A gazette extraordinary is to be published setting out a list of 32 guidelines to be followed by the print and electronic media for the duration of the local government elections, according to a report we carried yesterday. The guidelines contain strict instructions to be followed by media institutions in the coverage of news, political events and discourses, with emphasis on neutrality and balanced reportage.
The guidelines direct that every media institution should provide accurate, balanced and impartial information in the broadcasting or televising their news bulletins and any other programme relating to political matters. The neutrality and impartiality of the media would be monitored regularly by the Standing Committee of Permanent Representatives of Elections Complaints and the Standing Committee of Permanent Representatives on Media Guidelines.
The media guidelines, of course, have been formulated by the Elections Commission to guarantee a free and fair election and will be operative at all future elections. It is hoped that Chairman of the Commission Mahinda Deshapriya, known for his no nonsense attitude, would implement these guidelines to the letter, and, put to an end, once and for all, the blatant abuse of the media by the governments of the day, during elections. We have no doubt that the intrepid Commissioner, who had proved his mettle during the most trying times of the last presidential election, will live up to his reputation and rein in, not only the state media, but also the private media, particularly the all pervasive electronic media, whose owners have now overstepped their bounds and taken for granted the unbridled freedom of expression they now enjoy under the Yahapalanaya government.
The monitoring panel, hopefully, will be composed of those who are adept at detecting the various tricks and deft manipulations in the repertoire of certain private electronic media to circumvent the guidelines in promoting leaders of political parties who are their benefactors. There is one television station which is adept at doctoring crowd attendance at rallies addressed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. An expert eye would detect how the crowds are exaggerated by recourse to technical means. This, naturally, gives an indication to the voting public- at least to the uninitiated -as to which way the wind is blowing, placing other parties at a distinct disadvantage. Hence this aspect too should engage the attention of the Monitors so as to create a level playing field.
There are also TV channels which give their own interpretation on men and matters. This is observed mostly in the case of a TV presenter, hosting a morning programme to convey news items in the daily newspapers. This worthy, practically after each item is readout, offers his own views, often in sarcastic tones, in a way that places the government and government politicians in poor light. The Rajapaksas and stalwarts of the Joint Opposition are practically left alone, but given full play when launching scathing attacks on government leaders. This, needless to state, is unacceptable conduct, during an election and the Commissioner, it is presumed, will look into the whole gamut of news coverage during this crucial period.
The guidelines pertaining to the issuance of opinion polls have been dealt with adequately, one would feel, leaving no room for ambiguity. It states; “any electronic media which broadcasts, or, print media that publishes the result of an opinion poll, shall announce, or, publish the name of the organisation which conducted such a poll, the organisation, or, person commissioned and funded such a poll, methodology employed, the size of the sample, margin of error, and the period of fieldwork.”
In the recent elections, opinion polls formed one of the biggest distortions and swindles perpetrated on the voters. We saw this during the last presidential election when two leading universities published contrasting opinion polls based on the candidate each university favoured, calling into question the whole exercise, together with the integrity of the professors and academics who conducted such opinion polls. True, opinion polls had been there even in the past and one recalls newspapers supportive of both the UNP and SLFP come out with their own results during the 1977 general election campaign. However, today, with the advent of television, and, the great store laid on opinion polls to gauge the ‘swing’ in elections in the western countries, this mode of gauging the voter’s pulse has come to be taken seriously by the public, at least the more sophisticated segments in society. But, as seen in the last US presidential election Donald Trump defied the opinion polls that was heavily stacked in favour of Hillary Clinton and prevailed at the election.
Of course, one could say that all the media and pollsters were Clinton backers and their bias showed in their conclusions. Here, in Sri Lanka too, it could be said that the voters don’t always go by opinion polls, if the result of past elections are anything to go by. However, the move by the Commission to keep a check on wild predictions based on ‘opinion polls’ should be welcomed, given the tendency of crafty politician to prey on the ignorance of some of our voters.
Daily News, January 18, 2018