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Election Laws PSC calls for unbiased media coverage 

BY Pamodi Waravita 

The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to Identify Appropriate Reforms of the Election Laws and the Electoral System and to Recommend Necessary Amendments has recognised the need for impartial media coverage during periods of elections for the purpose of conducting free and fair elections. 

These aspects and related matters have been raised during its discussion with key electronic media institutions on 20 November. 

“Committee Chairman and Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stated that impartial election campaigning is a key factor in free and fair elections. Many concerns have arisen due to unfair media reporting at present. During an election period, electronic media institutions charge a very high price for election advertisements. He pointed out that this was a serious injustice to certain political parties and politicians,” a parliamentary press release issued in this regard noted on Monday (22). 

Sources told The Morning yesterday (23) that the discussion had centred round the increased rates that are charged by media institutions during election times. Representatives of private media institutions had noted that the increased rates work on the basic principles of demand and supply, and the fact that media institutions are able to get a higher profit during election times. 

On the other hand, it was noted that this leaves “no chance” for lesser known political parties or candidates who do not have rich sponsors supporting them, thus making the playing field uneven during the time of an election campaign. 

“Although the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) and the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) provide free airtime for all candidates during election times, this process also has certain irregularities. The time slot for each candidate is determined through a random process (drawing of lots). However, if a lesser known candidate gets a primetime slot for advertisements during this process, they may trade it to a more popular candidate. Some candidates may not even use the time slot they were given which in turn leads to co-ordination issues concerning the airtime within the SLRC and the SLBC,” sources added.

Additionally, another problem which was discussed is that the Election Commission (EC) only has the capacity to monitor news during election times. A non-governmental organisation (NGO) has monitored other aspects of the electronic media during the most recent elections.

Discussions about the reforms have noted the difficulty of implementing a legal mechanism to regulate the media during election times. However, proposals by stakeholders have included agreements between candidates and the media institutions, with the Election Commission acting as an intermediary, to adhere to certain principles during the election times.

The parliamentary press release further noted that the representatives of the Election Commission have told the committee that the criteria issued by the Commission are only applicable to state-run media and that it is important to seek information from the Mass Media Ministry on the implementation of these criteria. “The Attorney General’s Department should be consulted for the practical implementation of the media criteria issued by the Election Commission,” the press release noted, quoting Labour Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who had also addressed the committee on 20 November.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Parliamentarian Madhura Withanage has said that news reporting is not balanced during election times.

The discussion had involved officials from both state and private electronic media institutions, including the SLRC and the Independent Television Network (ITN).

Representatives from the media institutions have noted the need for a single legal framework effective for both state-run and private media institutions during election times.

Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris said on Monday that the committee led by Gunawardena will present its proposals on election law reforms to the Parliament by late January or early February 2022. “The country is very focused on changing the electoral system as both political parties and the public are of the opinion that it is unsuitable. The committee led by Gunawardena is looking into it already, meeting about twice a week, in discussions spanning for more than two hours at a stretch. Those recommendations will also be given to Parliament towards the end of January or at the beginning of February 2022. Those recommendations will also be very helpful,” said Prof. Peiris whilst addressing the media.

The committee is due to meet again on Friday (26) for a discussion with representatives from the print media.