13th February 2000

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Second term blues

The government has announced the appointment of a "Ministerial Committee" to enact "election regulations which will ensure equal coverage for all parties in the electronic media within the duration of the poll."

The objective is apparently to enact regulations that will compel the private electronic media to provide equal overage to all parties contesting in an election. Nothing has been said about state controlled electronic media, at least in the state controlled newspapers which have provided wide coverage to these new regulations that are being promised.

Does this mean that the investigative compass of the committee which has been appointed will be limited to the private media? And, does it also mean that the state media will be free for all intents and purposes to push the propaganda of the incumbent government, and the political party that is represented within it? The government has repeatedly downplayed the role that the state media played in the Presidential elections which were held in December. No less than the President herself contended on television, in her most recent address to the people, that state media gave fair coverage to all candidates who contested at this poll.

The "fair coverage" that the President talked about, certainly existed on paper, in as much as the state media was expected to abide by the Parliament Elections Act No. 1 of 1981 which stipulates equal television time for all candidates. The state media had little alternative but to provide the allocated 15 minutes spots for all candidates, and this was done. But, having done that, the state media went to town and used every available opportunity to eke out the maximum advantage possible for the government party. This was done with impunity, particularly after the president was injured in the Town Hall bomb blast.

Government MPs and Ministers such as Mahinda Wijesekera and S.B. Dissanayake also came on television on the Sunday before election, after the bomb blast on Saturday and made a furious pitch for the president, making wild allegations about the "UNP's connivance in the Town Hall bomb explosions." The opposition candidates or the opposition party had no right of reply whatsoever to refute these allegations what were aired via the television channel that has the largest reach and viewership in the country.

If anybody, therefore needs to harbour a grouse about unfair television coverage, they would be the presidential candidates of all parties but the Peoples Alliance. It was the private television channels, which often enjoy a much lesser reach the Rupavahini which to some extent ameliorated this vast advantage that accrued to the ruling party due to untrammeled use of the state media. But, a government, which incidentally originally came to power originally in 1994, on a promise to broadbase the state media including the electronic medium and vest shares in the private sector, now seeks to "level the playing field" by enacting legislation that will dangerously impinge on the freedom of the private media to air the views of opposition candidates, in order that they can counterbalance at least to some extent the government's use of the state propaganda machine.

This tendency to expand the government hegemony over the media, and to bring in the private media within the scope of that hegemony is consistent with the government's current policy to ride the media bogey and to paint the media as the agent of all evil in the country. It is also consistent with the second term blues of a government, which is aware that the advantage of the honeymoon of the first term is no longer available to the alliance. Hence the need to tighten the vice, and maintain a control and grip over all forms of dissent whatsoever - an all too common tendency seen in most second term dispensations.

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