The new clause 26 of the proposed constitutional amendment allows private broadcasters to ignore the Election Commission’s media guidelines if the broadcaster informs the EC in advance of its intention to support a particular a political party of its choice. The first version of this text even allowed the state broadcaster to take a partisan position during the election, but now the new text has limited the partisan broadcasting only to private broadcasters. Irrespective of this change what this provision allows is a totally ill advised practice which has all the potentials to undermine the conduct of a free and fair elections. The need to go into such operational details about election related media functions in a constitutional text is also unheard of.
Let me explain as to why this provision is an ill conceived one.
I have no quarrel if a national newspaper takes a public stand to support a particular candidate or a political party during an election. The newspapers are published entirely by private enterprises without utilising any commonly owned public resources for its sustenance. The readers who wants to reinforce their own electoral positions would free to purchase the newspaper which publicly support their preferred political position or the candidate.
But broadcasting is a completely different matter. Theoretically, each and every person of Sri Lanka can establish his or her newspaper, but scarcity of broadcast frequencies allows only few privileged persons to own and operate the broadcasting services. Therefore, allowing private broadcasters to become partisans during an election is certainly an abuse of that privilege. The private broadcasters, though are organised as private enterprises cannot operate without use of the spectrum, which is clearly a public property. The spectrum is allocated to both public and private broadcasters, under a licence, on the understanding that they have to provide must carry services in the public interest. A fair and comprehensive coverage of the election is one of those must carry services which should be provided by broadcasters, irrespective of their ownership type.
This would mean that all broadcasters should give due weight to the coverage of major parties during the elections with appropriate coverage to other parties and independent candidates with significant views and perspectives, thus enabling the voter to make a well informed decision.
Allowing private broadcasters to become partisan broadcasters during elections would skew the election results because it engages far more significant financial interest and much more powerful messaging from the powerful groups. A biased article in a newspaper is simply not the same as biased manifested through TV. After all choice of media doesn’t work in the same way. If I am a right wing supporter I only buy and read right wing newspapers, so my choices are respected. But since TV is essentially an entertainment medium I watch the entertainment shows I like, whatever channels they are on. Thus, allowing private TV channels to take sides during an election will be a great disadvantage to those parties and candidates who cannot retain the support of private broadcasters. This will create a very uneven playing field for the contestants who are not supported by private broadcasters.
None of the existing private broadcasting institutions are owned through a transparent and justifiable licencing process. Thus they are not really accountable to the audiences and there is no independent oversight authority to see that broadcast media functions in the public interest. On top of that, the proposed exemption which allows private broadcasters to ignore the guidelines established to ensure a fair coverage of elections, would make it even constitutional to skew the elections through partisan broadcasting by the powerful.
Election is a time in which voters are expected to make well thought out informed decisions, largely based on the political experiences reflected through news media. Allegations of media bias are very common at election time and usually they are difficult to either prove or disprove. But it is essential to have a system of checks and balances particularly for broadcast media to look out for and correct any imbalances in coverage. Were the camera shots and angles manipulative? Were the questions balanced? Were the significant viewpoints covered? Were the opinion polls credible and professional ? etc?
We know that the more commercialised a particular media system is, more likely it is that politics will be framed as a game rather than issues. This kind of framing requires less interest and knowledge from the audience. It is precisely for that reason why we need media guidelines which would compel the private broadcasters at least during the election times to engage their audiences more as citizens than mere consumers.
Can we really assure a fair and honest coverage of electoral politics if we make it entirely legal for the private broadcasters to become partisan and ignore the Election Commission’s media guidelines?. It is true, that in the US the first amendment disallows regulating media behaviours during elections, regardless of any objectionable or irresponsible election coverages they may do. But in all other established democracies obligation of fair, impartial and non partisan approach to election coverage is ensured across all type of broadcasting media through guidelines on election coverages issued by an independent Election Commission.
Therefore, we should request the legislators to withdraw the proposed exemption which exclusively allows private broadcasting services to become partisan broadcasters during the elections, which is totally unwarrented and undemocratic.