussion. In the case of Newspapers it has long been the tradition in Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world to declare support to a particular political party early in the election. After all, in the old day’s political parties had their own papers or organs affiliated to them.

However, journalists are expected to be professional and not distort or alter the stories to favor the party their organisation favours. This is a tradition honoured in many Commonwealth countries as well. In the UK, for instance, the Guardian favors the Left parties and the Telegraph, the Right-Wingers. In Canada, the Toronto Star supports the Liberal Party and the Globe and Mail, the Conservatives. But both papers also are critical of the parties and individuals they back.

In the case of the private electronic Media in Sri Lanka the argument has been made that the spectrum is public property and therefore these organisations need to have a sense of civic duty and serve the public in the true sense of the word. Proponents of this view say the State and the general public must have the right to ensure media houses behave fairly.

Private media executives argue that market forces must be allowed to rule.

Laksiri Wickremage, Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Derana says that the newly formed Broadcasters Guild is moving towards self-regulation. “However, there is Social Media now and that is growing at a very fast pace. There is a discussion that what the private Media is doing is having a bigger impact, I want to know why that statement is made because the State Media stations have better technical coverage than private media, ” Wickramage told the seminar. The term Technical Coverage means that Rupavahini and ITN cover more parts of the island than private TV.

Wickremage goes on to say “ then the next thing is people’s choice. Why do the people want to watch the private Media news broadcasts? That is because the people like what they see.”

But shouldn’t media institutions enforce professionalism, whether it is in programme planning or in the Newsrooms?  When media owners control the agenda, would it not be easier for journalists if they have better training in the profession, so they would have the strength to withstand such pressures, and the ability to fight to uphold professionalism and fair play?  As members of the Fourth Estate, the Media plays a defining role in shaping the direction of a country. That must be instilled in all journalists, so they know their actions could harm or protect democracy.

Journalists also need better job security and some professional or educational standards to occupy executive positions in these organisations.

As Dr. Udagama says “in a democratic society, there is an expectation that professionals will behave in a proper manner. We cannot legislate decency; that has to come from within them.”