(This article was first published in the Colombo Telegraph and the Sunday Times on the 20th October 2019)
The Sunday Times editorial of 13 October titled “NEC’s impractical guidelines” mentioned that “if any media outlet wishes to support any one particular candidate it should be at liberty to do so” and went on to say that “In democracies in the West media endorse candidates”.
It is absolutely correct that there is no justification preventing any print media publicly supporting a particular candidate, provided that they do it openly after making a public declaration to their readers. This has happened many a time in Sri Lanka and in the Western democracies. But the comment that media in general, which implies the inclusion of broadcast media, should be allowed to support a candidate of their choice is detrimental to democratic electioneering, unless we make a clear distinction in this regard, between the print and the broadcast media. In that sense to imply that broadcast media in the West too, endorse candidates is somewhat misleading.
It is a common regulatory practice in most matured democracies to prevent broadcasting media organisations from taking sides on controversial issues, including promoting a candidate or a party of their choice during an election. Broadcast frequencies are a public property. Unlike the newspapers or the websites which any one can establish, only a privileged few are licensed to operate broadcasting services. Thus, licensee broadcast media owners (both private and public) cannot utilise the medium to shape the public opinion according to their private interests and to censor the information and other viewpoints they don’t want listeners and viewers to know. Broadcast media has a greater outreach and influence in shaping the public opinion. They cannot undermine the public trust which requires them to maintain due impartiality and fairness in reporting controversial issues including in covering the electoral politics. The regulatory law should obligate the impartiality of broadcast media and prevent the broadcaster from censoring viewpoints they dislike.
Most of the mature democracies have legal provisions to ensure fairness and impartiality when treating controversial issues in broadcasting programmes. Accordingly, the licensees are prevented not only from censoring important viewpoints they dislike but also from giving undue prominence to a particular view or opinions of a particular person or a party the licensee might determine to promote.
The absence of an impartiality and fairness provision in the law or in licensing conditions would enable the private broadcasters to collectively promote or oppose a particular viewpoint or a particular person of their choice. The practice in most western democracies is to prevent this misuse by stipulating impartiality and fairness clauses in the broadcasting regulatory laws. For example, the Section 320 of the Communication Act (OfCom) of the United Kingdom, prohibits licensee media owners to broadcast their own views and opinions on any of the following matters;
(a) matters of political or industrial controversy;
(b) matters relating to current public policy;
This implies influencing the outcome of elections and referendums held in the United Kingdom. Illustrating this point Cardiff university professor Dr. Justin Lewis pointed out that if there was no broadcast impartiality rule, the British Labour Party would not achieve the biggest poll shift since 1945 during the last British elections held in 2017, as all the major newspapers were supporting the Conservative party without giving fair coverage to the Labour party and its policies. Media mogul Rupert Murdoc directed all his newspapers to support the Conservative Party, but he was prevented from using his broadcasting network to do so due to the legal obligation for broadcasters to preserve their impartiality in reporting controversial public policy debates including during elections.
There are some who believe that each private broadcasting organisation should be free to take its own position on any of the controversial issues they wish to cover. They are of the view if people want to know other viewpoints, they are free to listen to different broadcasting services which might report on other aspects of the issue. Irrespective of such speculative expectations what if all the major broadcasters decided to censor dissenting viewpoints in order to promote a particular viewpoint of their choice? It would lead big spenders and even external forces who want to shape the Sri Lankan public opinion to buy the allegiance of private broadcasters to support their intentions.
The argument that broadcasting organisations should be allowed to take their own positions in presenting controversial issues contravene the basic norms of journalism which require media organisations to provide a fair coverage of all relevant facts and dimensions in their reporting. In the ‘Delivering Trust Impartiality and Objectivity in the Digital Age’, published by the Reuters Institute Study of Journalism, Dr. Dr. Richard Sambrook has pointed out that “Without significant reach committed to reflecting an impartial diversity of views (as opposed to partial limited views) there is likely to be polarizing effect as the public limit their information sources to those with which they are pre-disposed to agree”.
At the end, what is paramount is the right of the viewing and listening public to know all important aspects and viewpoints concerning of an election, and not the right of the broadcasting owners to withhold the aspects they dislike. Broadcast media is a conduit by which people are supposed to receive accurate information and a range of informed and opposing opinions in the coverage of elections. We need an enabling regulatory law for broadcasters to ensure that. More than the right of broadcasters to side with the choice of their owner what is important in broadcasting is the right of the listeners and viewers to receive a fair and impartial coverage from any of the broadcasting service he is tuning in, without forcing to hop from channel to channel to find out the positions and viewpoints of different candidates and parties.
No one need a licence to start a newspaper or a website to support a particular candidate, but broadcasters are licenced to use the frequencies only in the public interests and not for private political interests of their owners.
The other important media and election related incident which needs an informed discussion is the controversial advertisement in which a statement of a serving army commander was quoted in support of a candidate. In any democracy the armed forces functions under a civilian government and for very good reasons they are not expected to involve in electioneering politics. Involving the Army Commander implicitly or explicitly to support a candidate in an election seriously undermines the trust the armed forces should have as a professional entity entrusted with national security. Having understood this grave mistake, the spokespersons for the candidate denied their involvement in this misadventure.
Nevertheless, the media organization which published the said advertisement should be held answerable for this serious divisive act which undermines our feeble democracy. The gravity of this misdeed as such, it cannot be treated as a mere misdemeanor. The media organisation should have the common sense to understand the gravity of involving a serving army commander in an advertisement promoting a candidate for a presidential election. Instead of going after the Army Commander, who has denied his endorsement of the advertisement, the Election Commission should call explanation from the responsible media organisation for attempting deliberately to skew the democratic electioneering.
Contrary to what some media pundits would want to claim, a media advertisement too is a part and parcel of the editorial responsibility as in the case with the other informational content. Therefore, the media is obliged to publish only the honest and believable advertisements. In case of doubt, they should always check the authenticity of their advertisements and the sources of which the advertisements were based on. The Editors should have a sufficient knowledge about democratic norms and practices, a good common sense and a rational mind to assess the honesty of the advertisements they place in their media. Otherwise they violate the trust of their media users.