Media has a special role covering election, says Deshapriya


By Randima Attygalle

"If the Dhammapada, Bible or Holy Quran is revered by people, so is the media," asserted the Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya emphasizing on the decisive role played by the media in shaping the mindsets of the public at a panel discussion on Election Reporting held on Wednesday at the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

The event was organized by the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL). Elaborating on the special responsibility entrusted on both the print and electronic media during the election period in presenting accurate, balanced and impartial accounts of the election related matters, he urged the media institutions to abide by the guidelines formulated by the Elections Secretariat.

He made special reference to the guidelines related to allotting airtime and space in newspapers in a non-discriminatory manner and to the restrictions imposed on photography and videoing of inside of polling stations or postal voting stations.

If such guidelines advocating strictly impartial reporting could be made a practical reality within the framework in which each media organization operates with its individual vested interests, was raised by Malinda Seneviratne, Editor of the The Nation, a panelist at the discussion.

"It should be noted that above the editors, there exists another hierarchy within a media organization and naturally their interest come into play." Despite such biases, two imperative factors should mirror in all reports, both in print and electronic media, emphasized Seneviratne. No matter who the candidate in question is, all accounts should be ‘malice-free’, he asserted.

The inevitable ‘slant’ adopted by journalists should necessarily be for the betterment of society and not to be used as a vehicle to underline personal prejudices. "In doing so, discipline is paramount, media ethics are crucial." He also added that media organizations with short term objectives could cause great damage in a politically volatile setting.

Time-bound reporting becomes the greatest challenge for electronic media, perceived Upendra Herath, Assistant General Manager, Hiru TV. Given the unprecedented present political setup of the country, the time constraints encountered to confirm the validity of a news report becomes challenging he observed.

"With increased competition against segments such as ‘Breaking News’ and tweets, this becomes even more challenging." With ‘speculation’ becoming dominant with the election fever, confirming the accuracy of a news report becomes a Herculean task, he noted. Managing information with equal space and time allotted to each election candidate still remains questionable within a media organization, he further said.

In the election process with the voter, candidate and the media being the three key players, the latter plays the unmatched role of shaping the voter behavior, pointed out Javid Yusuf, Attorney-at-Law and Member of the Dispute Resolution Council of the PCCSL. In this process, it’s imperative that journalists of both print and electronic media ask critical questions from candidates and other election-related authorities at press briefings and other forums which will elicit information that would help the voter to make his decisions wisely.

"A journalist should not forget the investigative aspect of the news account as well. Very often a reader will find the same news account presented in three newspapers with different opinions which confuses the voter."

Media at the same time should not be judgmental, observed Yusuf urging that the media should be more professionalized in this regard. "When the media is professionalized, irrespective of biases and prejudices, journalists will largely abide by its values and be more conscious of their profession leaving no space for exploitation."

Pramod de Silva, Associate Editor, Sunday Observer pointed out that although election-related news holds sway in print media at a time like this, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the reader underestimates non-election accounts. "Election news doesn’t necessarily make headlines," he said citing the very recent tragedies of the Hokandara plane crash and the Taliban attack which made headlines in almost all newspapers.

De Silva also urged the journalists to be conscious of the new voters who would in turn constitute the new readership of a paper. "They should be educated on the process and it would be interesting to throw light on previous election experiences and how to use your vote as means of enlightening the readers."

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