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Watchdogs call for a clean poll but expect the Media to fight dirty like last year

IN CAMPAIGN MODE – Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Media Minister Bandula Gunewardene on the campaign trail

ECONOMYNEXT – The Presidential Election of 2019 was the poll where Social Media played a major role and widespread unethical conduct was seen on mainstream media as well, a report released by an Election Watchdog group has said.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) is warning that such activity will be part of the upcoming Parliamentary Poll and is recommending close monitoring and immediate debunking of false and malicious news.

The combination of some media houses behaving in an unethical manner backing their favoured candidates and parties amidst the fear of the Coronavirus can be a deadly cocktail, warns CMEV’s National Coordinator Manjula Gajanayake.

“What if a rumour that a COVID positive patient has been found is spread at a place where a particular party is sure of winning a large number of votes?” he asks.

“How can a lie like that be met?”

In CMEV’s report on the Presidential Election, the Watchdog group said that it was a “frustrating feature during this election was that most of printed and electronic media institutions provided ex parte media coverage and promoted the candidates of their choice.”

It said that instead of acting to provide information to voters in an effective and systematic way to enable them to make informed electoral decisions, “most media companies acted with the intention of swaying public opinion in favour of the political candidates of their choice.”

Systemic issues prevent regulation of Media

Systemic issues dog the regulation of Media during elections. The Elections Commission can take legal action, including prosecution, of officials in State Media if they show bias or act in an unethical manner.

However Chief Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, when asked why no action is being taken against private Media Houses that are showing bias, says that he has no legal powers to act against these entities.

As CMEV observes in its report the “entire setup regarding elections and the media in Sri Lanka, from the issuing of frequency licenses for transmissions to the establishment and implementation of the Sri Lanka Press Council, is outdated and is in complete disorder. Media management and regulation in this context is, in a way, two sides of the same coin, as media entities themselves perform both tasks.”

However, CMEV notes that under the Constitution the Elections Commission does have the “authority to establish a Standing Committee of Permanent Representatives on Media Guidelines under its supervision in future.”

The need for such a Committee was mentioned by the Election Commission itself in Section 01 of the Media Guidelines Schedule it published on September 19, 2019 under Article 104B(5)(a), (b) and (c)(i) of the Constitution, CMEV said.

Alliance of parties to monitor disinformation

But there are efforts to counter disinformation by various groups.

One such group is the Network Against Disinformation (NAD) which will work closely with the Elections Commission during the upcoming poll.

NAD describes itself as “a mission-specific, temporary alliance of participating senior journalists, young politicians, youth activists and social media influencers to join hands to monitor, identify, highlight and counter political disinformation during the campaign period running up to Sri Lanka’s General Election 2020.”

It claims to have representation from all major political parties that were represented in the last Parliament who are involved in this effort through their youth wings or young politicians.

Facebook has pledged to cooperate with NAD in stopping the spread of disinformation.

NAD will file their reports to the Election Commission and also release its findings to the Media.

Polling during the COVID determined “New Normal”

POLLING IN THE NEW NORMAL – Officials work at a mock polling station testing the polling procedure under the Health Department guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID 19/CMEV handout

CMEV’s Gajanayake has been working closely with the Elections Commission during the recent weeks observing how the polling stations will be organised according to the Health Department Guidelines.

He is quite confident that the poll “in the new normal” will work. “There will have to be some adjustments, such as in an informal manner, different neighbourhoods could be asked to come to the polling station at different times,” he said.

He also said that the time of the close of the poll could be extended to allow for a fairer poll as the actual voting process could take longer because of the safeguards that both voters and the poll staff have to take.

Meanwhile, the March 12 Movement is promising free publicity to candidates who make a public declaration of their assets.

The Movement, which has been endorsed by the Elections Commission is asking the candidates to engage in “clean politics and usher in a healthy political atmosphere.”

The Executive Director of Peoples Action for Free and Fair Election (PAFFREL), another watchdog group, Rohana Hettiarachchi, was quoted in the media as saying that the movement has asked politicians to dedicate themselves “to promote unity and reconciliation and promotion of racial, religious and gender equality in all social relations; ‘clean and transparent transactions’ to defend the member’s honesty and integrity by refraining from receiving or offering bribes, abstaining from acts of corruption and acting against such practices.”

Some 30 members of the previous parliament have already pledged to join hands with the March 12 Movement and ensure good conduct free of bribery and corruption during their tenure of office.

Nearly 7,500 candidates from political parties as well as several thousand Independent groups are contesting the 225 seats in Parliament. (Colombo, June 29, 2020)